On the brink of rediscovery

Teng Chiu was China's first modernist, but he was barely known - until now.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

China's first modern painter was born into a storybook world, and briefly lived a storybook life. The vibrant abstract landscapes of Teng Chiu were a sensation in London and New York in the late 1920s and '30s. But the artist Teng fell through the cracks of history: He was forgotten in the West for decades until a set of his canvases was discovered in a New Orleans auction catalogue. For political reasons he was never known in his native land. Only this year did the painter - a man once called "probably the most promising painter in [London's] Royal Academy" - get an official nod in China.

In his day, critics couldn't decide whether it was Teng's life or art that merited more attention. He was a pioneer of internationalism, a painter without borders. He had lived and worked on four continents by the age of 30. His travels took him from Bali to Morocco, from the Green Mountains to the Forbidden City. Teng was the first Chinese to have mastered what was then an avant-garde post-Impressionist style. The son of a prominent Chinese Protestant minister, he was educated in Boston, Paris, then London. His 1929 solo show was attended by England's Queen Mary. The queen of American modern art, Georgia O'Keeffe, became a confidante.

Teng was also full of surprises: His athletic talent earned him a spot on the British basketball team at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

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Growing up inside a thick network of Christianity, including a missionary school in a city just outside Beijing, Teng was exposed early to ideas of reform and of "the modern," which were sweeping the West. He went briefly to Harvard and then to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to, as he put it, seek the meaning of art. After attending the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, his art became noticed, and sought after. Proceeds from sales of his work allowed Teng to travel extensively in Asia, Africa, and the US.

His broad thinking and search for underlying patterns, along with his articulate postwar idealism - earned him notice by the London bureau of this newspaper in 1928. The role of the artist, Teng offered, is to help mankind find "the same truth and righteousness, by learning to appreciate the same beauty.... As I go forward I realize that in art there is neither East nor West, and that some day there must be the Art of the New World Civilization," he told a Monitor reporter.

Then came World War II. Teng sought refuge in the States. In China, the victory of the Communists in 1949 meant no return for Teng. His marriage to a niece of Soong Mei-ling, wife of nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, didn't help. Teng remained prolific, working largely in Vermont. But during the Korean War he was beaten in New Hampshire by locals who mistook him for a Korean. His output waned, and he seemed to disappear.

That is, until Kazimierz Poznanski, a Polish-born economics professor at the University of Washington, found Teng paintings in a New Orleans auction catalogue in 1991. It was not clear how they got there. But the paintings did to Mr. Poznanski what Emily Dickinson said a good poem should do - they took off the top of his head. He began a one-man campaign to promote Teng's work. In 2003, he visited coastal Xiamen, Teng's home area. No one had heard of China's first modern painter. But a notice and several fuzzy reproductions in the local evening news caught the eye of Tang Shaoyang, a respected painter and professor at Xiamen University. That started the ball rolling.

"I was totally impressed. I am well versed in the history of Chinese art, but I never heard of Teng," says Dr. Tang. "Nor did any of my friends know him, including editors of the most authoritative and official art magazines. The paintings were very fresh. Teng also answered a long nagging question I had - could a Chinese painter master modern art in that era?"

China's first modern painter did not have a typical Chinese upbringing. He was raised on elite Gulangyu, a small Brigadoon-like mile-square island of fabulous wealth. Built by Europeans as the hub of the Amoy (now Xiamen) treaty port, it boasted 13 consulates, dozens of corporate offices, hundreds of mansions, manicured winding streets, and at one point is reputed to have had the greatest number of pianos per square foot in the world.

Teng's father was head of the YMCA in China, and started China's first all-girls school on the island. After China's civil war, the family, wealthy tea merchants, fled to Hong Kong to avoid charges of antirevolutionary sentiments.

"The elite world Teng came from was only possible on Gulangyu in the early part of the century," says Bill Brown of Xiamen University. "Across from the island, a quarter mile at most, [the port city] would be crowded, dirty, poor - a life of sheer survival."

In the US and Europe, "a far wider vision of what art really is, opened up," Teng told the Monitor. China's modern era opened when Teng was eight, with Sun Yat-sen's revolution. (Teng's father was a friend of Dr. Sun.) But for the most part, imperial China had not yet developed major reforms of language or art - certainly not with the speed that modernity was being assimilated in Japan.

"The gulf between a Chinese and Western sense of art was so great that it is hard to imagine today," says Tang. Only one known oil painter studied in the US prior to Teng - Li Tiufu, a pupil of John Singer Sargent. Chinese technique did not employ new Western ideas of perspective and color. "Our work was beautiful but limited and traditional," says Tang. "It had not changed for centuries."

Teng's style formed first at the Boston Museum School. He toured the US, creating canvases of sun-splashed poolsides in Miami, lakes in North Carolina, and desert vistas while working with O'Keeffe. He was influenced by John Sloan, Marsden Hartley, and Milton Avery.

Some enthusiasts debate whether Teng's art is a blend of East and West. But most serious experts say the debate is false. He is Western.

"I'd never seen his work until a few years ago. He is a very good mainline Western painter, and he had an unusual life," says Michael Sullivan, professor emeritus of Oxford University, who has just donated one of the largest private collections of Chinese art to Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. "For a Chinese person of that era to go to Paris and then move back to America, I can't think of another case."

What it must have been like for a man born in 1903 in Amoy to wander through the towns and hamlets of New England is not known, but the enormous differences can be imagined, Mr. Sullivan says. That is all the more reason for fascination with Teng.

O'Keeffe last wrote Teng in 1958, after his divorce, and the beating, and amid Mao's purges of Chinese artists and intellectuals, which seemed to preclude a return home. O'Keeffe writes: "These times must be difficult for you, I have often thought of it."

Tang says he is most appreciative of the spiritual dimension to Teng's work. He feels the artist is authentic, not merely a copier of Western masters. "I see a lot of art, and I see a lot of Chinese trying to do Western art," he says. "And the unwelcome thing I find is affectation.

"But Chiu is not putting on an act," he says. "The canvases are a real expression, sincere, and I sense a Chinese soul, as well as a Western sensibility."

A brief history

1903

• Teng Hiok Chiu is born on Amoy (now Gulangyu) Island to a wealthy tea-merchant family.

1920s

• Studies at Harvard.

• Attends the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris; and the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

• Wins Turner Gold Medal and the Royal Academy Scholarship for landscape painting - the first foreign artist to do so.

1930s

• Visits China where his work is shown at the Institute of Fine Arts in Peking (now Beijing).

• Travels extensively throughout China, Indonesia, Cambodia, Morocco, and numerous European countries.

• Marries niece of Soong Mei-ling, wife of General Chiang Kai-shek.

• Moves to New York City. Travels widely in the United States.

1940s

• Esquire magazine publishes an article about Teng; he is befriended by Georgia O'Keeffe.

• Teng's family flees to Hong Kong after the Communists come to power.

• Teng moves to Connecticut. His marriage ends in divorce.

1950s

• During the Korean War, Teng is attacked while on a trip to New Hampshire by locals who think he is Korean.

1966-1976

• Cultural Revolution occurs in Communist China.

1972

• Teng dies in Connecticut.

1991

• Kazimierz Poznanski, a Polish-born professor in the US, discovers 21 of Teng's paintings in a New Orleans auction catalogue. He eventually travels to Teng's birthplace.

2004

• Teng receives first official mention in Chinese art magazine.

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