In the years that followed the Second World War, Paris was a place fraught with political struggle and possibility. The city was rebuilding itself, and those on the left and the right were arguing passionately about its future identity. Between the riots and the curfews, artists, philosophers and writers met in cafés to discuss new forms of art.
In the midst of this volatility was the Chinese painter Sanyu (1895-1966), who had arrived in Paris in 1920, high on the excitement of avant-garde innovation. Born in Sichuan province in 1895, the youngest in a family of wealthy manufacturers, Sanyu had travelled to France to study art, enrolling in life-drawing classes at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse.
Through the dynamic agent, Henri-Pierre Roché (1879-1959), Sanyu was introduced to the influential expats of the Parisian art scene — Gertrude Stein, Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso — and was soon exhibiting at the Salon des Tuileries. In the 1930s, however, the artist fell into dire financial straits. The family allowance he depended on ended abruptly with the death of his brother.
‘He lacked the personality for schmoozing with gallerists and dealers who could have helped sell his art,’ says Christie’s specialist in Modern & Contemporary Art, Evelyn Lin. ‘By the outbreak of the war, things had got desperate.’
To earn a living, Sanyu began making ceramics and lacquering Chinese furniture. Lin believes the experience brought about a profound change in the artist’s technique. ‘The traditional colours and simple lines found in ceramics and Chinese folk art inspired him to start experimenting with these styles in his paintings.’
White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardinière, which is offered in the Modern and Contemporary Art Evening sale at Christie’s in Hong Kong on 10 July, reflects this new period of innovation. Executed on panel rather than canvas due to the scarcity of materials during the war, it is one of a small number of important floral-themed works with red backgrounds painted by Sanyu in the 1940s and 1950s. A similar painting is held in the collection of Taiwan’s National Museum of History.
The choice of flower is significant, says Lin. The artist wrote an ode to the chrysanthemum in An Autumn Poem.
Poets enjoy the autumn chrysanthemum; the learned tip their wine glasses to it. But pity the chrysanthemums here, only fit for laying on graves.
‘In this poem, Sanyu is alluding to the clash of cultures he is experiencing,’ explains Lin. ‘The chrysanthemum is the embodiment of beauty in China. It is pure and strong and stands haughty against the cold; but in France the flower is traditionally laid on gravestones.’
‘We can imagine the lonely artist in a foreign land, lamenting the cultural differences he encounters, persisting with his forward-looking aesthetic in the face of opposition’
Lin also suspects that Sanyu used the chrysanthemum as a symbol of his refusal to bend to the artistic trends of the day, most notably abstraction, and remain a figurative painter.
‘We can imagine the lonely artist in a foreign land, lamenting the cultural differences he encounters, and persisting with his forward-looking aesthetic in the face of opposition.’
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Much of Sanyu’s later work reflected the solitude he experienced as an impoverished artist in Paris. After he died in 1964, his friend, the photographer Robert Frank (1924-2019), made an elegiac film portrait considering Sanyu’s outsider status.
White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardinière was owned by the important French collector Eric Edwards, who had been friendly with Sanyu’s agent Roché. Lin believes the painting to be one of the artist’s finest. ‘It was made during a golden period of creative originality,’ she says. It is likely to garner great attention when it comes to auction.