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

Untitled (Pink Hydrangeas)

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)
Untitled (Pink Hydrangeas)
signed in Chinese and signed ‘SANYU’ (lower right); signed ‘Sanyu 1.1934 Paris’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
73.5 x 50.5 cm. (28 7⁄8 x 19 7⁄8 in.)
Painted in 1934
Kunstzaal Van Lier, Amsterdam
Private Collection, Amsterdam (acquired prior to 1974)
Thence by descent to the present owner

This work will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné under preparation by Rita Wong and The Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation, with registration number CR315.
Amsterdam, Kunstzaal Van Lier, Sanyu, 14 April – 3 May 1934.

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Lot Essay

A magnificent rediscovery, Untitled (Pink Hydrangeas) is a powerful yet intimate work that has been cherished by its present owners in a Dutch family collection since at least the 1970s. The owners of this work simply adored the painting, having fallen in love with the beautiful image, unaware of how market for the artist has reached new heights in recent years. Unbeknownst to them, the painting is of course from one of the most iconic artists of Modern Chinese art. Featuring the soft, abundant petals of the blooming hydrangeas, contrasted with thick, black, leaves, this exceptional composition with its mastery of painterly clarity and stunning elegance provides a distinctive attribution to many who recognise the distinctive traits of Sanyu’s best work.

Untitled (Pink Hydrangeas) is a wonderful example of Sanyu’s highly sought-after flower series. It is a rare depiction of hydrangeas, one of only three known to exist today. Further to this, it is only one of five floral paintings depicting a vase with the artist’s delicately inscribed calligraphy, paying tribute in this case to Southern Song Dynasty poet Weng Sen’s “Four Seasons Reading Music.” This particular stanza, referring to friendship and the emulation that comes from it, is further reflected by the floral composition.

The reverse of the painting bears a label from the Kunstzaal Van Lier exhibition in Amsterdam, organised by Sanyu’s dear friend and patron, Johan Franco. Franco was a Dutch composer, well-connected through his family and friends, and as such he played a key role in supporting, financing, and promoting Sanyu’s work. In particular, he helped organise three important exhibitions in the Netherlands in the early 1930s: one at the J. H. de Bois Gallery in Haarlem in 1932, and two at the Kunstzaal Van Lier in 1933 and 1934. Untitled (Pink Hydrangeas) was exhibited in Sanyu’s last show at the Kunstzaal Van Lier.

Kunstzaal Van Lier, a large gallery space in the city centre of Amsterdam, was an international hub for modern figurative Oriental and African art during the 1930s. It was the place where international collectors such as the German banker Baron Eduard von der Heydt came to do their shopping, where the renowned Parisian ethnographic dealer Charles Ratton once exhibited his collection and where Homer Saint-Gaudens, director of the American Carnegie Institute, came every year to be informed about the developments in Dutch modern art. Its director, Carel van Lier ( 1897-1945) was one of the most important art dealers in the Netherlands between the two World Wars. A passionate art connoisseur with wide-ranging interests, he travelled often to Paris, Brussels and London. As a result, not only did he exhibit Dutch contemporary artists, such as Jan Slujijters, Wim Schuhmacher, Carel Willink and Dick Ket, but also many international avant-garde artists, particularly the Europeans Hannah Höch, Georg Kolbe, Auguste Herbin, Jules Pascin, Marie Laurencin, and Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita.

Van Lier was acquainted with Johan Franco through their mutual friend and artist Dick Ket, and as such, it remains no surprise that two of Sanyu’s shows took place at the Kunstzaal Van Lier. Franco dedicated great energy to promoting and encouraging the sale of Sanyu’s work in the Netherlands and Belgium whilst Van Lier was successful in selling several works by Sanyu throughout the course of his exhibitions. As a result of their dedication and active engagement with Sanyu’s work, paintings have been known to come to light from private Dutch collections, such as this.

Untitled (Pink Hydrangeas) is a beautiful demonstration of the magnificent skill and care Sanyu devoted to composition and the application of colour. The painting's palette of white, pink and black, along with its structuring of space reveal a careful, precise, ingenious approach. In a style so characteristic of Sanyu’s 1930s oeuvre, the present work displays how the artist would often reduce his palette of colours to its bare minimum, highlighting the purity of the still life elements to convey an essentially Chinese ideology. At the same time, these compositions feature a distinctive simplification of figurative elements against a pure geometric background in a way that highlights the depth of space.

In Chinese art, line delineates form on the picture plane but also serves to develop a unique purpose for white space. In Western art, this type of expression usually relates to a representation of space. Here, Sanyu ingenuously combines both traditions. At first, he defines physical space by adding a simple pink border at the bottom of the composition which could be interpreted as a table-top. Yet instead of resting on this solid foundation, the vase appears to be floating, thus creating a sense of depth. This furthermore provides the perception of an alternative dimension: one that adopts different viewpoints in the same pictorial space to create a prismatic effect, from the shape of the vase, its position in space, to the asymmetrical composition of the bouquet. 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. Finally, the bouquet is arranged in a way that two blooms are directed toward the viewer, whereas the third bloom, separated from the main composition is directed away from the viewer, thus reinforcing a sense of three-dimensionality.

Sanyu's artistic world sprang from the complete immersion of his being, in reaching for a sensory, boundless ideal. His paintings in oil frequently evoke a poetic realm, penetrating the heart of his viewers like the incisive, pertinent lines of verse from a favourite poem. The artist expressed his interpretation of the essential Chinese spirit in an aesthetic mélange of East and West, as revealed in his unique combination of stylistic freedom and formal structure, an emotional ardour combined with stoic reserve. Sanyu possessed the outstanding ability to reinterpret and re-express the fundamental elements of art by transcending one view or the other, sophisticatedly reconciling the perspectives of both East and West. Presenting his creations with a truthful and unaffected simplicity of feeling, Eastern thought and aesthetics come into rich bloom throughout Sanyu’s work, establishing his position as an artist of unique and unrivalled expressive capabilities.

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