Zeng Tianfu (曾天福) the artist who later became T’ang Haywen (曾海文) was born on 20th December 1927, in Xiamen (previously Amoy) in the province of Fujian, China. At the age of 10, he moved to Vietnam with his family, resided in Cholon, the Chinese quarter of Saigon (presently Ho Chi Minh City).
T’ang belongs to the second generation of Chinese artists who emigrated to France following WWII, but in contrast to his contemporaries Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki who had attended the Hangzhou Academy, T’ang did not receive any formal artistic training. It was instruction in calligraphy and in the principles of Taoism from his grandfather that informed his intellectual development and perspectives.
In 1948 he left for France, officially to study medicine but in fact to escape family pressures. He quickly abandoned the conventional studies imposed by his parents, attending instead an art course at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and spent his time in the museums and galleries studying the works of Western masters such as Gauguin, Cézanne and Matisse. In his early works, he had already revealed a Chinese spirit. T’ang explores a variety of themes: Paris landscapes, interiors, portraits, self-portraits and still-life.
His fascination with Shitao, the 17th century individualist painter, and his love for travel would lead him onto a life’s journey very different to that of other Chinese painters residing in Paris. In 1958, he wrote to his brother: “I have found my vocation in painting... I don’t believe this will please our parents... this is a very grave matter, honestly, there can be no question, of seeking success for its own sake. Success, to be truly success, must be completely sincere. Once a painter finds himself, then he can work for others, he must do it, but not before... I cannot and nor do I want to abandon this vocation.”
At the beginning of the 1960s, T’ang reveals a preference for gouache, watercolours and ink on paper. He combines the traditional Chinese elements of abstract washes with the more lyrical and luminous styles of the West.
He develops an original pictorial space and begins using cardboard sheets of standard dimensions. Initially he uses the formats 29.7x21cm and 70x50cm, then two sheets of 29.7x21cm side by side to form a diptych of 29.7x42cm, and finally refines his approach and invents the space of the large diptych of 70x100cm that characterises his work. In his works he signs as TANG in capital letters then passes from TANG to T’ang with an apostrophe. His most frequently used signature, associating Roman letters and Chinese characters, becomes T’ang 海文 (where the characters “海文” are his given name Hay-wen)
In 1964, he paints on a sheet of 70x50cm an Homage to Cézanne where he resumes the composition of The Large Bathers and prolongs this game of successive inspirations from Rubens to Cézanne or Titien to Manet that enabled the impressionists to produce the seeds of a renewal.
From 1960 to 1965, he produces a series of very small oil paintings , most often on newsprint, which are an important sign of his change and direction, but also illustrate his material deprivation. Oil is the medium of the West. The tiny formats and their sometimes gigantic scale express a humble and secret ambition reminiscent of the work of Paul Klee but also individualists like Shitao and Bada Shanren.
In 1968, he paints in a large diptych, a group of three nude women with black hair and dark skin, inspired by the exotic ideal of Gauguin and quoting his greatest work D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons nous (Where are we from? What are we? Where are we going?). On the back of the piece T’ang writes D’où venons nous? (Where are we from?).
In the early 1970s, invited by the Maharani of Porbandar, he travelled to India in the company of his friend, the painter Andre Dzierzynski, then moved to Goa from the residence of the Maharani. On Goa’s beach, he made the acquaintance of the filmmaker Tom Tam and his companion Martha Sandler who had reached the end of a long journey across India. Andre and Haywen appeared with Martha in the psychedelic short film Furen Boogie. Later in 1973, Tom and Haywen made, in his little apartment on the rue Liancourt in Paris, what was probably the first film d’artiste by a contemporary Chinese painter: T’ang Boogie.
Over the 1970s and 1980s, voyages and exhibitions succeeded one after another. In 1975, Mary Trégéar, curator, exhibited his ink works in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. T’ang exhibited several times at the Nane Stern gallery in Paris, France and in other galleries in Switzerland, Italy and Germany. Recommended by a friend, he met Dominique de Menil in the United States and sold a large diptych but did not go out of his way to maintain relations with the great collector. T’ang did not care about his career and as Father Jean Irigoyen wrote about T’ang in 1994: "It must be recognised that his detachment from the material had as a corollary a precariousness, which naturally drove him to intensely live in the present instant, with the appetite of one who has everything, but possesses nothing."
