signed in Chinese, signed SANYU (lower right)
oil on canvas
115 x 88 cm. (45 1/4 x 34 5/8 in.)
Painted in the 1930s
Collection of Mr. Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris, France
Collection of Mr. Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris, France
Private Collection, Taipei
Anon. Sale, Christie's Hong Kong, 26 November 2006, Lot 168
Private Collection, Asia
Tamsui Center of Arts and Culture, Sanyu, Taipei, Taiwan, 1994 (illustrated, p. 29).
Artist Publishing Co., Overseas Chinese Fine Arts Series –San Yu, Taipei, Taiwan, 1995 (illustrated, plate 53, p. 109).
Rita Wong, Yageo Foundation, and Lin & Keng Art Publications, Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, Taipei, Taiwan, 2001 (illustrated, plate 85, p. 192).
Rita Wong, The Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation, Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings Volume II, Taipei, Taiwan, 2011 (illustrated, plate 85, p. 125).
Taipei, Taiwan, Tamsui Center of Arts and Culture, Sanyu, 18 August – 4 September 1994.

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Annie Lee
Annie Lee

Lot Essay

Sanyu was a pioneer in 20th century Chinese painting. His work lies at the conf luence of tradition and modernity, East and West, and lyricism and realism, combining trendiness and classicism and a balance of the personal against the larger societal era. His paintings, outstanding models of accomplished artistry, represent an exploratory process in which he extracted the essence of both Eastern and Western art.

In Paris, at the end of 1920, French intellectual and art collector Henri-Pierre Roché had begun to take a strong interest in Sanyu's painting and acquired some of the artist's works for his personal collection. An influential figure in France's flourishing cultural and artistic scene, Roche was deeply involved with the artists of the period: In 1906, he introduced the 25-year old Picasso to the family of the important arts patron, Gertrude Stein. They dedicated themselves to supporting that young artist, acquiring Picasso's work as he advanced through his Blue Period to his later Cubism and on toward the peak of his career. Roché, who owned a number of works by major artists of the Fauvist and Cubist movements, expressed great admiration for Sanyu, hanging Sanyu works in his home side by side with those of Matisse. He often spoke to friends of Sanyu's exceptional talent.

In Paris, Sanyu stood out among the select group of artists known as the Paris school for his deeply personal artistic style and philosophy. Being from China, he was seen, along with Japan's Tsugouharu Foujita, as a representative of Eastern art. While the two had broad differences in style and conceptual outlook, they did have in common the use of ink-brush techniques to express their artistic visions. Given Sanyu's varied brushwork, and the ambience of the ink medium, his work often displayed the poetic lyricism of Chinese calligraphy and its succinct yet soft, full lines; Foujita employed a more rational style, treating his subjects in a realistic fashion and continuing the Japanese tradition of detailed figurative styles and flat picture spaces. By the 1930s, a distinctive and mature style with a highly personal character had made Sanyu a core member of the Paris School. His work was shown numerous times in the highly authoritative Salon d'Automne as well as the Salon des Independants and the Salon des Tuileries.

Sanyu's work in the oil medium was bold and avant-garde, often drawing on characteristic features of lithography as part of his creative vocabulary in oils. His compositions, succinct and easily understandable, brought Eastern painting into the sphere of modernist trends in art.

Dating from the 1930s, Sanyu's Flowers in a White Vase (Lot 12) is one of his most representative floral-themed works. Some of Sanyu's work in the 1930s derived inspiration from copper plate prints he made late in the 1920s and his resulting appreciation for their simplicity of line. The printing techniques used, and the resonant opposition of stark blacks and whites, resulted in unexpected insights and breakthroughs in his oil painting. Here, as a result, he abandons completely the use of rich colours and detailed depictions in Flowers in a White Vase.

Black, for the Chinese, often connotes religious transcendence and and the ennoblement of life. In ancient times it stood for the profound, and was connected with Xuan Wu, a northern god; white symbolized purity and a transformation of consciousness. In Chinese painting, pure white and inky black are considered vehicles for expressing the pure, primitive source of nature, and the traditional expression, 'the five colours of black,' suggests the unlimited effects and imaginative spaces created by black on a pure white ground. Sanyu eschewed detail as a result of focusing on the outlines that defined his subjects and the varying thicknesses of lines produced. In Flowers in a White Vase, Sanyu's grey-white lines and blocks of white set out the shape of the vase in simple outlines. Glowing areas of white retained between the flowers, which are depicted with both delicate charm and fresh elegance, accentuate their pure beauty as they stand erect in the vase; at the same time, the white touches highlight the bold and avant-garde use of effects similar to lithograph prints. These give the composition its clean, succinct simplicity and set off the subject in a flowing and approachable manner. There is a special charm, rarely seen in Western painters, in the restrained elegance of this sparse background and the large areas of white, and it is the strong appeal of such elements that has brought San Yu's work the acceptance and popularity it enjoys in both East and West.

