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

Potted Chrysanthemums

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)
Potted Chrysanthemums
oil on masonite
91.5 x 48 cm. (36 x 18 7/8 in.)
Painted circa 1950s
Private collection, France (acquired directly from the artist by the previous owner)
Anon. sale, Christie’s Hong Kong, 24 May 2014, lot 23
Acquired from the above by the present owner
This artwork is accompanied by a letter of authenticity, dated 23 January 2014 from Rita Wong.

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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

"The tranquil scenes of nature all bring reward; I enjoy the moods of the seasons with all humankind."
Cheng Hao, Song Dynasty

Potted Chrysanthemums, created in the 1950s, is the largest Sanyu floral work to feature blue-stemmed pink chrysanthemums, a classic that is perhaps the most creative and original of the artist's life. Sanyu was then at the peak of his creativity, continually refining his presentation of form and colour, in works combining the poetry of the East with the meticulous precision of the West. Stylistically, presenting blooming pink chrysanthemums with delicate blue leaves was unusual for Sanyu. The beauty of colour here derives from traditional Chinese aesthetics; the calm stillness of its Eastern conception blends harmoniously with its Western media, producing the elements that make this masterpiece so touching and unforgettable.

Potted Chrysanthemums is one of the few important late still-life works by Sanyu to remain long hidden in a private collection. The story of its provenance transports us back to the days of Sanyu's Parisian life, where Sanyu met a Mr. E. K. at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. They both preferred the unconventional live sketching in its classrooms and saw it as a place to meet like-minded artists. In the first half of the 20th Century, the Académie was an artistic hub for School of Paris artists such as Sanyu, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Zao Wou- Ki, Rhee Seundja, and Sam Szafran, and it is therefore no surprise that the Egyptian-born E.K., who aspired to become an illustrator, would have made his way there. He befriended Sanyu, who caught his attention with his sketches of models and students, and they enjoyed a lasting friendship that transcended the differences in age and cultural background between the two. A

In the 1950s, Sanyu’s circle of friends consisted mainly of a younger crowd. Impressed by Sanyu’s personality, drive, and artistry, they were ready to support him in whatever way they could. Mr E.K. also gravitated toward Sanyu and became a close friend, their lives forever intertwined through their art and their appreciation of women. Like other artists in Paris such as Man Ray and Foujita, who perfected their depiction of female subjects in their own mediums of photography and painting, Sanyu and E.K. had a natural inclination toward artistic depictions of the female body, presenting them in deft sketches with an innate sensuality. Sanyu sketched nudes with dexterous, calligraphic strokes, while E.K. was fascinated by women on the Parisian streets and would sketch such scenes, which gained recognition and were published regularly in local newspapers.

As Sanyu was often in need of financial support, it was with great gratitude that Mr. E.K. provided that support by buying a painting from him. It was a choice purely based on a matter of personal preference between two paintings depicting flowers in a pot, which Sanyu often painted and had in his studio. The subject matter, the colours, and the format of this Potted Chrysanthemums painting was a good fit and the choise was settled. Sanyu said it had been painted at night, with only the moon to shed light on the canvas, and E.K. was thrilled to welcome the painting into his home. Sanyu painted several nighttime scenes, but this one in particular combined the intimacy of moonlight with the artist’s emblematic potted flowers.

When Sanyu delivered the painting, he realised it was not signed. As Mr E.K. was an illustrator and not a painter, there were no oil paints to be found in his home, and so Sanyu promised to come back to sign his work, but unfortunately destiny decided otherwise and Mr E.K. never saw Sanyu in his home again. Mr. E.K. continued to enjoy the work privately for many years, a much-loved memento of his friendship with Sanyu.

The treatment of light and colour is the most extraordinary feature of Potted Chrysanthemums. He created Potted Chrysanthemums late at night, in a studio awash with quiet moonlight, observing in detail the carefully arranged bonsai in front of him. The chrysanthemum blooms shine in the indigo night like twinkling stars, the tips of their petals tinged with red, while the stems and leaves reflect different shades of tranquil blue. Sanyu chooses the traditional Chinese colours of azure, malachite green, peacock blue, and soft white. He retains weight and texture in his brushstrokes, not just to present those colours, but more importantly to suggest front to back positioning and the subtle textures produced by the glowing light. This brings a three-dimensional, living quality to the stems and leaves, which become the most touching and appealing element of the painting. Under a low-level light source such as moonlight, the human eye becomes more sensitive to changes in the blue part of the spectrum. The different shades of indigo blue in Potted Chrysanthemums display an almost perfect understanding of the relationship between light source and colour. His carefully considered treatment enriches the colour spectrum of the canvas and its changing light and shadow, so that the stems, leaves, and flower petals seem to flicker and shift under our passing gaze. We seem to almost return to the moonlit studio where Sanyu painted, gazing at the moonlight quietly gleaming on the chrysanthemums. Such an emphasis on the links between colour and texture arose because, in Sanyu's mind, these Western concepts of light and colour were linked to memories of how a single colour of ink could be used to express all manner of textures. While the Impressionist Claude Monet or the Fauvist Henri Matisse also depicted flowers in night-time scenes, or against dark backgrounds, Sanyu broke away from that type of colour as his own style naturally emerged. His still lifes, too, reached new heights by breaking free of the genre's traditional figurative styles.

