(CHANG YU, 1901-1966)
Potted Flowers
signed in Chinese; signed 'SANYU' in French; dated '1929' (lower right) oil on canvas
46.3 x 27 cm. (18 1/4 x 10 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1929
Private Collection, Europe

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Lot Essay

According to current available records and information on Sanyu, the earliest oil paintings that were dated trace back to 1929, when pink was already used as main colour palette, and was applied to his different themes such as figure, still life, animal, and landscape. The artist consciously used pink as the core of his creation, with which he continuously engaged in persistent exploration in forms and space during the decade thereafter, and reached the first zenith in his artistic career.

In early 20th century, fusion of east and west aesthetics had become a modern trend. Chinese artists would first need to adapt to the thick and dense oil paint, the main medium in western painting. In his Potted Flowers (Lot 1065) painted in 1929, Sanyu paints the potted chrysanthemum in pure white and made good use of the texture of oil paint to create variation in details: the thick and solid oil paint highlights the feature of clustering petals; the fully bloomed flowers facing the front are in the shape of perfect circles, while those showing their profiles tend to be semi-circular in shape; slenderness of the pot is enhanced by the stems and leaves in the lower part, and with the upright stems, the traditional Chinese culture's image of chrysanthemum is presented - it stands upright and detaches itself from the mundane world. From the painting's composition, we can see clearly that the artist presents a conceptual imagery by leaving out the minute and unnecessary details. Western Modernism strived to simplify images and return to basic geometric shapes and representation, with Paul Cezanne as pioneer, who remarked that 'all the images in Nature can be presented with use of circular cylinders, spheres and cones'. After persistent in-depth observation on nature, Sanyu formulated his modern artistic language on forms. Potted Flowers, presented in the minimal colours and a much simplified form, actually came from the artist's attempt to present the abstract quality intrinsic in nature.

Detailed analysis of Sanyu's work in the 1930s reveals that Sanyu often used only three to four colours on his canvas, among which milky white, inky black, pink and dark blue were the most common. Sanyu would complement and contrast these colours with their various tonalities, reflecting his creative intention to minimalize colour. In the Potted Flowers, Sanyu took advantage of the slender and upright form of his subject and boldly applied a cool-toned dark grey colour throughout his canvas. Not only does this effect harmonize with the flower pot, it segments the white table according to the principles of perspective, where objects appear to be bigger in vicinity and vice versa. Sanyu thus created a sense of distance and depth through the use of only three main colours. In terms of spatial structure, western artists had since the Renaissance imitated and reproduced nature, and only until early 20th century did they break through the restriction imposed by three-dimensional space. Chinese artists, on the other hand, had long employed multiple perspectives throughout the development of traditional landscape painting, where the intentional white void "painted" by artists gave much freedom to spatial interpretation. Under the influence of such eastern traditions, Sanyu had developed a distinctly different aesthetic perspective from his western counterparts. Although the Fauvists and Cubists both tried to break away from the boundary of space within their canvases, their interpretation came from the reconstruction of realistic rendering, which greatly contrasted with traditional Chinese landscape painting where artists experienced the landscape, internalized it, and expressed their feelings toward it. Potted Flowers is not a mere reproduction of a still life, but the artist's ideal image of a potted chrysanthemum. Sanyu simplified and encapsulated his subject after objectively observing its outlook, then he extracted and expressed the fundamental element of aesthetics based on his subjectivity. For him imagery is not simply an imitation of a specific scene, but rather a media to amalgamate nature and the artist's emotion through a purified still life image based on true understanding, as well as the application of line and the interspersing, overlapping colour planes.

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