Consummate Unity of Eastern & Western Aesthetics
The historical and artistic importance of Sanyu's art derive from the artist's unrivalled contributions 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 colour 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 the art of both ancient and modern times and East and West, which nevertheless converge in a way that reflects a Chinese cultural presence and its symbolic meanings. The value of Sanyu's art was well reflected in the sale of his Cat and Birds at the Christie's 2009 spring sale, which brought a world record closing price for the artist of HK$42.1 million (US$5.4 million). Christie's is fortunate in being able to extend this spectacular success by presenting another classic Sanyu work of the 1950s for its 2009 fall evening sale: Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière (Lot 1009), a work in pink and Prussian blue, which demonstrates Sanyu's exceptional success in the expressive use of line and color, fully displays the unique contributions of his art.
Divided Composition in Pink and Prussian Blue
In the composition of Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière, Sanyu distinguishes foreground and background by means of color, using pink and Prussian blue to create a balanced division of the picture space. Based on available historical information, Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière is the only one of Sanyu's series of floral still lifes to make use of this striking combination. The Sanyu Catalogue Raisonnê: Oil Paintings records a total of 100 works on the flower-and-vase theme in which Sanyu divides the pictorial space by means of two pure hues, the most common combinations being either black and white or pink and white. Records show that only six have Prussian blue backgrounds, and of those, only this Potted Flowers In aBlue And White Jardinière features flowers against a lower background of pink. Sanyu's beautifully controlled pink tones set against the larger area of Prussian blue creates a mutually balanced and complementary structure in which both color and space take on a vivid, refreshing, and engaging feel. The casual simplicity of the lines in a Sanyu composition hides a precise compositional organization that allows Western spatial abstraction and concepts of line to be expressed through an Eastern still life subject. Sanyu gauges the perfect proportion of the pink area within the composition, keeping it below the flower planter to avoid the feeling of excess or overflow, and contributes to the juxtaposed layering of foreground and background; at the same time, the blue vase seems to rest tranquilly on the table top, inviting us to enjoy the scene at our leisure.
A closer look at Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière reveals a connection betwen Sanyu's spatial layout and the compositional principles behind Piet Mondrian's Constructivism. Western artists such as Mondrian conceived theoretical frameworks for exploring the expressive potentials of line and space, believing that elements such as pure color and line possessed independent symbolic significance and subjective emotional meanings. Vertical lines, for example, were considered to represent space, development, and power; horizontals stood for time, extension, and thought. In Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière, the flower arrangement is the vertical axis of the painting, which is complemented by the pinks of the table, the horizontal axis. The flowers in the planter, their stems, leaves, and upward-stretching buds express the vertical extension of space and the life force of the flowers. Sanyu skilfully presents the symbolism of vertical lines through his subjective interpretation of highly stylized forms, and similarly projects pure horizontal line in the semblance of an ordinary pink-toned tabletop, opening up the painting's visual center and extending it laterally into the imaginary space beyond the painting's borders. Both aspects deepen the sense of abstraction and coloristic tension in the work and show us that, beyond the still life theme and its poetic manner of presentation, the artist possessed a wealth of feeling for the architecture and compositional structure of a work.
Colorism Embracing East and West
Potted Flowers In a Blue and White Jardinière utilizes pure, highly contrasting colors in a style that embraces both Eastern and Western aesthetic implications by perfectly uniting Western ideas of abstraction with the charm and sensibilities of Eastern ink-wash painting. The keynote of the painting is set by a Prussian blue that in some places verges on inky black, spread on the canvas so as to emphasize a variety of tones and interpenetrating layers. The intended effect of these layers is not to convey a traditionally structured perspective or sense of space, but primarily to explore the subtle variations within pure color and the attendant possibilities for aesthetics and psychological effects. By not attempting to mimic depth or three-dimensional space, Sanyu produces a flattened space, built up purely from color that serves not so much to reflect the external world as the world of the artist's mind and inner thoughts. Ultramarine, cobalt, sky blue, Prussian blue, and violet blend into a remarkable color of many shades that glows as if lit by brilliant moonlight. Depending on the viewing distance, the color creates different types of spaces and psychological effects, expanding on the pure color explorations of Mark Rothko (Fig. 4) and Yves Klein and in addition suggest the rich visual effects produced by the variations within pure black itself, as found in Chinese ink-wash painting. In the works of Klein, we see the artist using variations in a basic blue tone to present space with nearly unlimited depth; while in the works of Mondrian, the juxtaposition of whites, reds, and yellows created imaginary spatial relationships within the flat space of his canvases. Sanyu's creativity with pure color echoes in its own way these Western artistic traditions. The Chinese refer to "the five colors within black ink" for the varying depth, intensity and halo effects that ink possesses which can express a rich visual universe and sense of rhythmic motion; Sanyu, who admired and was constantly producing works in ink, adopted these single-color methods to his work with multi-colored oils. His pure, refined, deep blue, with its subtly implied layering, displays the same rich variations as ink on paper, spreading and blending into areas of differing density or wetness, producing a colorist work that has the feel of Eastern ink-wash painting, but with added aesthetic meaning and dimension. A detail of Sanyu's tracing of the chrysanthemum leaves and stems shows how his Prussian blue and violet overlap with a visual halo effect as in the ink medium, as he traces blue lines over lighter fields of color to outline the forms of leaves and stems. The tall stems and leaves suggest the strong verticals of Chinese calligraphy, while the lush leaves and flowers also have the full, flowing quality of calligraphic lines. Sanyu shapes the flowers through characterful, impressionistic line drawing that gives the colors and lines more independence, making the viewer all the more aware of the strength and gracefulness of the lines alongside the layers of color. Viewing Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière side by side with the white chrysanthemums of Wang Shi-min, one of four great artists of the early Qing period, shows clearly how Sanyu assumed the mantle of the ink painting tradition while at the same time transforming it.
