Editor's note: The following essay, with notes, was rekeyed and reprinted on May 28, 2003 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the Frye Art Museum. The essay is included in a fully illustrated and annotated catalogue published by the Museum for the exhibition Path of the Sun: The World of Teng Hiok Chiu, held at the Museum February 14 - May 11, 2003. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Frye Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
Teng Hiok Chiu's Artistic Journey: West to East
by Debra J. Byrne
Teng Hiok Chiu's imagery stretches from the Forbidden City to New York City, from Bali to Barcelona, from the Meknes gate to blue mountain lakes. In looking over this cosmopolitan body of work that represents idyllic corners of the world, do we see nature, culture, or an individual sensibility? There is no simple answer because Chiu's paintings are complex dramas that weave all three of these components together. Sustaining each expression, however, is the presence and continuity of a strong Western influence in his artistic vocabulary. For this son of China, the artistic journey commenced in the West and circled back to the East.
Chiu, born into an affluent family on the island if Amoy in South China in 1903, received a Western education at the behest of his father. At the age of fourteen, the young Teng Hiok Chiu was sent to the Anglo-Chinese College of the London Missionary Society in Teintsin, Northern China. Upon his graduation in 1920, he moved to the United States. Attending Harvard University for a semester, he focused on art history, architecture, and archaeology. The following year he entered the art world, studying at the Museum School of Fine Arts, Boston, under the tutelage of portrait painter Irwin D. Hoffman.
The Museum School had a long history of training its students in the Western academic tradition, emphasizing precise draftsmanship and promoting a philosophy that spiritual and moral beauty are best conveyed through aesthetic depictions. During the 1920s, when Chiu was in attendance, the instruction was dominated by the Boston School painters, including Philip Hale, one of the founders of the movement. These artists were among the first of their generation to fall under the sway of French Impressionism, which they interpreted with a distinctly American character. Their scenes were typically New England meadows and coastlines boldly brushed and bathed in bright sunlight.
The formulation of Chiu's pictorial syntax was born out of this Western blending of the real and the ideal, which was compatible with the Far East's conception of painting as an expression of a moral message. The prominence of beautiful landscapes in the works of the Museum School's professors and students was also in keeping with the Chinese notion that life's truths could be evoked through the reproduction of harmonious natural forms, Thus, conservative American and Chinese artistic ideas met in common elements that were to influence the young artist: the purity of the sensations of nature, the rendition of the play of light, expansive spaces of broad open air, and each detail fitting into a whole based on human dimensions.
Chiu set sail for Europe in 1923, enrolling briefly at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then transferring to the University of London in 1924. From 1925 to 1930, he succeeded with honors as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts, studying during the academic terms with professors George Clausen, Walter Russell, and Charles Sims, all of whom combined an English sentiment with a cautious approach to French impressionist techniques. Clausen, for example, questioned whether the impressionist method was as true to nature as the older conventions of painting, where the effect is less brilliant but more restful. Under the influence of his teachers, Chiu spent his summer months painting plein air landscapes throughout the United Kingdom. In conjunction with his British-sanctioned fondness for solid painting, he perfected bold massing of forms combined with a decorative freedom.
The dialogues between Asian art and the various movements of Impressionism have long been recognized. Shared characteristics and techniques include a dynamic tension between figure and ground; the cropping of objects on the margins of the picture; the use of devices such as rivers or paths to introduce the spectator into the pictorial space; the delicately skillful contrast between blank and activated areas; and the employment of lyrical yet definitive lines. While these compositional strategies were controversial at times during the nineteenth century, they became integrated into the Western academies by the early twentieth century. Consequently, the curricula at the Museum School and Royal Academy allowed Chiu the opportunity to learn and incorporate artistic components common to East and West into his own innovations and expressions.
The affinities between Eastern and Western art practices during this period were based, in part, on mutual aspirations to represent perceptual experiences -- a desire for both artist and viewer to participate in the act of visually touching slices of nature. This is at the heart of Teng Hiok Chiu's triumph. In the tradition of Chinese hand scrolls, the temporal process of unrolling a section of landscape leads the spectator along a slow journey among rocks, trees, streams, and mountains. It was believed that the artist who painted the truth beneath surface appearances had to be imbued with ch'i, the "divine spirit" of the universe. Chiu, utilizing a Western-based artistic vocabulary, worked towards this same goal, His canvases open onto paths full of vanishing pleasures; our eyes wander over water, banks, hills, and streets, drinking in the intoxicating effects of the sun, the shade, the abundance, and tracing the perfumes of coves, meadows, deserts, and markets. The spaces in Chiu's scenes appear expansive, but we encounter them gradually and up close. As we contemplate the landscape, an intimate relationship is established between viewer and nature by virtue of its representation.
Chiu's mastery of his lessons was quickly recognized and richly rewarded: in 1925 he won a Royal Academy Scholarship; in 1926, the Landseer Scholarship; in 1927, the Creswick Prize and a Royal Academy Silver Medal, and in 1928, the Armitage Prize (London) and a Salon Medal (Paris). In 1929, he earned the distinction of being the first foreign artist to be awarded the Turner Gold Medal and the Royal Academy Scholarship for Landscape Painting. His acceptance into the art world extended to exhibitions: in addition to showing at the Royal Academy and being elected a member of the Royal Society of British Artists, Chiu's paintings were displayed at the English Art Club and the French Salon. Her Majesty Queen Mary honored Chiu with an official appearance at his first solo exhibition in 1929 at London's Claridge Gallery. All of his paintings sold within a few days of the royal visit. Indeed, Teng Hiok Chiu was embraced by the leading art circles of the West as one of their own.
