The paintings of Sanyu express love, loneliness, and remembrance of his distant homeland... He gave his soul, serenely wandering through life, to the f lowers, the female forms, and the fish and leopards in his paintings. - Robert Frank
A CONSUMMATE UNION OF EASTERN & WESTERN AESTHETICS
Sanyu was born in 1900 in Sichuan, China. Receiving his education at home, his wealthy family made every effort to instill in him a strong foundation of literary knowledge, and he demonstrated an interest in calligraphy at an early age. In 1918 he traveled to Japan, where in a brief stay of two years he absorbed new ideas about art unavailable to him in China. In 1921 he traveled to France, where he would remain for the next 45 years, embarking on a creative career that produced a union of Eastern and Western aesthetics. The historical and artistic importance of Sanyu's art derives from the way he represents creative exploration during a vital phase of development in Chinese art. Sanyu was active during the first half of the 20th Century, a time of wide-ranging exchanges between East and West and the introduction of Western thought into China. Many Chinese artists during that period strove to unite Eastern and Western aesthetic ideals, and Sanyu's work is perhaps the finest example of that exploratory process — a perfect meeting point in Chinese art from the classical tradition to modernity, from ink painting to the oil medium, and from pure line to pure color-field abstraction. Sanyu's work played a decisive role in developing and extending the Chinese painting tradition, helping to set its course during the 20th Century and opening up new areas of exploration. The simple but elegant lines of his floral still lifes, animal subjects, and female nudes embody the finest aspects of both ancient and modern art, and East and West, which nevertheless converge in a way that reflects a Chinese culture presence and its symbolic meanings. This season, during the year in which it celebrates the 250th anniversary of its founding, Christie's presents an event of special significance by offering this classic Sanyu work from the 1950s. Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase exemplifies the unique success of this artist in his explorations of color, space, and line.
In Sanyu's Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase (Lot 2503), dating from the 1950s, each aspect of the painting—light, space, line, and color—corresponds with and finds an answer in every other. Unlike the light and shade the Impressionists evoked with their rich varieties of color, Sanyu employs only ochre, scarlet-black, and gold-sand colors, but sets them off against each other to create a surprising lustre. Within his seemingly flat visual space, Sanyu abandons single-point perspective for a view in which our eyes focus toward both left and right, enhancing the painting's depth and spatiality by the transitions between the painting's overlapping three-dimensional spaces. The flowers and vase, proportioned with deliberate inaccuracy, enter into the harmony of the composition and create a world of their own dimensions; the resolute lines of their stems and leaves remind one of the rising and falling ridgeline of a mountain range. Sanyu's painting inherits the world of traditional Chinese landscape paintings, and with it, he moves beyond even the innovative use of perspective, modeling of forms, and colors employed by the Impressionists, Cubists, and Fauves during the period in which he worked. Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase, stylistically unique, is a pioneering work of 20th-century Eastern painting by an artist who transcended the boundaries of both East and West.
In its handling of space and composition, Eastern painting symbolically communicates emotions and perceptions in freely lyrical styles, while Western painting emphasizes a rational handling of perspective and employs more realistic methods. While Sanyu's early painting studies took place in China, he traveled to France in 1921, during the era of the School of Paris, and on his own forged a unique and personal style that melds elements of Eastern and Western painting. Sanyu's rhythmic brushwork produced flowing, graceful lines, and it was the practiced economy with which he handled his brush that gave his work its modern feel. Even in the oil medium, he emphasizes a purity of line, through which he conveys the essence of his subjects and their expression.
The essential spirit of Eastern painting is in fact found in its use of line. Tang Dynasty painter Wu Daozi was famous for flowing lines described as 'Wu's sash blowing in the wind.' His line drawings featured repeated, contoured lines and an expansive, romantic approach; variations in his lines create the impression of his subjects' clothing floating on the wind. Cao Zhongda, of the Northern Qi Dynasty during the Wei, Jin, and Northern and Southern Dynasties period, was known for images of Buddha with drapery painted in a 'wet' style. Holding his breath in concentration, he produced firm, fine lines with a pointed brush that made the garments appear to cling wetly to the bodies, giving them a kind of fresh beauty like lotuses rising above the water. Sanyu was an inheritor of the same Eastern painting tradition which, through the use of line, expresses so much. He favored the use of easily worked pigments, and when painting a profusion of chrysanthemum stems, as here, used a heavily loaded brush, painting slowly in a deliberately rudimental style, so that even his fine, thin lines acquired softness and supple charm. The viewer's eye, traveling in a leisurely way along the stems to the leaves, has time to take in and appreciate their graceful poise. In Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase, as Sanyu's brushed lines wind and extend along the spreading stems and leaves, he creates effects that seem to leave the flowers eternally poised in space and passing time, with stems that seem to continue growing effortlessly beyond the blooms. In the floral still lifes of the Song Dynasty, painting from life was emphasized, and for the philosophers of the rationalist neo-Confucian school popular at the time, observing the 'living' aspect of all things was the highest pursuit. Sanyu's Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase does indeed possess this 'living' character, as the artist imbues his modernist still life with the spirit of Song Dynasty painting for a lively work of lasting appeal.
