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

Vase de lys sur fond marron (Vase of Lilies with Red Ground)

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)
Vase de lys sur fond marron (Vase of Lilies with Red Ground)
signed in Chinese and signed ‘SANYU’ (lower right)
oil on masonite
91 x 50 cm. (35 7⁄8. x 19 5⁄8. in.)
Painted in the 1940s
Collection of Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris
Dimensions Art Center, Taipei
Private Collection, Asia
Christie’s Hong Kong, 29 May 2010, Lot 01016
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Dimensions Art Center, Important Works by Sanyu - Paris Period, Taipei, 1992 (illustrated, pp. 40-41).
National Museum of History, The Art of Sanyu, Taipei, 1995 (illustrated, plate 44, p. 57).
National Museum of History, In Search of a Homeland - The Art of San Yu, Taipei, 2001 (illustrated, plate 75, p. 122).
Rita Wong (ed.), Sanyu Catalogue Raisonne Oil Paintings, YAGEO Foundation, Lin & Keng Art Publications, Taipei, 2001(illustrated, plate 117, p. 227).
Rita Wong (ed.), Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonne: Oil Paintings (Volume II), The Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation, Taipei, 2011 (illustrated, plate 117, p. 129).
Lin & Lin Gallery, Sanyu – The Art of Black, White and Pink, 2018 (illustrated, p. 142-143).
Taipei, Dimensions Art Center, Sanyu, 18-30 April 1992.
Taipei, National Museum of History, The Exhibition of Sanyu, 14 October-26 November 1995.
Taipei, National Museum of History, In Search of a Homeland – The Art of San Yu, 13 October - 2 December 2001.

Brought to you by

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

Lot Essay

"In my life I have always had nothing; I'm just a painter. As for my paintings, I don't think they need any added explanations. People who view my works should clearly understand that what I am communicating is just a very simple concept." Sanyu


As Sanyu arrived in Paris in 1921, shortly after the end of the First World War, the center of its artistic activity had shifted from the Montmartre hills in the north to Montparnasse, on the south bank of the Seine. That was where the artists and literary lights of the time gathered to discuss new concepts and ideas. Sanyu chose for his studies the free and open environment of the Academy de la Grande Chaumière, and he made the acquaintance of many foreign artists working in Paris, including Giacometti and Kisling. Together, in the free and open environment of the time, those artists jointly formed the broadly influential "School of Paris."

Even in this environment, Sanyu remained strongly rooted in his own ancestral culture. At the same time, however, he boldly absorbed the essence of modern aesthetics such as expressive, avant-garde colour and flat, simplified compositions. The result was a unique and unprecedented blending of Chinese and Western influences. Sanyu, with his Eastern aesthetic, established a wholly original approach within the School of Paris, a new style that would have an impact on the Parisian art world of the time.


Records of Sanyu's entire oeuvre indicate that only three paintings produced in his lifetime featured lilies as their subject. One of them is known only through a black-and-white photo taken by his good friend, photographer Robert Frank; no other information, including its name, the medium in which it was painted, or its size, is known. Because the photo dates from 1949, we can assume the painting was produced in the 1940s. Another painting of lilies, against a green background, is an oil work known to also date from the 1940s, and is now in a private collection. Sanyu's favorite floral subject was the chrysanthemum, a flower that in Eastern cultures is thought to represent the highest ideals of character, integrity, honesty, and grace. Sanyu thought so highly of it that he produced 55 chrysanthemum paintings. But if the chrysanthemum is a symbol of nobility and grace in the East, then the lily is a symbol of sacredness in the West. It enjoys an honored status in the Catholic Church, symbolizing the incarnation of the Virgin Mary, and as the national flower of the Vatican it stands for sacred purity. Works dating from the Renaissance often feature images of the archangel Gabriel holding a lily, and in the New Testament, Jesus said that the beauty of lilies surpassed even Solomon in his greatest glory.

