Sanyu (Chang Yu) (1901-1966)
Property From An Important Private Asian Collection
Sanyu (Chang Yu) (1901-1966)

Two Zebras

Sanyu (Chang Yu) (1901-1966)
Two Zebras
signed in Chinese; signed 'SANYU' (upper right)
oil on masonite
72.5 x 92 cm. (28 1/2 x 36 1/4 in.)
Painted in the 1940s
Robert Frank Collection, New York
Robert Frank's Sanyu, Sotheby's Taipei, 19 October 1997, Lot 17
Private Collection, Taipei, Taiwan
Anon. sale; Christie's Taipei, 28 November 1999, Lot 13
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
National Museum of History, In Search of a Homeland - The Art of San Yu, Taipei, Taiwan, 2001 (illustrated, plate 110, p. 173).
Rita Wong, Yageo Foundation and Lin & Keng Art Publications, Sanyu Catalogue Raisonn?: Oil Paintings, Taipei, Taiwan, 2001 (illustrated, plate 206, p. 327).
Taipei, Taiwan, National Museum of History, In Search of a Homeland - San Yu, 2001.

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Lot Essay

Two Zebras is a combination landscape and animal painting executed with a very distinctive approach. In this work, Sanyu completely discarded colour and instead chose to work with black and gray tones. The background is handled with broad brush strokes, in a pared down manner that eliminates detail, creating an effect approaching pure abstraction, while the sweeping, variously shaded lines, arranged in a spare horizontal composition, evoke spatial depth. The haze-like atmosphere invites an unrestrained exercise of the imagination.
Sanyu used this technique to construct a sense of space in many works (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2). Two Zebras is undoubtedly the most outstanding of these.
There are insufficient clues for the viewer to distinguish what this space is precisely. The two zebras could be in a meadow, awash in an early morning mist. Or it might be a wintery wilderness, barren and untamed, stretching out as far as the eye can see. It could even be the boundless sea. What can be said for certain is that Sanyu utilized his genius to transform the representative, depictive qualities of "the five ink hues" (a term of art from Chinese painting dating back at least to the Tang Dynasty) into a tool to create a realm of imagination, creating not a picture per se but an atmosphere that draws in the viewer, and in which he or she becomes immersed. The use of oils in Two Zebras to express the variances of inkwash may appear haphazard or casual, but in fact the work demonstrates Sanyu's profound understanding of the Chinese brush-and-ink tradition and his highly sensitive control of mood.
Sanyu used a fine brush to depict the outlines and markings of the two zebras in the foreground. With their clean and sharp lines and steady rhythm, the figures create a contrasting texture against the background.
Just as with flowers and human figures that Sanyu painted, the zebras are portrayed in a way that suggests a summary, a refinement, of their form. The fixed, tranquil, upright postures further emphasize that these are signifiers, hieroglyphs, pictograms. We can see a different example of Sanyu's passion for decorative signifiers in Two Horses on a Carpet (Fig. 3). The gentle, harmonious symmetrical composition is deliberately embellished with Chinese motifs. Though the work is two dimensional, it conveys a sense of changes in space. It also has a very urbane feel; it would be right at home in the refined library of a literati. Two Zebras, meanwhile, uses the zebras and their innate black and white markings as a kind of counterpoint with the freely drawn, spontaneous brush strokes of the background, lending the painting even greater poeticism and vitality.
Although there are resemblances to traditional Chinese painting, the zebras of Sanyu are not lineal descendants of pure classical models. Indeed, they manifest a startling modernity. It was no easy matter for Sanyu to get a look at a real zebra, whether he was in his native Sichuan Province of China or in his adopted home of Paris. Since these animals are native only to Africa, he could only see one in a zoo or in printed images. Sanyu's portrayal of zebras was by no means realistic or naturalistic, nor did they have the perspective of traditional Chinese visual arts. They appear in his works in mis-shapen postures or are seen from distorted angles, bringing to mind techniques of surrealist photography. (Fig. 5) Sanyu, who arrived in Paris very early on (1921), chose the exotic zebra for his subject matter as a way to ponder the subtleties of the modern sensibility, but also because the equine form was no great departure from his own cultural foundations. There was no other painter who could move so freely between classicism and the progressive cutting edge.
