(CHANG YU, Chinese, 1901-1966)
Potted Chrysanthemums
oil on masonite
91.5 x 48 cm. (36 x 18 7/8 in.)
Painted circa 1950s
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner
Private Collection, France
This artwork is accompanied by a letter of authenticity, dated 23 January 2014 from Rita Wong

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Lot Essay

"Fragrant chrysanthemum blossoms shine in the woods, amid rows of pines that crown the mountains. In their chaste beauty, they stand proud above the frost." (From "The Second Poem to Match that of Official Registrar Guo")

The deep nighttime still-life scene in Sanyu's Potted Chrysanthemums (Lot 23) was meticulously prepared by the artist. With his practiced judgment, Sanyu draped a dark blue curtain across the background; the quietly elegant pink chrysanthemums, set off against this dark curtain, glow like scattered stars and shed their light across the canvas. Sanyu's use of blue and black as contrasting colours within the work also suggests a symbolic emotional meaning. The darkness of the curtain casts a veil of Eastern mystery over the work, while a kind of blue rarely seen in Western paintings, as of moonlight over a secluded scene, adds to the painting's atmosphere of settled calm and tranquility. As a reflection of Sanyu's unique aesthetic sensitivity, Potted Chrysanthemums possesses a kind of delicate, Eastern, and feminine beauty. Sanyu employs novel and innovative techniques, within the context of modern painting and its emotional appeal, in the search for real and lasting artistic value.
Unique methods of depicting space were innovations that Sanyu contributed to painting vocabulary. While he excelled in the use of line, his lines were nevertheless not used in creating space. Unlike most other artists, he used a spatial partitioning based on blocks of single colours, which naturally separated the backgrounds of his paintings into a kind of solid, two-dimensional space; similar effects can be found in the work of abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, who also produced spatial layering with blocks of colour. In addition, the thriving profusion of stems and leaves in the upper part of the work produces yet another kind of richly satisfying spatial rendering. The result is a combination of real and imagined space "so open a horse can run through, yet closed and airtight," and our gaze as we view the painting is always pulled strongly toward its upper reaches. The stems and leaves of the potted chrysanthemums in the painting, carefully molded and positioned by Sanyu, are also continually pushing upward, inaugurating a dilution that time within the painting continues to journey along its forward track.
The use of full-spectrum light source has been a long-lasting tradition in Chinese painting. Having inherited this, Sanyu made the tradition itself unbounded by skillfully fusing the full-spectrum dim light source and the one hidden afar. Seemingly serene, the single light casted from the upper right corner initiates a lyrical sense that reads the painting on the canvas as if it were a poem. Potted Chrysanthemums exudes a special kind of secret, profound peace, the peace of moonlight in a secluded spot. The light coral chrysanthemums seem almost luminescent under moonlight, glowing bright like stars covered in dark velvet. Sanyu mastered well the corresponding relation between 'light' and 'colour.' This not only reflects his knowledge in Western colour techniques, but also breaks through the limitations of chiaroscuro set by Baroque master Caravaggio. By simultaneously engaging two diverse light sources, Sanyu bridged the East and the West. The chrysanthemum stems in varying shades of cyan blue help fill out depth in the painting toward the front and rear. These effects break down the restrictions often seen in traditional Chinese painting regarding the arrangement of spaces in a painting.
The imagery of Chinese characters presents a compositional aesthetics similar to that of tree branches, human bodies, and even musical notes. From figuration to imagery, from imagery to formation then to abstraction, Sanyu accentuated the metaphorical meaning of these characters. This process of deduction introduces different ways of looking at Potted Chrysanthemums. Sanyu excelled in the use of line, and here exhibits ease and mastery in moving the brush through the pulling, dragging, tracing, turning, and pressing strokes derived from calligraphy, weaving lines through the painting like a needle guiding a thread as it shuttles through cloth. Sanyu did not inscribe a poem or text on his painting, but the composition and depiction of Chrysanthemums reminds the viewer of the inscribed Chinese characters and poetry, as seen in a brass rubbing from the Western Zhou Dynasty, is suggested by the structure of his chrysanthemum bough, which thus seems to be in dialogue with the viewer. The rough but flowing lines of the chrysanthemum sprig stretch out strongly, while the bends and turns of the stems are also portrayed with vigor. Where the stems and leaves are lush and thick, the brushwork becomes softer to suggest the graceful fluttering of the bough. Sanyu, steeped as he was in Chinese culture, is less concerned with objectively representing the forms of this still life, but rather with the ideas from Eastern philosophy that give them a more subjective cast: the peaceful coexistence of self and others. He establishes a relationship of equality between his subject and the viewer; the artistic vocabulary that produces the work is based in the Eastern philosophy of conversation. Sanyu intends, by means of this apparently simple image, to present a visual experience with whose meaning will be deeper and more lasting.
Sanyu, in the artistic climate of the 1930s, chose to sojourn in France which lasted for more than 40 years. Western art during that period had already begun converging on a rather precisely defined single form, in which artistic vocabularies were sought within shapes, colours, and spaces. Sanyu's work, however, combined the fine and practiced renderings of Eastern painting with the emotional appeal of Western art, presenting viewers with visual experiences that transcended both cultural and geographic boundaries. In his innovative use of space, light, and shaping of forms he responded to the experience of Western colour, but by means of his innovations and breakthroughs in Western technique, he expressed the spirit of Chinese culture. Potted Chrysanthemums, which Sanyu painted during the 1950s, is one of the important works of his lifetime. Its refinement and purity, and the way it sets out forms in spare, simple lines while still offering a gorgeous richness of visual experience, is one of the finest examples from Eastern and Western culture in the 20th century of innovation combined with tradition. At the same time, it exemplifies the way in which Sanyu's uniquely personal sense of beauty and taste transcend time and space, making it a unique work of Eastern humanist oil painting that could only have been produced by this artist.

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