(CHANG YU, Chinese, 1901-1966)
Pot de chrysanthèmes roses
oil on linen
100.5 x 81 cm. (39 1/2 x 31 7/8 in.)
Painted in the 1940s
Private Collection, Europe (Acquired directly from the artist, thence by descent to the present owner)
Rita Wong (ed.), The Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation, Sanyu - Catalogue Raisonné Oil Paintings - Volume 2, Taipei, Taiwan, 2011 (illustrated, plate 286, pp. 95 & 135).

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Lot Essay

Sanyu is one of the major pioneers of Chinese modern art. He was brought up in an affluent family in which he mastered the Four Books, and Five Classics, and also practiced calligraphy in the style of the renowned Sichuan calligrapher Zhao Xi at a very early age. The solid foundation of traditional Chinese painting greatly helped his achievement in the art field. The beginning of the last century in China boasted frequent exchanges between the East and West. Participating in the work-study programme, Sanyu left for Paris in 1921 to study at the free-minded Académie de la Grande Chaumière. There he met many active overseas painters in the art circle of Paris, including Moïse Kisling, Alberto Giacometti and Japanese artist Tsuguharu Foujita. They were based in the artistic Montparnasse and created the renowned School of Paris. The School of Paris does not represent a particular style but the possibility for artists with different culture background to further develop their artistic career in the liberal Paris. At that time, a new prospect of blending East and West was being explored by many Chinese artists. Sanyu is an outstanding example among them. He started with the artistic emphasis of Chinese art to combine the classic and the modern. The revolutionary undertaking of mixing inkwash and oil, lines and colours, brought Chinese oil paintings to a brand new realm, which is fundamental in bridging the past and future of the Chinese modern art.

In the 20th Century, Western artists such as Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky strove to demonstrate the purity of art in its abstract forms. Yves Klein's blue monochrome work has taken the expression of colour to a new level by using colour to stimulate the audience's emotions. Sanyu's Pot de chrysanthèmes roses (Lot 18) reflects the Eastern artist's innovation in use of colour and his breakthrough from the convention of Western Realism. Sanyu turned away from the classic use of layered light and shadow to present volume. He uses chrysanthemums as a medium to express colour and change of emotions. Vincent van Gogh used the flower as the central theme in Sunflower (Fig. 1), the colours of the yellow sunflowers and the desk are so vibrant that they become the channel for the artist's passion, at the same time arousing the same intense emotions among the audience. Comparing to van Gogh's work, the dark tone in the background of Sanyu's Pot de chrysanthèmes roses is quiet yet fascinating, creating a completely different atmosphere by bringing tranquility and peace to the picture.

The use of black ink in Pot de chrysanthèmes roses not only demonstrates the power of ink itself, but also shares the aesthetics of Chinese literati paintings. Ink colour reflects the Chinese literati's long-time preference towards the beauty of ink and wash. As pointed out by Wang Wei, "ink-wash surpasses all; it begins with the essence of nature and completes the work of creation." From a Chinese perspective, black ink is more fundamental than bright colours to represent the calm and restrained characteristics of Chinese intellectuals. The colour of ink is far richer than one can expect, and in the theory of Chinese painting, black ink is divided black into five different shades. The variations of brushstrokes from heavy impasto to dry brush in oil are like the change of shades of ink on paper. The space around the pot of chrysanthemum seems to be flattened by the darkened background. The subject matter hence is extracted from reality, luring the viewer into a deep and boundless night sky.

Sanyu outlined the chrysanthemum in a light pink, and then carved out the petals with dry brush. The plasticity of oil gives the work the possibility of the fine layers and rich texture. Sanyu further tuned the bright red to a much softer pink. The gleaming pale yellow was deliberately placed between the chrysanthemum and its surroundings. White chrysanthemums, painted against a dark background in Sanyu's other similar works, most often have a very clean and crisp contour (Fig. 2). In contrast, the flowers in Pot de chrysanthèmes roses look exceptionally unique. Looking from afar, there seems to be flickering candle light shining over the flowers which, against the darkness, are being absorbed into the infinite depth from behind. The same dynamic of colour can also be seen in Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night (Fig. 3). The particular visual treatment of the flowers in Pot de chrysanthèmes roses is indeed extraordinary.

As the Chinese have long embraced the concept of "the greatest image being formless," materiality is never essential in Chinese paintings. Chinese art is extremely intuitive and it is the art of lines. Artists are able to take away all material forms and express their thoughts and feelings with the power of calligraphy. The "subject" present in Chinese art is not merely a "material subject" but a "spiritual subject," thus the spirit and realisation of abstraction is the natural root in Chinese art. In Pot de chrysanthèmes roses, Sanyu inherited the tradition power of expression in the use of brushstrokes. He skillfully demonstrated the Eastern beauty of brushwork in the flowers, branches, leaves, pot and background. He emphasizes lines and brushstrokes in oil paintings, thus offers a brand new perspective. The stems of the plant are painted with force and vigour, the lines in the branches manifest the cohesiveness, continuity and power of calligraphy. The illustration of the main stem is extraordinary and reminiscent of the hook-like brush movement at the end of a stroke in Seal script. The well assembled branches, again, resonate with the elegant structure of seal script writing (Fig. 4). The slightly inclined main stem appears particularly resilient and elastic from the inside, while the minimal form of the plant is radiated with streams of vitality in nature. With a few simple strokes, the ceramic pot is presented in its best and most elegant form.

Sanyu painted the inky background with bold brushstrokes, but he avoided filling all of the background in order to show the direction of strokes. This technique as such is frequently employed in his Animal series (Fig. 5), in which the horizontally parallel brushstroke causes an illusion that the background is stretching sideways, and renders the subject to exhibit in itself a sense of dynamic and speed. It is as if the animal is galloping across an ever-expanding piece of land, while the clouds in the air are accelerated by the breeze to become streaks of straight lines with temporal allusion. Sanyu sometimes renders the background of his paintings on flowers with a sense of speed (Fig. 6), Pot de chrysanthèmes roses is the only piece of work in his catalogue that uses black vertical strokes to match the irregularly-rimmed pink flowers. While horizontal lines create a sense of spatial expansion, vertical orientation is associated with spiritual enlightenment and thus suggests that the secluded, elegant and frost-defying nature of chrysanthemum. Chrysanthemums are deemed one of the "four nobles" in traditional Chinese paintings. Through the orientation of lines in the background, Sanyu draws attention to the spiritual realm typical of Eastern poets.

Similarly, in Starry Night, van Gogh emphasized the linear sense of direction in the background to blend scenery with sentiments. From this perspective, it is worth noting that in Pot de chrysanthèmes roses, Sanyu transcended the objective constraint of the floral theme, and transformed the pink chrysanthemum into twinkling stars in the jet-black night; the still life sitting quietly on the table is now radiating with ample dynamism. Sanyu's Pot de chrysanthèmes roses demonstrates great ability of expression, which brings the development of still life oil painting to its peak.

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