Sanyu with the American photographer Robert Frank in Paris in the 1960s. © Robert Frank

Sanyu in Paris

Hailed as the ‘Chinese Matisse’, Sanyu moved to Paris at the height of the city’s artistically precocious 1920s. After rediscovery by Taiwanese art dealers, his art has become highly sought after at auction. Lavender Au discovers why

For the young artist, 1920s Paris was a promised land; a compelling, almost paradoxical combination of old and new. Not only was the city home to museums filled with masterpieces from the past, but it was also the capital of modernism: a place where creative epiphanies were as likely to happen in a baroque cafe as a youthful smoky bar.

While the majority of European artists revelled in la vie Parisienne, they had come to believe that encounters with alien artistic traditions were key to artistic innovation. China, synonymous with ‘exotic’ decadence, was one of their sources, and they fantasised about its ‘otherness’. Lacquer cabinets, fine porcelain and embroidered silks became staples in any chic Parisian living room.

Art Nouveau curlicue might not have been similarly ubiquitous in the Chinese living room, but many Chinese artists were transfixed by Western painting, and hundreds arrived to study in the academies. While some would return to found schools of European painting in their native country, others, captivated by Paris, stayed and became part of the scene in their adopted city.

Sanyu, Nude, executed in the 1950s. Photo © The Li Ching Foundation, Taipei.
Sanyu, Nude, executed in the 1950s. Photo: © The Li Ching Foundation, Taipei.

Sanyu was one of the latter. Born in Sichuan in 1901, he was the doted-on youngest child in a wealthy family which owned a silk factory. As a young boy, he took lessons from a skilled calligraphy tutor and was encouraged to indulge his love for art. By the time he was 10, the world had changed: the Last Emperor had abdicated and the Republic had been established. In the new China, intellectuals read Ibsen and argued about western art. The word on the tip of many tongues was revolution.

For many, ‘westward’ meant ‘forward’ and any chance to go abroad was seized. Japan had become an attractive destination since its modernisation during the Meiji Restoration and, like many others, Sanyu travelled there in 1918. It was in Japan that he came into contact with modern art. After a year, he resolved to see modernism in its native habitat and by 1921 he had moved to Paris.

Sanyu didn’t take long to assimilate into artistic communities. Having rented a small flat in Montparnasse, he soon married a minor Parisienne aristocrat, and became a familiar figure on the social circuit. He whiled away his afternoons in local cafes, people-watching and sketching on placemats. Although he remained connected to the Chinese artistic community, he also brushed shoulders with European composers, photographers and other creative luminaries. He befriended Alberto Giacometti at the Grande Chaumière, and fellow Parisian-Chinese artist Pang Xunqin recalls Picasso painting Sanyu’s portrait. In 1929, Henri-Pierre Roché, who had already supported the careers of Duchamp, Braque and Brancusi, agreed to be his dealer.

Sanyu, Chrysanthemums in a Vase on a Red Table, executed in the 1950s. Photo © The Li Ching Foundation, Taipei.
Sanyu, Chrysanthemums in a Vase on a Red Table, executed in the 1950s. Photo: © The Li Ching Foundation, Taipei.

Despite such princely contacts, Sanyu remained a pauper. He was partly to blame, though. He frequently turned down requests to buy his paintings and regularly ignored the overtures of other dealers. The only invitations he accepted without fail were those to dinner. When his brother, the ‘millionaire of Nanchong’, died, Sanyu lost his only reliable source of income. His wife Marcelle eventually divorced him, amid accusations of infidelity. 

Although Sanyu would often groan about ‘the misery of the lives of artists’, he ultimately concluded, ‘I am obliged to stay on in Paris to live the life of a bohemian’. At his lowest points, he could not even afford to buy the basic materials his art required. In 1966, aged 64, he accidentally left the gas on his stove turned on and died in his sleep. He was found with a book lying on his chest.

Sanyu might have remained a footnote in art history had he not been rediscovered by Taiwanese art dealers following the 1988 China-Paris exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. A solo exhibition at the Musée Guimet, Sanyu, Language of the Body, and the Musée Cernuschi’s exhibition, Legacy of 20th-Century Chinese Masters, followed.

Sanyu, Goldfish, executed in the 1930s or 1940s. Photo © The Li Ching Foundation, Taipei.
Sanyu, Goldfish, executed in the 1930s or 1940s. Photo: © The Li Ching Foundation, Taipei.

Today, Sanyu is hailed as the ‘Chinese Matisse’ and his work is hotly pursued at auction, particularly by Chinese collectors. Like Matisse, his paintings reveal a love for saturated colour and a continuously energetic line recognisable from his early training in Chinese calligraphy.

