SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)
SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)

Rooster and Serpent

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)
Rooster and Serpent
signed in Chinese and signed ‘SANYU’ (lower right)
oil on masonite
49 x 63.5 cm. (19 1/4 x 25 in.)
Gifted to Mr Elliott Erwitt by the artist in the 1950s
Thence by descent to the present owner

Elliott Erwitt (B. 1928), the father of the work’s present owner, is an important 20th century photographer. Erwitt’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institutein Washington DC, the Museum of Modern Art in New York,and the Art Institute of Chicago, and he was awarded the Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award by the World Photography Organisation in 2015, as a recognition of the most globally influential photographer in the media. In addition to his achievements in art, he is a well-known commercial and documentary photographer who took on some of the most significant photography assignments in history, including the Kitchen Debate between US Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, and the funeral of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Elliott Erwitt lives and works in New York.

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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

According to Volume 1 and 2 of Sanyu’s catalogue raisonne of oilpaintings, Sanyu only created a handful of oil paintings that feature animals in landscapes. A significant number of them are in the permanent collection of the National Museum of History, Taipei. Sanyu’s portraits of animals are rarely available in the art market and are thus extremely difficult to acquire.

Christie’s Hong Kong is honored to present this Rooster and Serpent painting in our July evening sale, which marks the work’s debutat auction. This is the only known oil painting that features these particular animal subjects. A comparable painting featuring battling animals is An Eagle and a Snake, which is in the collection of the National Museum of History, Taipei and is widely recognized as a masterpiece from the artist’s late period. The rarity of the motif and the breathtaking tension between the animal protagonists create a direct parallel between these two paintings. It is likely that Sanyu finished these two paintings one after another, and Rooster and Serpent can be considered a jewel in Sanyu’s oeuvre.

Rooster and Serpent is currently owned by the son of the world renowned photographer Elliott Erwitt. Erwitt’s whimsical and idiosyncratic visual language is complemented by a triumphant career in commercial photography. Early on in his career, Erwitt became close to Robert Frank, another seminal figure in the world of photography. Frank introduced his old acquaintance Sanyu to Erwitt,and thus began their long-lasting friendship. Not only did the trio share a studio in Paris where they each produced their own work,but their close relationship and mutual enthusiasm for art continued upon Sanyu’s travels to New York. Spending lots of time together, they cherished each other not only for the mutual inspirations they brought to each other’s art, but as close friends and companions. One of Erwitt’s fondest memories of Sanyu is that he was an extraordinary cook and could take any simple ingredient and transform it into aculinary feast.

Erwitt and Sanyu have always supported and admired each other’s creative work. Just as Erwitt gifted his photographs to Sanyu, Sanyu gifted Rooster and Serpent to Erwitt as a present, another vivid example of their friendship. The present owner, Erwitt’s son, was born in the Year of the Rooster and received this painting from his father on his eighth birthday. This intimate and meaningful piece has been at reasured part of his collection ever since.

Competition - the Chinese title of An Eagle and a Snake - is an instinct shared by both animals and human beings, just as racing between children is one of the simplest, most intuitive games. Physical competitions between animals such as cricket fighting, bullfighting, and horse racing have been regarded as entertainment across numerous cultures, as spectatorship can be just as thrilling as actualparticipation. Cockfighting is an ancient folk entertainment in Chinese culture. Legend has it that the young emperor Gao Heng of Northern Qi was so obsessed with cockfighting that he bestowed lordships and dukedoms to roosters. Its conduciveness to gambling made it anextremely popular pastime for people from all walks of life. Born to an affluent family, Sanyu was by nature eccentric and romantic, and was drawn to games and sports when he was young. The sense of beguilement from competition fills Rooster and Serpent, providing a new perspective for the audience to view Sanyu’s depiction of animals, through which one can sense the genuine and inhibited nature of Sanyu.

The rendering of animals in Rooster and Serpent does not resemblethe naturalistic en plein air depiction in Western painting, nor does it follow the perspective that is traditionally employed in Chinese painting. Sanyu departed from mirroring the animals’ presence to a form through his own lens. The serpent does not show any of its usual fierceness. On the contrary, the gentle delineation in pink brings out the tenderness from the animal. The head of the serpent is raised with its mouth slightly opened. Although it is positioned to strike, the gesture of the serpent is more playful than threatening. The body of the rooster is also not chubby nor clumsy like it is typically depicted. Even though the rooster seems to be in a physical competition with the serpent, its expression is not menacing either. Sanyu gently painted feathers using translucent lines. The flowing brushstrokes travel along the motion of the rooster’s body as it lunges forward to attack. Yet, the rooster’s composed expression and relaxed tail counter balance its predatory posture. One cannot help but follow Sanyu’s gaze feeling the playful tension between two animals.

As the Qing dynasty calligrapher and painter Cheng Zhengkui expounded in his book Clear Brook Manuscripts, “Complex compositions are not difficult. Being concise is much more challenging. It is not about the simplicity of visual elements but the simplicity of brushwork”. Sanyu’s artistic philosophy in his late period coincides with this approach — it is the further reduction of the concise. Rooster and Serpent is an animal and landscape work from Sanyu’s mid-career. It had departed from his early works in which he featured monotones and domestic spaces. Yet, it has yet to resemble the fauvist pattern where spatial elements are divided by colour planes seen in Sanyu’s later works. In this period, Sanyu applied minimal brushworks to strike a balance between the abstract and the natural, and from which he later on established his signature style in oil painting.

Mastering the use of contrasting lines, Sanyu manifested a unique sense of space which combines quiet stillness and dynamic tension. Rooster and Serpent showcases Sanyu’s prolific visual vocabulary—nuanced, poetic, and abstract, these combine to create Sanyu’s idiosyncratic sense of spatial expression. The artist employed three colours to delineate the forms of the rooster and the serpent. The meticulous brushstrokes on the animals sharply contrast with the vast emptiness in the background. The flat background allows the audience to appreciate the entire painting in a depth between two dimensional and three-dimensional. In the foreground, expressive applications in blue and black sweep across the canvas. The dense swath suggests either a small mound, a lake, or a boulder, inviting the viewer to further enter the picture plane. The swift dry-brushes in the background on the other hand resemble mountains afar, the horizon,or prairies. Abstract and concise, these brushworks encourage deeper meditation and imagination.

Besides his linear treatment with brushwork, Sanyu constructs the sense of space with a minimalistic use of colours and geometric elements. Tradition Chinese painters spend hours visualizing the background of their paintings: leaving it too empty, the picture wouldlack depth; filling it up too much with landscape or inscription, the composition would be off-balance. Chinese ink wash painting is known for utilizing only two colours of black and white. The artists thus need to pay extra attention not to let the protagonist of the painting overshadowed by the background. Animal paintings in the Western tradition, on the other hand, often use layered scenes and landscapes as background. In this painting, Sanyu consciously eliminated all the representational characteristics in his landscapes, using only light blue and grey lines on top and a dark triangle in blueand black on the bottom. He masterfully manipulated the abstract elements such as colours and geometric forms. Western masters in art history have also explored the aesthetics of concise background: Miró used lines to relate objects to one another; Picasso constructeddepth with geometric shapes; and Braque distorted reality in orderto deconstruct space. Sanyu’s experiment as seen in Rooster and Serpent serves the same goal. Combining the western endeavor with liu bai (leaving blank) skill from traditional Chinese art, Sanyu brought forth a spatial aesthetic that emanates a zen-like quietude.

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