The mid-20th century Paris in which Sanyu found himself was one of great artistic change and development, as a host of different schools and movements swept through the city. Sanyu himself became a school of one, preferring not to discuss his painting with others but to let viewers themselves discover his unique visual vocabulary in direct encounters with his work. Here, space unfolds as two sets of not entirely symmetrical chrysanthemums open to the left and right of the painting like the two leaves of a book. It almost seems as if the canvas were folded and opened along a center line, and is still in the process of opening. By means of this effect Sanyu breaks through the single-point perspective consistently used in the West, placing the left and right sides in juxtaposition within the same pictorial space, producing a kind of dual-point perspective that adds three dimensionality to the pictorial space and enhances its breadth. Sanyu also places the vase as far forward in his pictorial space as possible, where the viewer can almost touch it, while the table on which it rests extends from this visual focal point toward the rear to extend spatial depth in that direction. Sanyu employs multi-point perspective to an even greater extent than in traditional Chinese landscape paintings in order to create depth and breadth in this work, and this, along with breaking through the single-point perspective of the West, imbues this work with a sense of space often lacking in Chinese painting. By building on a foundation of Eastern and Western techniques, while adding an unprecedented kind of personal vision and viewpoint, Sanyu developed an innovative new creative vocabulary of a kind that remains unparalleled even today.
Pan Yuliang, another artist who traveled to France at the same time as Sanyu and who has been called 'a soul haunted by painting,' once said, 'It's rare to see an artist such as Sanyu, whose work is always progressing and always changing with the times.' Freeing himself from the restraints of academic realism, Sanyu threw himself entirely into modernism's embrace. Beyond his attention to line and space, his work features exciting variations in color, light, and shadow. Sanyu sweeps several overlapping strokes of yellow pigment across the top of this canvas; viewers will instinctively form a visual link between it and the yellow of the flowers below to form a uniform visual field. His harmonious use of color produces contrasts between the objects in the pictorial space, creating visual effects that draw the flower shapes closer, integrating them with the depiction of the red tabletop and setting them off against the black background. Viewers are automatically led away from attention to details to focus instead on the story Sanyu is attempting to narrate. Where the Impressionists emphasized light and shade, rather than detail, and filled their works with variegated color, Sanyu here, by simply adding a few light strokes of color against his deep black background, creates a deep, enveloping atmosphere where light and shade seem a part of the air itself.
Cezanne, 'the father of modern art,' once said, 'Painting does not mean blindly copying reality, it means seeking the harmony of various relationships.' In his painting, Sanyu followed a reductionist philosophy, but even while using low color values and simplified lines, he attended to all aspects of the work. The colors he used were closely interrelated, and even if the relative sizes of his flowers and vase were far from what would be seen in reality, he created with them a pictorial space of great visual harmony. Sanyu's painted works transcended Eastern painting traditions and straddled various Western stylistic schools. This Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase has been in the possession of the French Levy family, who had been friends with Sanyu since 1950s. The painting has thus been held for many years in France, receiving a public showing once at the Levy home in the year of Sanyu's death, then it was only shown in the exhibition "In Search of a Homeland – Sanyu" at Taiwan National Museum of History without other exposure in exhibitions or in market, meaning that it has never really received the exposure needed for proper appreciation. But Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase, dating from the 1950s, exemplifies the work Sanyu created at that time as he strove to gain invitations to exhibitions; he put all his time, energy, and great experience to use, displaying his unique personal understanding of line, color, space, and ambient light and shadow in works that embody visual experience in an unprecedented manner. Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase remains a lasting portrait of the ups and downs of the nearly 30 years of the artist's freewheeling life in Paris and his easy command of his own artistic ability. As such it is a beautiful painting that defines this period and a one-of-a-kind work of exceptional value.