Horses in a Green Landscape (Lot 1010) is an outstanding and unusual work from Sanyu's series of works featuring horses, one that captures completely the simplicity and quietude of Sanyu's art, the artist's changing outlook on life, and a sense of his overall accomplishments.
Sanyu began using Western oil media in the 1920s, exploring Chinese subjects with a quiet Eastern elegance, focusing during that early period on flower-and-vase themes and groups of horses. A rare photograph from 1926 demonstrates Sanyu's regard for this subject; taken in Sanyu's living quarters, it shows Wang Jigang standing in front of a Sanyu painting, which happens to be a line drawing of a horse in a Chinese style with classically simple lines. Sanyu continued his series of horses, painting each with unique artistry, which was why in the late 1920s Chinese poet Xu Zhimo wrote specially from China to request such a painting, mentioning how they had fascinated him during his brief stay in France. During the 1930s and 1940s, Sanyu also made a number of plaster horse statuettes with hand-painted glazes, and from the 1950s on he produced even more animal-themed oil paintings, his most frequent subject again being horses. The artist frequently placed his animal subjects against backgrounds of unusual atmosphere or in what seem to be broad deserts or plains; the horses may be galloping in the wilderness or beneath an eagle floating in the sky, so that the contrast of the tiny animal with its expansive surroundings highlights the quiet and solitary mood. A poem by Tang poet Chen Zi-ang,"Climbing the Tower at Yuzhou, "perhaps reflects much of the artist's state of mind during that period "Kand I reflect upon the vast expanse of heaven and earth, my tears flowing in solitary grief."
Sanyu was among the first generation of artists to travel to the West, and by the 1950s, as one of the elder generation who had been caught up in this wave of artistic enthusiasm, had weathered many changes. Literary figures with whom he had crossed paths and become friends, such as Xu Zhimo and Liang Zongdai, and artists such as Xu Beihong and Liu Haisu, had already left France, and now a new generation of the young and ambitious were arriving: Zao Wou-ki, Xie Jinglan, Xiong Binming. Sanyu had been through the war, experienced its hardship and poverty, and had witnessed the newly vitalized and flourishing arts scenes in Europe and America after the war; from Paris he had traveled to New York, then back once again to his old home in Paris. The upheavals of the era, the vagarities of his personal fortunes, inevitably left Sanyu with a feeling of dejection, which settled over the years into a deep longing for his home country and a kind of sober, solitary mood, all of which found their way into the scenic paintings with animals of his later years, which, as often as not, serve as portraits of Sanyu's own mood and metaphors for his personal circumstances.
A friend of Sanyu's, remembers a conversation with the artist:
Sanyu: "I'm aloneKI've started working on a paintingK" Da Ang: "What kind of painting?" Sanyu: "It's too early to sayKmaybe after a couple more daysKFirst I paint, then I simplify itKthen I simplify some moreK." A few days later, he finally said: "I've finished it." It was a picture of a tiny elephant, trotting along in an endless desert. He pointed at that elephant and said to me, "That's me." Then he laughed.
Horses in an expanse of open country, and one tiny elephant, undoubtedly reflect Sanyu's bitterly lonely experience, yet the subjects of this Horses in a Green Landscape instead project a certain humor and liveliness. They suggest a composed frame of mind, the hidden energies of life, idealism, and perfect beauty, and the grouping of several horses also mitigates the lonely mood often seen in this series of animal paintings. Whether the horses are neighing with upraised heads, prancing impatiently, or bending their necks to graze, the painting is enlivened with implicit motion and the fundamental appeal of the animal's natural grace and ease. But Sanyu's personal circumstances are reflected in these horses too, indicating his complexity of character and creating one of the unique and engagingly aspects of this canvas. Despite the increasing dreariness and loneliness of Sanyu's life after the 1950s, he retained his basically open and magnanimous character, while remaining enthusiastically engaged in pouring his life energetically into creative work, so that his friend Da Ang could remember how he "pointed at the elephant, said 'that's me,' and laughed." With his easy-going character, Sanyu displayed the brilliance of the traditional Chinese scholar-painter, the willingness to follow his personal bent, and the ability to find joy in life even under difficult circumstances. It is these unique qualities of Sanyu's outlook that are captured in the vigorous and refreshing glimpse of natural creatures in Horses in a Green Landscape.