From the broadest perspective, Sanyu's art, expressing as it did both the artistic and the symbolic aspects of line and color, explored areas similar to the modern abstract artists of the West, even while displaying his own areas of special genius and originality. From the 1920s through the 1950s, two generations of Western artists explored art through its purest elements, using variations in hue and spatial arrangements to express their philosophy in abstraction and symbolism. They aimed at a complete departure from the portrayal of image, or narrative, and looked to convey the feeling purely through color and line. The realization of their aims involved a strong emphasis on theory, abstraction, and conceptualization. Both Mondrian and Kandinsky in their own ways followed these principles: from representational forms they proceeded to abstraction, then further to the pure elements of color and space. An Yves Klein canvas from the 1950s is likewise one of the most paired-down expressions of coloristic art in the West, relying for its mood and atmosphere entirely on a palette of deep blue. And while the colorism in Sanyu's work may derive from the artistic currents of the same era, a comparison with Klein's work in blue points up the sheer originality of Sanyu, in whose work the exploration of color is wedded to the still life genre. The blue background of this Potted Flowers possesses appeal as a purely abstract artistic space, yet hints at the depths of the evening sky. It sets off the lustrous blossoms like fireflies against the deep night, casting over the work the poetic and dreamlike atmosphere of evening sky and stars and the shifting play of light and shadow. The chrysanthemums float against this apparently simple background of pure blue, like a vast nighttime vista, in a manner that is almost surrealist, but which also derives from the inner stillness, the sparseness, and the carefully judged empty spaces within the free and impressionistic style of Chinese art. Sanyu was able to play upon the abstract qualities of color, the psychological qualities of still life paintings without slipping into cliche or leaning too far toward the purely theoretical, and still could often retain the narrative character and cultural presence of the traditional Chinese literati paintings. For that and many other reasons his work retains its fresh charm, its appealing sparseness, and its poise and richness through many viewings.
The layered depth and perspective within the blue tones of Sanyu's Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière, and even the outlines of the jardiniere, are studied effects derived from China's celadon ware and cloisonne enamels. The latter were handcrafted wares unique to China, which joined porcelains with copper inlays; a copper blank would first be used to give shape to the body and patterns then inlaid in enamel glaze, after which the object would be finished by kiln firing, polishing, and gilding. Popular during the Jingtai period of the Ming dynasty, cloisonne often featured patterns and figures in blue, thus giving it its Chinese name, jingtai-lan, or "jingtai blue." The blue of the enamels was a richly layered color, in which cobalt blue, azure, sapphire, and a more transparent Prussian blue appeared together like the different hues that radiate a blue sapphire under illumination. The enamels' high purity and brightness gave them a dense richness and a honeystone-like feel. Cloisonne enamels could be brilliant and sumptuous while still retaining an eastern note of quiet reserve and elegance, and from that perspective, Sanyu's blue palette inherits a great deal of the same appealing eastern ambience and aesthetic values.
The Lives and Aesthetics of the Chinese Literati
Sanyu's subjects in Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière-the elegant chrysanthemums, their uplifted stems and leaves, and the simple blue and white porcelain jardiniere-are drawn from the cultural traditional associated with the Chinese scholar-poets and painters, and are elements that typified their living circumstances and aesthetics. Their tastes tended toward simple interior settings in a quiet and secluded environment, while certain decorative knick-knacks, along with paper, writing brushes, and jade stones should be near at hand, and perhaps a bonsai at the reading table. Dense forest or bamboo groves were ideal for getting close to nature in the ways the scholar-poets preferred, searching for late-blooming chrysanthemums, finding plum blossoms after the snow, sheltering orchids during the rains, listening to the sounds of bamboo in the breeze-in general, for cultivating one's aesthetic sense and creating a relaxed and creative atmosphere.
You must have a quiet abode among the swallows, a bright window and simple chair, and the oven's aroma spreading around you to dispel your worried thoughts. Otherwise, not a single sentence will come to you, and the right frame of mind for creating will escape you.
Guo Xi, from "On Painting" in the "Lin Quan Gao Zhi" ("Forests and Streams in the Lofty Manner")
The letter my child writes says white chrysanthemums are blooming,
Yet the autumn harvest keeps me here.
But as the moonlight sifts down through the gauzy window curtain,
A trace of their scent seems to find me here.