In Chinese culture there is little aesthetic distinction between painting and calligraphy. Painter and calligrapher essentially use the same materials — ink and brush — to create expressive line. Sanyu’s brush strokes are a leisurely caress, particularly in his paintings of the monumental nudes that fill many of his canvases. The poet Xu Zhimo commented on Sanyu’s distortions of the female form, on his powerful and sensual nudes with their ‘thighs of the universe’.

Sanyu also drew inspiration from the patterns of Chinese porcelain, liberally spotting tablecloths and rugs with ideograms. His still life works feature flowers and stems fanning out gracefully against dense slabs of rich colour; like Matisse, there is a real quality of line and a sense of flatness that defies perspective, where every object, pattern, detail and swirl is equal in intensity.

Matisses interest in Chinese art was evident in his art and costume designs. Henri Matisse with the Ballets Russes’ choreographer Léonide Massine and the Nightingale from Le Chant du Rossignol, 1920. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Archives H. Matisse © 2014 Succession H. Matisse  DACS, London 2014.
Matisse's interest in Chinese art was evident in his art and costume designs. Henri Matisse with the Ballets Russes’ choreographer Léonide Massine and the Nightingale from Le Chant du Rossignol, 1920. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Archives H. Matisse © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / DACS, London 2014.

But what of Matisse himself? As early as 1919, his interest in Chinese art was evident in his costume designs for the Ballets Russes production of Le Chant du Rossignol, set in an ancient Chinese court. He included motifs painted directly on to fabric and weighty carved wooden jewellery, and instructed the make-up artists to work from Chinese masks. The stage curtain was decorated with paintings of Chinese griffins in striking colours and masks delineated in black, while the actors flitted around the stage in gowns of swirling patterns and brilliant colours. Writing to his wife, Matisse said he wanted the décor to be executed ‘like one of his paintings’.

Matisse’s passion for the Orient extended far beyond the theatre, though. The artist sketched Chinese sculptures at the Musée Guimet and regularly frequented the Victoria and Albert Museum for its Chinese, Persian and Indian art. Although he must have seen the work of Chinese artists in his milieu, it is unknown whether Matisse ever met Sanyu. Antoine Chen, a Sanyu scholar, suggested the French artist may have seen Sanyu’s work, and cites the appearance of delicate, comb-like hands and feet, a motif prevalent in Sanyu’s portraits dating from 1925, in a Matisse portrait dated 1946.

Matisse’s curiosity about Chinese culture was not limited to the decorative. Like calligraphers, he had always valued animated line, and was quoted in 1908 as saying, ‘Suppose I want to paint a woman’s body. First of all, I imbue it with grace and charm, but I know that I must give something more. I will condense the meaning of this body by seeking its essential lines. The charm will be less apparent at first glance, but it must eventually emerge from the new image, which will have a broader meaning.’

Henri Matisse, Chinese Fish, executed in 1951. Gouache on paper cut and pasted and charcoal on paper. 192.2 x 91cm. Private Collection. Archives H. Matisse © 2014 Succession H. Matisse  DACS, London 2014.
Henri Matisse, Chinese Fish, executed in 1951. Gouache on paper cut and pasted and charcoal on paper. 192.2 x 91cm. Private Collection. Archives H. Matisse © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / DACS, London 2014.

In this sense, his philosophy intersected with Chinese concepts of reducing life to its simplest visual form. His paper cut-outs, he explained to the French poet and artist André Verdet in 1952, epitomised this: ‘That paper cut-out, the kind of volute acanthus that you see on the wall up there, [is] a stylised snail. First of all I drew the snail from nature, holding it between two fingers. As I drew and drew, I became aware of an unfolding. I formed in my mind a purified sign for a shell. Then I took the scissors.’

This artistic process directly mirrors the development of Chinese script, from pictograms to the characters used today, where their execution signifies their meaning. Matisse believed deeply in the Chinese saying, ‘When we paint a tree, we should feel like we’re growing with the tree’.

Sanyu’s best work has the same quality, and he expresses his pictorial ideal in a similar fashion: ‘As for my work, when one looks at it, one knows well enough what it is all about. All that my works declare is simplicity.’ Zao Wouki, another Chinese artist living in Paris at the same time, drew particular attention to Sanyu’s ‘large brush strokes. These broad black contours enhance his desire for voluptuous forms. He shows everything with the brushstrokes and the contrast of colours; his most beautiful works are the barest ones.’

The conviction that line itself can be instilled with the highest degree of meaning, the fusion of sign and idea into one, follows in the line of Chinese brush painting and resonates through the work of both Matisse and Sanyu. Paris, it seems, was both teacher and student.