Paris itself was in full bloom in Sanyu's time as artists from around the world gathered there, attempting to find new elements of modernity amid the art of previous eras. Sanyu combined these elements with the historical richness of his own native culture. His works, celebrating both his own individuality and his ancestral culture, distinguished him as an artist in those tumultuous times. What mood was it that drove Sanyu, studying painting in a foreign country, to boldly adopt the lily, this Western symbol, as a subject? And to use the brilliant red so closely tied to the Chinese tradition, and the bright yellow of its temples and imperial dwellings? These sacred flowers now immersed in Sanyu's Eastern colours, open their buds and bloom amid a profusion of stems and leaves, stretching upward with relaxed grace. Sanyu imbues his creative new take on this floral theme with great significance and brings new, Eastern implications to the modern innovations of the School of Paris.


The 1940s was one of the most turbulent periods of the past century. World War II inflicted serious harm and caused a major reshuffling of the world order as nations tried to rebuild. Sanyu was then nearing 50, his large inheritance from China almost gone, and so poor during the war that he had to make a living making plaster sculptures. The war's effect on the soul of mankind can hardly be overstated, and its impact on artists, as an especially sensitive subgroup, profoundly changed their thinking.

Yet Sanyu's painting is not one that reflects the hardships of his life or the shadow of war. On the contrary, in the fresh, vital auburn red of the background and the buds and blooms that reach upward, their yellow stamens waving, we find vividness, charm, and vigor. Sanyu's pursuit of aesthetics here transcends the hardships of his era and his own environment, producing an enduring artistic achievement. After the war, a second breakthrough in modernism occurred as the Abstract Expressionist style continued to develop and thrive; it seemed that only wilder and more extreme forms of avant-garde expression could embody humanity's denunciations of war and the myths of modern society. But in Sanyu's serene and elegant vase of flowers, history seems for a moment to stand still, all of the world's noise and clamor absorbed by the petals of these holy flowers, and all of its chaos disappearing in their interweaving stems and leaves. The passing years become quiet, and time and space move at leisure. The enduring nature of aesthetic beauty finds one of its finest embodiments here.


Sanyu's works from the 1930s onward reflect a deeper exploration of colour. Each oil painting, full of expressive tension, exhibits a strong personality through its colour. Sanyu had a deep understanding of the concept, in Chinese literati painting, of "the many colours within black ink," and his use of the oil medium both presents and transforms his subjects. Subtle layers and gradations appear even in areas of a single, unitary colour, and like washes of ink seeping into paper, variations appear in density and wetness or dryness. The result is colorist art with the charm of Eastern ink paintings, its aesthetic meanings and dimensions deepened by this more rounded, flowing character. The background of Vase of Lilies on a Red Ground is a brilliant red, sumptuous and elegant, its effect softened and neutralized somewhat by the refined, elegant white of the lilies and vase.

At home one day, Wang Yangming, a Ming Dynasty philosopher, saw a line from Zhu Xi's commentary on Cheng Yichuan: "Each and every thing has its own exterior, its own interior, its fineness and its and roughness, and the grasses and the trees each have their ultimate principles." He then resolved to take bamboo as the object through which he could "study each thing and achieve knowledge." The practice of "achieving knowledge through knowing the object" meant deep observation of natural things to understand their principles, and then extending the meaning of those principles to a philosophy of human life through writing. In terms of artistic expression, Chinese painting and calligraphy have long attempted to capture a subject's vividness and character, rather than depicting the space around it. Vase of Lilies on a Red Ground exudes a strong Eastern appeal, grounded in Sanyu's expression of lyrical, poetic feeling through an economical use of soft, rounded lines. Dark and light lines in forest green weave together and create space as they intertwine. This approach finds a distant echo in the lyrical style of traditional Chinese ink paintings, which used such lines to build their landscapes of sky and earth. Wu Guanzhong once saw a link between Sanyu and Bada Shanren, saying, "Looking at Sanyu's works, one immediately thinks of Bada Shanren. The lonely birds and beasts, the unexpected way his lines extend and return, and the disparity of their proportions. They reveal his aloofness, his eccentricity and loneliness, his laughing and his crying." Comparing the two artists, we find that both great masters went beyond merely portraying real spaces and figurative objects. The freedom of their lines gave liveliness and emotion to their depictions of birds, animals, plants and flowers. Where Sanyu excelled, however, was in assimilating the avant-garde style of the 20th century School of Paris. This style, while clearly retaining the shape of its subjects, eliminates their complexities and aims at a planar flatness that imbues them with the beauty of modern sculpture.

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