Though Sanyu had a general passion for animals as subjects for his art throughout his life, it is clear that horses had particular significance for him. He often used horses as a metaphor or comparison for himself, providing a release for his contradictory feelings about being an artist, and expressing his aspirations for freedom and love as well as his sense of isolation and loneliness. Sanyu's father Chang Shufang was renowned in his hometown of Nanchong, Sichuan, for his skill at painting lions and horses, so obviously the equine form was deeply ingrained in Sanyu's childhood memories and in his foundational aesthetic. We have a sculptural example of this fascination with horses from Sanyu's days in Paris during World War II. With painting supplies hard to come by, he used plaster to make a small horse figurine (Fig. 6) - something comforting to remind him of home. The horse, with head bowed, appears to be deep in thought. Jonathan Hay, a professor at New York University, has remarked that the horses painted by Sanyu often are highly codified - pictographs standing for, rather than truly being pictures of, horses - and exhibit specific performance postures. (Fig. 1 and Fig. 4) Although in Chinese cultural vocabulary the horse represents freedom, in Sanyu's paintings the horses are not, as you might think, running free and filled with spirit, but are tamed or circus performers in unnatural poses. Perhaps this reflects the compromises that artists must make in order to survive.
The blank, unpainted spaces in Two Zebras are ethereal and vast, which causes the finely-drawn zebras to appear miniscule and fragile. In an undefined time and space, they are closely approaching one another, yet also facing away from each other, creating an effect at once intimate and remote. Perhaps they are having a secret rendezvous, perhaps they have crossed paths by chance in the wilderness, or perhaps we are seeing the moment when they are just about to part. Given the deliberate absence of clarity about what is happening, leaving so much to the imagination, the painting also creates a sense of insecurity and uncertainty. This is another technique commonly used in Surrealism: the construction of a sense of "obscurity" or of things being "out of place" to manufacture an "uncanny" atmosphere. The concept of the "uncanny" is inseparable from the mood of longing or nostalgia that modern man has for the past. It seems that Sanyu also utilized this to express the sense of inner loss of someone living in a foreign land.
We can find an echo of the mindset underlying Sanyu's Two Zebras in the work of Julian Green, a French-language author of American ancestry, who lived in Paris for much of his life. In one passage in his diaries, published at the end of the 1930s, he poignantly depicted the helplessness and isolation of the individual in the modern world.
"I knew that we counted little in comparison with the universe; I knew that we were nothingK. But to be so immeasurably nothing seems in some way both to overwhelm and at the same time to reassure. Those figures, those dimensions beyond the range of human thought, are utterly overpowering. Is there anything whatsoever to what we can cling? Amidst that chaos of illusions into which we are cast headlong, there is one thing that stands out as true, and that is-love. All the rest is nothingness, an empty void."
In sum, therefore, we can see that Two Zebras, created in the 1940s, utilizes the technique of "expressing one's feelings through objects" from traditional Chinese literati landscape paintings, while also being under the shadow cast by French modernism.
Nonetheless, Sanyu differed greatly from Surrealist artists and from practitioners of other Western modern art forms in that he never excessively exaggerated the bizarre. Rather, he used spare and simple brush-and-ink vocabulary to preserve natural imagery, utilizing spontaneous and freely drawn brush strokes to express the eternal essence of feelings. His works always retained an elegance and a charm that is difficult to put into words. We may say "difficult to put into words" because of the idea, put forth by the Tang Dynasty poet Si Kong Tu, that the artist need not indulge in too much embellishment, and can express ideas with few words (or, for painters, strokes). The feeling or emotion in Two Zebras is implicit, even incidental, as if it weren't the result of deliberate action. But the painting still carries a powerful inner strength, and that is because of this subtle and tasteful notion that "the meaning lays beyond the words." As Si Kong Tu wrote in his work Ershisi Shipin, a commentary on aesthetic forms in poetry: "Dust floating freely through the air Foam floating on the sea Tiny to vast, thing are constantly combining and separating From a small fragment one may grasp the whole." That is to say, the artist can express a grand idea with great simplicity, with a single word or image. This makes a remarkably fitting annotation for Sanyu's Two Zebras.

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