SANYU (CHANG YU, Chinese, 1901-1966)

Vase de Chrysanthèmes sur une table jaune (Vase of Chrysanthemums on a Yellow Table)


Vase de Chrysanthèmes sur une table jaune (Vase of Chrysanthemums on a Yellow Table)

signed in Chinese; signed 'SANYU' (lower right)

oil on masonite

59.5 x 39.8 cm. (23 3/8 x 15 5/8 in.)
Painted in the 1940s

Private Collection, France (acquired directly from the artist, thence by descent to the present owner)
National Museum of History, In Search of a Homeland: The Art of San Yu, Taipei, Taiwan, 2001 (illustrated, plate 74, p. 121).

Rita Wong, Yageo Foundation, and Lin & Keng Art Publications, Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, Taipei, Taiwan, 2001 (illustrated, plate 113, p. 223).

Rita Wong, The Li-Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation, Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné Oil Paintings (II), Taipei, Taiwan, 2011 (illustrated, plate 113, p. 129).

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Eric Chang
Eric Chang

Lot Essay


In the 20th century, it was not just Chinese artists who took advantage of crosscultural exchanges to explore new directions in art-during the same period, Western artists were also enriching Western art by assimilating Eastern culture. These artists all faced the same question: How to preserve one's own unique culture amid the overflow of cross-cultural currents, while at the same time deriving inspiration from the other cultures and creating new art. This, in fact, is one of the great essentials of the world's modern art. As examples of Western artists influenced by Eastern art, figures such as James Whistler (1834-1903), Van Gogh (1853-1890), and Monet (1840-1926) come to mind. Their art was influenced by Japanese culture in the form of traditional Japanese kimonos, its Ukiyo-e ('floating world') paintings, and Japanese-style gardens. The Swiss artist Paul Klee was also highly interested in Eastern art. Between 1910 and 1914 he turned his attention to Asian inkwash painting. During this period, colour application techniques from Chinese ink painting permeated his works, which also contained implicit symbols and motifs traditionally associated with Eastern painting. In 1930, Klee set forth his personal views on calligraphy: “On the Chinese model, painting is not seen as a technique, a craft, but is given equal status with calligraphy. In Chinese terms, the essence of calligraphy consists not, for example, in the cleanness and evenness of the hand, which can easily lead to rigidity, but in the fact that one depicts what one has to express with the greatest possible perfection yet with the smallest amount of effort.” In 1933, Klee was further absorbed in Zen Buddhism, showing how, in his case, the influence of Eastern culture was not limited to painting technique but included personal thought and belief. Nor was the influence of Eastern culture limited to Western artists of the post-World War I era. In fact, attention to Eastern culture among Western artists broadened considerably after World War II. Interest in Chinese calligraphy, ink wash painting, philosophy, and general painting can be found in the works of many post-war artists, including Mark Tobey (1890-1976), Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), Franz Kline (1910-1962), and Adolph Gottlieb (1903- 1974). In the 1920s, the first generation of Chinese artists to study in Europe included Sanyu, Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), Xu Beihong (1895-1953), and Pan Yuliang (1895-1977). They were also part of this broad current of cultural exchange, as they considered the possibility of bridging the worlds of Chinese and Western art. The greatest difference between Chinese and Western painting lies in the different media they employ: Western painting rests on the foundation of oil pigments and canvas; Chinese painting is rooted in ink and paper. The difference in artistic media and aesthetic outlooks, as well as difference in spirits and modes of thought, influenced their painting methods, techniques, and demands, and over time, led to the development of entirely different aesthetics. With the artist Sanyu, we can see how his early training in Chinese painting and calligraphy merged with his experience of life in France and Western culture, as well as his interest in the oil medium. The result was that his spirit embraced both Eastern and Western culture, familiar with two different kinds of painting media. He dug deep into the distinctive features and the unique inner character of Chinese aesthetics and merged them with the elements of Western Modernism. This led to the creation of works in Western oil medium that were fundamentally Chinese in terms of spiritual orientation and aesthetic values.


The use of beautiful monochrome palette can be traced far back to Chinese ancient history, as can be seen in its porcelains, paintings, and calligraphy. The unique monochrome glazes of the Song Dynasty porcelains and paintings reflect the Chinese ability to depict various forms through 'the five colours of ink,' which refers to its subtle monochromatic shadings (Fig.1). And at the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of shaping space by means of colour appeared in modern Western art—artists as diverse as Matisse and Rothko both explored, with their own approaches, the possibilities of establishing space with very small amount of colour on canvas, or even with completely monochromatic schemes. At a different level, the same use of colour was also an issue in Chinese art, where the aesthetics of monochromatic painting had been developing since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Furthermore, the use of colour to establish space is not too distant from the way in which Chinese painting and calligraphy employ empty space to achieve similar effects. The way in which they produced imaginary space by employing the monochrome background of the paper corresponds with the similar effects in our modern aesthetics. Sanyu's Vase de Chrysanthemes sur une table jaune (Vase of Chrysanthemums on a Yellow Table) (Lot 7) divides the background into the areas of claret and tangerine yellow to suggest the depth of the table top and its three-dimensional space. Sanyu deliberately reduces the use of colour to a minimal level; the glass vase, and the stems, leaves, buds, and flowers of the chrysanthemums, all appear in the same tangerine yellow, and exude an air of simplicity. At the same time, however, this monochromatic treatment means that the lines, the aspect to which Sanyu gave special attention, were able to achieve their full expressiveness.


Lines are symbols of life in Chinese painting. Line as a principal means of shaping forms with ink and brush can be seen as its most prominent feature. The earliest writings on the beauty of line in Chinese painting can be traced back to Confucius, who said that “The painting comes after the plain groundwork,” and in The Book of Odes and the Erya Lexicon, it is said, “Painting delineates forms.” In Chinese art, it has always been held that” painting and calligraphy derive from the same source.” This has been true from the earliest use of “iron-wire” lines (solid, flowing lines of even thickness) to the “Gaogu yousi (silk thread)” style, the “drifting cloud, floating water” strokes, and the “bamboo-leaf” stroke, on up to the “nail-head and rat-tail” strokes of the late Qing painter Ren Bonian (1840-1896). Calligraphy in fact is a linear art, and like painting, is founded on creating forms by means of line. Paintings employing simplified lines appeared in the late Ming and early Qing Dynasty in the ink- wash paintings of Bada Shanren (1626-1705). In Vase de Chrysanthemes sur une table jaune, Sanyu's lines guide the viewer's eye upward, from the vertical stems at its base, to its forking branches, and then to the blooms; the lines also create a regular and pleasing division of space.


From the time that Cubists began deconstructing their images, Western Modernism had allied itself with geometrical abstraction, and it then proceeded to seek the relationship between colour and form. Sanyu, however, did not choose to follow such absolute formalism. He chose to retain the natural images of objects, but here, in Vase de Chrysanthemes sur une table jaune, he does make use of variations of triangle in setting out the basic structure of the vase, while the chrysanthemum blooms in the upper right corner and at the left side forms the basic composition, essentially a right-angle triangle. The flower in the upper right represents the chrysanthemum in bloom, while the blooms on the left are drooping and ready to fall. The atmosphere of beauty is enhanced by Sanyu's sensitive use of softly rounded, smoothly flowing lines. The two flowers, one in full bloom and the other withering and falling, represent Sanyu's own realisation of the cyclical nature of all living things. They thus inject a further level of meaning and emotion into the painting-while injecting, at the same time, a rich emotional energy into the cool formalism of modern painting.

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