The life of T’ang is guided by his encounters. He is more concerned with happiness than success. In 1988, he missed out on an invitation to exhibit in the CHINA-PARIS exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. The curator of the exhibition wrote in the preface: “Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun and T’ang Haywen have associated calligraphy and Chinese philosophy in a non-representational art and are distinguished as abstract expressionist painters”.
Indeed Chinese painting and calligraphy are of the same nature and employ the same techniques: the round brush, ink and water, on paper or silk. They always create their own pictorial space. Some consider this space to be abstract by nature, but Zao, Chu and T’ang never thought of themselves as abstract painters. T’ang wrote in 1972: “…Certainly, the play of abstraction can briefly stimulate the spirit, but once the instant of decryption and comprehension is passed, there is no further flourishing of sensibility, the number is dead, the memory itself is wiped clean. Our profound sensibility, related to the unconscious, can only develop and grow when nourished by the tangible, that is to say, in relation to a painting, by the recollection in our conscious memory of experiences that are sensitive, profound and durable and lived in the real world. From a specific material more or less preponderant representation painting can develop and renew without losing itself, and expand into the domains of emotion and spirituality…”
At the beginning of the 1980s, T’ang continued to paint diptychs in various formats, small triptychs in ink and in colour as well as numerous small watercolours that his friends would use as greeting cards. He lived more and more simply and his spiritual quest brought him closer to a group of friends, among whom was the gallery owner Nane Stern. For the Easter celebrations they travelled together to Fontgombault Abbey. In 1984, T’ang would be baptised there with the Christian name François.
In 1983 and 1984, thanks to his friend Dominique Ponnau, T’ang exhibited in Brittany (France) at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Quimper and then at the Musée du Château de Vitré. His large diptychs were still painted on cardboards produced from wood fibres. Some friends encourage him to choose, what they consider, a support that is more compatible with artworks. T’ang started to paint on Arches paper, produced from cotton fibers that is renowned for its durability .
T’ang continues to travel and exhibit in France and abroad. His last major trip brought him to Georgia but his health greatly deteriorated and in June 1991 after dining in the home of the Audy-Waldé family he fell ill. Janine Waldé, a medical doctor, brought him to the hospital emergency admittance and he was then hospitalised in July. A few days later he was informed that he had contracted AIDS. He left the hospital on one occasion accompanied by Caroline Waldé to collect his correspondence and still make plans, but dies of respiratory complications on 9th September 1991.
Towards the end of the 1990s, the work of T’ang began to draw the attention of a wider public. Several important exhibitions, particularly those at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, the Guimet Museum and the Shiseido Foundation demonstrate the importance and originality of his work.
It may seem paradoxical, from our contemporary viewpoint, that a painter who in a way invented a pictorial space did not do everything possible to advertise the fact. For T’ang, however, this was merely an additional form of liberation, to find his space and explore it in every possible way. He identifies with the declared goal of Cézanne “to capture this instant in nature as seen in the eye of the painter”, and as a Taoist he makes the decision to paint for himself.
His oeuvre is a narrative, a perspective on adventures that did not suffer from the ravages of renown as much as he believed in a success that he alone could find. All these moments accumulated in the music of “mountains and waters”, captured in a moment of solitary joy and then written in the sky over the paper; few people have seen them. Yet the body of work is there – complete, almost unknown, almost pristine and, as rarely occurs in the history of art, coherent with the confluences of the artist’s life and work. His work is still a discovery for everyone and the continuation of his story is another paradox.
How often indeed does an artist’s oeuvre become the prey of counterfeiters and the subject of multiple misunderstandings even before it is known and recognized? Could there be perhaps this point in common between art lovers and art predators – even though the very idea is disagreeable – of being able to recognize the importance and possibilities in the work of T’ang.
In the history of Chinese modernity Chu Teh-Chun was the warrior invested with the mission of resuscitating the spirit of the Song; Zao Wou-Ki was the mandarin confident on his genius and extender of history. T'ang Haywen was simply a butterfly that flew from flower to flower.