The Aesthetics of Minimalism
Horses in a Green Landscape is an excellent model from which to learn how Sanyu achieved success through the aesthetics of simplicity. He created about ten such works with horses during the 1940s and 1950s, sketching out the animals' physiques in flat layers of strong but lively color. Horses, however, uniquely features a kind of figure-ground reversal, the outlines of the horses scraped with a palette knife out of the surface of the not-yet-dried pigments. The horses' bodies seem to be a part of the background of broken green color, and the white lines discreetly lifted out from the green background pull the viewer's eyes across the length of the canvas, making them aware, while following their curves, of the poised stance of the horses. The horses gently emerge, yet remain half-hidden in the richly colored background, floating in a diffuse, imaginary space with a sense of dreamlike surrealism. The horses have well-defined musculature, along with a transparency and lack of solidity that creates visual penetration, layering, and a feeling reminiscent of Chinese stone inscriptions and stele rubbings. Perceptual shifts between color and form, and form and empty space, add a touch of Zen-like compositional sparseness and a philosophical edge. Sanyu's adroit handling creates a startling and successful exhibition of the use of simple elements to express atmosphere and artistic conception.
Sanyu's handling of space, using textured strokes of color that break into streaks of white, is also part of his aesthetic focus on empty spaces and quiet minimalism. Wide swathes of a simple blue-green color are laid across the canvas with a dry brush, creating the white-green-white division of the composition. Where Sanyu's paintings of flowers and vases often divide the canvas into foreground and background with two simple colors, his animal series tends toward divisions of three bands or layers that resonate with each other in a way that serves the expressive needs of the work. In Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière, Sanyu employs a two-color division to create a balanced, stable, peaceful composition with a poetic atmosphere; the liveliness and extra layering of Horses in a Green Landscape hinges on the addition of an extra, third division of the compositional space. The green-white-green pattern of layers bounds and skips, somewhat in the manner of the shorelines in the work of classical painter Ni Tsan, which recede in staggered layers into the distance and work to increase the sense of perspective, spatial definition, and varied layering. The regular cadence of shifting colors and the rhythm of overlapping spaces gives Horses an animated yet easygoing character, which borrows from and extends the compositional methods used in traditional Chinese landscape paintings.
Sanyu's approach to sketching and outlining is also part of his simple but polished style. The economic use of line drawings to depict objects with a simple, composed atmosphere can be traced back to the visual effects of the classical line drawings and freely impressionistic paintings of ancient China. Sanyu's Horses is also reminiscent of the horse paintings of the Song dynasty's Li Gonglin and the Yuan dynasty's Zhao Mengfu, artists who used their fine observation and their feeling for the animals' appearance and bearing without being limited to external appearances. They also stressed the importance of capturing psychological factors and changing attitudes, following the emphasis in traditional Chinese art on "vivid, lifelike impressions" and "harmonious movement of qi." A comparison of Horses in a Green Landscape with Franz Marc's The Great Blue Horses also serves to point up even more clearly the nature of Sanyu's lines and the quiet peacefulness of his work. Marc's planes of color give his work a concentrated, beautiful, dreamlike tone, while Sanyu's horses are outlined forms and their color density shifts between white, blue-green, and white tones. An appropriate amount of empty space on the canvas leaves it clean, focused, and vibrant, with a captivating inner stillness. Lines in Sanyu's work outline and shape his forms while also suggesting the patterns on traditional Chinese ceramics, lacquer work, and murals. The generalized and abstracting tendencies of the lines enhance their expressive effects and their ability to project the work's conception. The lines of Sanyu's Horses all overlap, but draw the eye onward toward the others, and they exhibit a sense of consummate care along with a certain ease and a satisfying, unbroken flow. The result is a kind of quiet restraint and a sensitive regard for his subjects not often seen in Western art.
The use of line drawing to depict his subjects also makes Horses in a Green Landscape a unique experiment in this series of paintings, while connecting it with Sanyu's studies of human subjects. Sanyu exhibited a great range of styles, exploring the expressive potentials of different types of media: To generalize, his floral still lifes explore color; his still lifes painted on mirror and sketches on paper emphasize line drawing and form; his animal series typically features subjects sketched in layers of rich, lively color. Horses in a Green Landscape breaks the mold of the series by using lines typical of Sanyu's works on paper in the oil medium, outlining and contouring the horses with simple, clean, incisive lines; the lines flow and interconnect in a way that reflects Sanyu's love during this period for the unaffected, homespun elegance of folk art. Sanyu's clean, strong lines capture the psychological dynamic of his subjects in a highly personalized style. Xu Zhimo once used the phrase "cosmic thighs" to characterize the way Sanyu used lines to capture living forms, referring at the time to Sanyu's marvelous way with that part of the anatomy of his female nudes, but the comment certainly applies to Sanyu's ability to suggest any kind of complex form, as well as suggesting a kind of universal vastness that sparks endless associations within the viewer's imagination.