A single bloom traverses Flowers in a White Vase, reflecting the union of man and nature, and reversing the roles of subject and object.

Among the various floral-themed works Sanyu produced in the '30s, Flowers in a White Vase is one of the largest in scale, and displays all the skill and care Sanyu devoted to composition and color application. The painting's palette of black, white, and pink and its structuring of space reveal a careful, precise, and ingenious approach. In a typical Sanyu work from the '30s the artist would often reduce his palette of colours to a minimum, highlighting the purity of the still life elements to convey an essentially Chinese conception. At the same time, the compositions feature a simplification of objective forms against a pure geometric background in a way that highlights depth of space. By scraping the canvas with the end of his brush handle or by adding no further color, the lines of flower petals and stems show varying depths, and these emptied-out lines, against the black base, become instead areas of solid form. Beyond that, Sanyu presents every open bloom as facing the viewer, except for one flower that remains with its bloom, stem, and receptacle base facing the opposite direction. At this point, subject and object reverse roles and the painting becomes a world unto itself, echoing the Chinese philosophy of correspondence between man and nature. The floral still life is no longer just an object of viewers' appreciation, but in Sanyu's hands becomes at the same time a world unto itself, subject rather than object. Each of these pink blooms bursts with a pure, clean, radiant light, like the bloom of fireworks as they open against a deep night sky.

A 'prismatic lens' effect causes seeming asymmetry in the vase, balanced visually by the use of white at one side.

Worth noting too is Sanyu's unique and exceptional manner of handling line and space during this period, which can be traced back to the Chinese tradition. In Chinese art, line delineates form on the picture surface but also helps develop its unique use of white spaces. In Western art this type of expression usually relates to its representation of space. But for Sanyu, Western ideas of three-dimensional composition and his unique, Eastern sense of the aesthetics of color became fundamentally inseparable as creative elements. Here, he ingeniously adds a white border at the right side of his black background, the asymmetrical border immediately adding clarity to the originally vague and ambiguous space within the painting. The white border beneath the vase links with this border on the right, setting the vase toward the rear of this newly defined space and immediately establishing clearer front to back relationships between the painting's blocks of color. Adopting the unique three-dimensional spaces of western painting, Sanyu informed the simple, flat narrative space of eastern traditional painting with greater depth. Here he further juxtaposes the flat planes resulting from two different viewpoints in the same pictorial space, with an effect like a prismatic lens. The lush growth of climbing leaves forms the center line, with the two separate visual planes divided left and right on either side; the asymmetry of the vase and the overall sense of a visual tilt in the painting grows from this effect. This use of a dual perspective, while downplaying the overall harmony of forms in the composition, was perhaps Sanyu's homage to the 'father of modern art,' Cezanne, and the Cubist master Picasso. The white border on the right at the same time produces the visual balance that corrects the tilting tendency of the composition, as Sanyu's Eastern response to those two master painters.

Sanyu's artistic world sprang from involving his total being in attempting to paint a sensed, boundless ideal. His paintings often evoke the sense of a poetic realm, touching the viewer's heart like an incisive and penetrating line from a poem. Sanyu expressed his comprehension of the essential Chinese spirit in an aesthetic blend of East and West, as revealed in his unique combination of stylistic freedom and formal structure, and emotional ardour mixed with reserve. Sanyu had the outstanding ability to reinterpret and re-express the fundamental elements of art as he transcended the viewpoints of both East and West. He preserved the way that ancient Chinese literati painters made use of white space in their ink-wash paintings, to which he added the spatial structuring of the West, while forging the two in a tight-knit unity. The combination of the two influences would come to be an important force in the development of modern Chinese art and the continuation of its ancient tradition. Sanyu presented his creations with a truthful, unaffected simplicity of feeling; in his work Eastern thought and aesthetics came into rich bloom and established his position as an artist of unique expressive capabilities.

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