Lu Gui-meng, "The Complete Anthology of Tang Poems," Vol. 628
Painter Guo Xi and poet Lu Gui-meng both spoke of a "bright window" before a table, or the arrangement of stones and flowers in a planter, and how they can lighten one's mood and allow thoughts to flow freely and creatively. Sanyu had a fine appreciation for the art of living embodied in these verses, and his own favorite verse, "There is reward in peacefully contemplating natural thingsKI enjoy the four seasons with all men" nicely sums up the feeling. Sanyu's inclusion of this verse in his Cat and Birds painting was an obvious expression of this attitude toward life; in Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière, the same sense of the artist's circumstances and outlook appear in a more subtle and oblique fashion. Through its floral arrangement, the painting presents a complete picture of the surroundings and the aesthetic mood favored by the Chinese scholar-poets and painters, and viewing the abundant vitality of the blooms above the tabletop brings us nothing less than an experience of pure beauty. The purity and clarity of Sanyu's color encourages a calm, refreshed, tranquil state of mind, while the vitality of the blooms encourages appreciation of the natural grace and fulfillment of life as it thrives in the passing seasons. One simple floral arrangement, quietly reminding us that the present moment is all, hints at broader philosophical insights into life. Artist Shen Fu, in his "Six Chapters of a Floating Life," described how a Chinese poet or painter could create an aesthetic environment: "When flowers and stones are arranged in a miniature floral scene, a small scene of that type should bring you into the world of a painting, and a larger one, into the infinite world of the spirit." The still life, as developed and expressed by Sanyu, contains a wealth of implications regarding artistic imagery, cultural metaphor, the pure aesthetics of color, life's emotional ambience, and philosophical insight, while giving us a full presentation of the close-knit relationship in China between art and aesthetics and the artist's own environment and circumstances.
Plants and flowers were not just subjects favored by Sanyu for his paintings; in daily life the artist also loved to surround himself with various floral arrangements. A small glimpse of his life provides a further reflection of the quietly relaxed and refined surroundings of Chinese artists and poets, which Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière so well reflects. Turning life into art, Sanyu brings a casual elegance to the white chrysanthemums and their planter along with a composed and dignified sensibility, and one of the most valuable aspects of Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière is the way in which the sweet and appealing scene on the canvas is imbued with Sanyu's idealism and love of life.
Additionally the chrysanthemum was a flower with strong metaphorical implications in Chinese culture, making it a subject Sanyu often favored. In it he subtly embedded certain feelings, which in a veiled and indirect fashion reveal the artist's increasing dark and depressed mood and his personal isolation after the 1950s. In the Chinese poetry and painting traditions, the first to speak of chrysanthemums in these terms was the poet and historical figure Chu Yuan, and later the poet Tao Yuan-ming, in his famous line, "I pick chrysanthemums by the Eastern hedge, gazing toward the southern hills." The flower was thereafter associated with thoughts of one's distant home and persons of a reclusive and genteel, scholarly bent. Sanyu's thoughts of home intensified daily as he was growing older in the 1950s, after having drifted to New York and then to Paris, and just as the idealists and poets of the past had projected their feelings into images of chrysanthemums, the flower became a frequent subject of Sanyu's as well, symbolic of his loneliness and thoughts of home. A younger friend of Sanyu, Zhang Yi-an, related a sad memory of Sanyu on New Year's Eve in 1958, watching from a crowded balcony the throngs of people on the streets below making the most of the evening, and feeling the desolation of the displaced wanderer. Throughout the decade, Sanyu's creative output reflected his unsettled life, as images of chrysanthemums signaled his nostalgia for home, while providing a route for our later understanding of the difficult course of the artist's life and his changing frame of mind. Today chrysanthemums still figure prominently in the paintings of modern Chinese artists, but only Sanyu has been able to impart such an intensely personal style to the presentation of floral still lifes and to unite this kind of cultural image so completely with his own mental journeys.
In Sanyu's works he presents compositions of reserved elegance and provides us with aesthetic experiences that are finely judged, serene, and gently appealing. The floral arrangement on the writing desk meets our eyes with quiet, lovely grace that transports us immediately to a more poetic living space, and as we view the painting, time suddenly flows at a more graceful and accommodating pace. As our minds become tranquil, the flowers engage our thoughts and set them free to roam in the larger realm of nature. The captivating tone of the painting, the realm of thought Sanyu builds from the elements of space, and the inspiration of coloristic art, reflect at every point the personality of the artist and the felt rhythms of his life. The aesthetic value of the work lies in the way such apparently simple and straightforward brushwork can grasp and contain such a wealth of implications. By uniting the still life genre favored by traditional Chinese painters with the coloristic and abstract art of the West, the artist returns us to the realm of China's poetry and painting tradition and represents the finest aspects of its aesthetics. Sanyu's ability to move freely between the two different systems of thought, between western art and the Chinese tradition of poetry and painting, allowed him to make his work a meeting point for the two. By so doing, he broke down boundaries and established a completely new territory, full of artistic possibilities to be explored by later generations of Chinese, while becoming one of the few Chinese artists to receive real recognition in the West. Sanyu was an artist of exceptional importance, in both historical terms and for the value of his artistic contributions.