A continuing theme of Sanyu's work was the exploration of pure color. Sanyu laid single hues on the canvas in multiple layers, thereby discovering endless shifts and interpenetrations within pure colors that could create the visual beauty and the conceptual feel of a work. This orientation had much in common with the exploration of Western abstract artists during the 1950s, though Sanyu approached such exploration from an unusual and exceptional vantage. The Prussian blue background of Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière displays within itself a variety of hues; Horses in a Green Landscape uses green applied in broad, deeply chapped strokes with a dry brush in varying thicknesses. Such variation and layering create the sense of space and visual penetration within the painting and exemplify Sanyu's success with conceptions that employ imaginary spaces. Sanyu tended toward brighter, more lavish color and denser hues during the 1950s, such as the Prussian blue and pink of his Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière; the darkish greens of Horses in a Green Landscape have an added touch of inky blacks, the incisive feeling of the brushwork and the sense of broad, expansive space, which bring to it a sharper sense of mood and expressiveness than the pastels and low-intensity shades Sanyu favored during the 1930s. This change came about after his contact with Mark Rothko and other artists of the New York school during a stay there in the 1940s, as well as his painting and lacquering of furniture during the 1950s; these new environments and experiences produced major shifts in style. Here Sanyu applies a single color in oil, but the distinct rifts in the texture of that single color, and the strong, free sweeps of the brush across the canvas fill each brushstroke with movement, bringing the entire canvas alive with movement like a great wind blowing across the sands of a desert. And, like a horizontal scroll painting, the breadth of the visual center is extended laterally, and the sense that it continues beyond the borders of the painting increases the feeling of abstraction and tension in the painting's color. Sanyu's conception of space here as hazy but rugged and grandly impressive; the visual field has the broad expansiveness of a Chinese landscape painting, in contrast with the quiet, elegant interior of the same artist's Potted Flowers In a Blue And White Jardinière. Sanyu's Horses and the 1957 work Big Green, by abstract artist Alfred Leslie, feature somewhat similar expressions of color, but the broken strokes in Sanyu's painting, despite their energetic lateral sweep and extension, are still somehow softer, more reserved, and richer, and the graceful elegance and refined air of the work indirectly reflects Sanyu's cultural origins.
The exploratory process that Sanyu described to his friend Da Ang as "simplify, then simplify some more" involved letting ideas gradually settle, then extracting basic forms until only the purest and most refined elements remained. With these pure and simple elements Sanyu could express rich emotional implications. This process of extracting essential elements went beyond merely observing, imitating, and reproducing forms, being essentially concerned with the expressive nature of art itself. It involved the feeling, conception, mood, and tenor of a work and the artist's insights into life, things that can be sensed but not communicated verbally. This kind of simplified, impressionistic, and vivid style, implying more than it says, was something Sanyu inherited as part of Chinese aesthetics, but which, through his work, became completely original.
Sanyu's style, along with Xu Beihong's realist approach, were the two major stylistic branches that constituted the modern, reformist aspect of Chinese art and gave it renewed brilliance. In 1932 Sanyu presented Xu Beihong with a colored-ink painting, and Xu took the opportunity to add his own Tame Lion sketch on the reverse side. While Xu's sketch pays homage to a tradition of finely detailed, meticulous renderings and uses a historically dramatic subject, Sanyu's painting of a peony reflects a classic Chinese style in its free impressionism and emotional depth. The two personal styles, appearing on the front and reverse sides, illustrate how Sanyu and Xu Beihong both, in their different ways, created a meld of Eastern and Western aesthetics while opening up entirely different paths for exploration. Sanyu drew more from traditional Chinese aesthetics, using the oil medium to reinterpret the values of its free, impressionistic styles and its quiet, spare aesthetic. His work embraced multiple elements; the heavily textured strokes of oil pigments and outline sketching inherit the quiet simplicity, the open spaces, and the impressionistic approach of China's earlier scholar-painters, while his colors, whether pure or many-layered, reflect similarities with Western abstract artists, but also point distantly to the shading and haloed effects in the pure black tones of Chinese ink-wash painting. At the same time, they add something extra to Western coloristic art with a special sense of personal style, poise, and restraint.
In Sanyu's Horses, these artistic explorations and the artist's work with abstract color meet one of the important subjects of the Chinese literati painters, a subject that further relates to his own personal circumstances and emotional experience and imbues Horses in a Green Landscape with a rich and varied evocativeness. Sanyu's work is not only a nexus for the meeting of East and West, classical and modern; it sought out a higher ground among these various artistic currents, and from that broader viewpoint, provided new and rewarding avenues for later generations of Chinese artists to explore. Sanyu has thus become one of the most iconic figures representing the course of Asian art and its development over the last century.