During his years in England, Chiu became interested in Chinese art. After graduating from the Royal Academy in 1929, his first serious exposure to Chinese painting came at the British Museum, where he worked with Laurence Binyon. An English poet and art scholar, Binyon was the curator of the department of Oriental prints and paintings, and his publication, Painting in the Far East (1908), was the first book on the subject to be written in a European language.
Shortly after his association with Binyon, Chiu focused his sights on the East. Chiu's odyssey started with a visit to his homeland in 1930, followed by an exhibition of his paintings in Beijing in 1931. He began almost a decade of world travel the next year, often moving from place to place to avoid political turmoil, and continuing to paint at every stop. Chiu left for Bali and then Java, where he showed his work, and returned to exhibit in Shanghai in 1933. Chiu moved on to Indochina and Siam (now Thailand), painting in Cambodia, including Angkor until 1935, after which he made his way back to China again, with an exhibition in Hong Kong. The next arm of his journey took him to Spain, visiting Granada, Toledo, Madrid, and Barcelona. Eventually he settled for a short while in Tossa de Mar, a small fishing village. After leaving Spain, Chiu traveled to Paris, Scotland, and London, where a solo exhibition of his paintings was held. Chiu headed for Morocco in 1937, via Portugal, spending time in Tangier and residing in Marrakech. He returned to England briefly and then circled the continent -- trekking to Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and again to England. Chiu immigrated to the United States in 1938, making his home on Park Avenue in New York City, and venturing through many states including Arizona, Maine, Florida, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Vermont.
The nineteenth-century art critic Émile Zola once wrote that "a work of art is a corner of creation viewed through a temperament," and certainly this applies to Teng Chiu's paintings. Despite the wide array of scenery that marks his passages around the globe, Chiu's landscape paintings maintain a connective unity because the artist willed his own presence into the works. As a maker of skies, cities, water, and land, and one who concerned himself with truth, Chiu rendered what he saw, energetically structured through his own cultural sensibilities and personal idiom. Buildings sit solidly within broad bands of yellow, green, brown, and gray pigment that abut one another but do not mix. Graceful, lyrical lines interlace the horizontal registers of hills and clouds in the distance, ordered by alternating strips of light and dark. Rather than fragmenting nature, Chiu applied an infallible strictness of harmony, reflecting the unity of his universe. Reconciling figures to architecture, edifices to land, earth to firmament, Chiu pursued a measured and timeless perspective, yet one charged with energy. In these eminently modern works of art, Chiu built his vision of the world.
Upon his arrival in New York City, Chiu was well-received both personally and professionally. The prestigious Knoedler's Gallery held a solo exhibition of his paintings in 1942; an important review of his art by Harry Salpeter was published in Esquire magazine in March, 1943; and Chiu was befriended by the city's cultural elite, which included artist Georgia O'Keeffe. The relationship between Chiu and O'Keeffe grew throughout the 1940s and 1950s. They corresponded regularly and he visited O'Keeffe at her home in Abiquiu on at least two occasions, which resulted in his group of New Mexico landscapes and an exhibition of his paintings in Santa Fe in 1944. Coming from opposite ends of the world, Chiu, a son and citizen of China, and O'Keeffe, a quintessential American, found that they were kindred artistic spirits.
To explain part of the connection between these two artists, it is useful to recognize the continuous thread of commitment to Asian philosophy and aesthetics in O'Keeffe's life. One of her most influential early teachers was Arthur Wesley Dow, with whom she studied at the Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1914 and 1915. Dow championed an aesthetic based on the conventions of Chinese and Japanese art that stressed the arrangement of simplified, sometimes organic shapes, rather than perspectival depth. He also disseminated the theories of his mentor Ernest Fenollosa, whose treatises on Oriental art promoted a form of Zen self-discovery.
Influenced by these ideas, O'Keeffe developed an appreciation for the economy, elegance, and sense of infinite space in the art of the East, Moreover, she owned Asian paintings and displayed them in her house in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Her library contained a large number of fine editions of illustrated and theoretical books on Chinese and Japanese art. She wrote to Chiu on November 1, 1950, "It seems to me that some of the most beautiful things man has created have come from there [China]."
It is not merely the fusion of what is occidental in Chiu's paintings and what is oriental in O'Keeffe's art that bind these two artists together. More importantly, it is a shared passionate spirit for an art that aspires to the transcendent. Particularly evident in both artists' scenes of the Southwest is a drive toward essentials -- objects simplified, pared down, isolated in vast space for joyous contemplation -- as demonstrated in O'Keeffe's Pedernal, Blue and Yellow and Chiu's New Mexico Landscape (PAGES 20, 21). What holds the eyes are no ordinary reflections of natural forms, but vivid celebrations that mirror universal sensations of life. In the words of Teng Hiok Chiu: "But in the end all real art is the same. You may start from the East or from the West. Art is a universal language which speaks to every human heart."
1. All of the biographical and chronological information presented in this essay is based on the meticulous research and writing of Kazimierz Z. Pozanski.
2. A. Thornton, Fifty Years of the New English Art Club 1886-1935 (1935)
3. Émile Zola, "un exposition: les peintres impressionnists ," in Émile Zola: Le bon combat; De Courbet aux impressionnistes, ed. Jean-Paul Bouillon (Paris: Hermann, 1974), 189.
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