Classical Chinese potted flowers were an important representative theme in Sanyu's work in the 1950s and '60s, and six paintings with subjects similar to this Potted Chrysanthemums are held at the National Museum of History. In addition, based on records in Volumes I and II of the Sanyu Catalogue Raisonne: Oil Paintings, there are currently only five known works, including this Potted Chrysanthemums, that depict stems and leaves in peacock blue as a foil for pink chrysanthemums. The only three known to use the rare choice of indigo and golden yellow as a background are also in that group, of which this Potted Chrysanthemums is one. Thus, this Potted Chrysanthemums is rare both for its blue stems and pink chrysanthemums, as well as for its rarely seen combination of indigo and yellow in the background. It is the largest of that group of five, and that, combined with unique commemorative significance and artistic value, makes it undoubtedly one of the most outstanding and important of Sanyu's works in the still life genre.

Floral works, especially those with chrysanthemums, occupy a significant portion of his life's work. He loved to observe nature, and drew creative energy from it that ingeniously shaped his work. He often drew on the life experience of the traditional Chinese literati, with which he was familiar, for material. This Potted Chrysanthemums definitely recalls the tradition of "pure offering paintings," symbolic works that reflected the refinement of the literati life. They embodied the spirit of "a small vessel but with great elegance" and expressed the desire for happiness and peace. Through Sanyu's brush, chrysanthemums are transformed into soft lines and pure, simple colours. The spirit and meaning of the work augments its abstract qualities, opening a window for the imagination and bringing the viewer into his world of the Chinese literati, or scholar painter.

In Potted Chrysanthemums, Sanyu places the potted flowers in the same plane as the background, in contrast to the emphasis on threedimensional perspective in classical Western paintings, and only hints at the relationship between the potted flowers and the tabletop. He cleverly divides the background into two parts, boldly setting it out in highly contrasting indigo and yellow-orange. What would otherwise be a simple flat plane is instantly transformed into a kind of stage, making possible a three-dimensional presentation within an otherwise flat space. While two-coloured backgrounds are not uncommon in Sanyu's work, the complementary colours of indigo and yellow-orange producing a wonderful decorative effect. They form strong contrasts of cold and warm, light and heavy, just as in Rothko’s abstract paintings; Sanyu's peacock blue stems and leaves produce a silhouette effect against the indigo blue background, impacting the viewer both visually and emotionally. Sanyu's Potted Chrysanthemums employs a background of contrasting blue and yellow, with simplified lines and colours that highlight the familiar potted flowers. The result is a beauty that is both reserved and passionate, and freely impressionistic and figurative at the same time.

Sanyu had practiced calligraphy since he was a child, developing his sensitivity to line, and arriving in Paris, his sketching ability paved the way for his artistic career. The linear aspects of his works would become their most fascinating component. Sanyu injects this same spirit of line into his later oil works, through which he developed his unique and highly personal style. Gazing at Potted Chrysanthemums, the viewer will note how the main stem extends upward and branches out within a single plane, with no distinction between its front or its back parts, because here, Sanyu treats those diverging stems as lines in calligraphy. He directs our gaze upward from the bottom, following the stems and leaves as they extend and grow upward into the flowering blooms, breaking through the static aspect of the painting and adding vitality with this movement in time. The compression of the surrounding flat, empty space only highlights the powerful effect of these lines as they weave across the canvas; the stems are thick and strong, while the leaves sway softly, as if to combine into one the rigorous structure of the Northern Calligraphy style and the flowing, expressive feel of the Southern Calligraphy style.

After many years of dedicated work, Sanyu in the 1950s had refined his art into the pure form we see in Potted Chrysanthemums. What the viewer finds is an artist who is a poet, and a work of visual poetry that encompasses his great understanding, derived from both East and West, of colour, light and shadow, line, and space. Chu Teh- Chun said of him that "Sanyu has taken the three great arts of poetry, calligraphy, and painting, practiced since ancient times in my country, and fused them together, expressing the spirit of our literati." Sanyu's lifelong favorite poem was by Cheng Hao, a poet of the Neo- Confucian Rationalist School, who once wrote, "(t)he tranquil scenes of nature all bring reward; I enjoy the fine moods of the seasons with all humankind." Sanyu often painted these lines on his still-life bonsai, as they so aptly illuminated his art and philosophy of life. The purity and innocence exuded by his artistic creations reflect his exploration of all things in nature and his dialogue with his inner self. Potted Chrysanthemums constitutes a kind of ode to nature, embodying Sanyu's memories of his homeland, his aspirations in life, and the realization of his great artistic ideals.

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