Audio (English): Sanyu’s Pink Plum Blossoms & Green Branches
Audio (Chinese): Sanyu’s Pink Plum Blossoms & Green Branches
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European Private Collection

(CHANG YU, 1901-1966)
Pink Plum Blossoms & Green Branches
signed in Chinese; signed 'SANYU' in French (lower left of the left panel)
a three-folded screen of oil and mixed media on panel
each: 119.6 x 59.8 cm. (47 x 23 ? in.)
overall: 119.6 x 180 cm. (47 x 70 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1963
Property from the Collection of Mr Michel Hubert, acquired directly from the artist in 1963

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Lot Essay

Glimpses of Sanyu's Late Creative Period From a Rare Private Collection
Sanyu's late-period Pink Plum Blossoms and Green Branches (Lot 1004) derives from the private collection of Mr. Michel Hubert (Fig. 1), who was introduced to Sanyu by his brother-in-law, Mr. Francois de Constantin, in 1963. Mr. Constantin was himself an artist, producing works in an abstract style in Indian ink on paper; his acquaintance with Sanyu left him convinced of Sanyu's exceptional talent, which prompted him in 1963 to invite Mr. Hubert to visit Sanyu at his studio/residence in Montparnasse. Mr. Hubert recalls feeling sympathy for Sanyu's living conditions and wanting to support him in his career, which spurred him to commission the artist to produce a painted screen for his Paris home. He placed no restrictions on the subjects Sanyu could paint, instead letting himn exercise his own aesthetic judgment but hoping Sanyu would produce something in the manner of his floral works of the 1950s-60s. Thus, while there was a specific commission for the Pink Plum Blossoms and Green Branches screen, it nevertheless represents a definitive statement in the late years of Sanyu's artistic career and stylistic development. Hubert and Constantin paid three visits to Sanyu to see how work was progressing. The screen was completed in the year of its commission, 1963, and has remained in the Hubert collection ever since. Christie's is honored to now present Plum Blossoms and Green Branches in its first appearance in the auction market. The work is revealing of several episodes that occurred during Sanyu's later years, and numerous anecdotes surround its production, it was a mark of the fine friendship between Constantin, Hubert, and Sanyu. Constantin stayed in touch with Sanyu after the screen was completed, and was presented by Sanyu with the gift of a Chinese-style teapot, adorned with a painting of Japanese cranes (Fig. 2), which today remains in Constantin's wife's collection. Earlier in his life, in the 1930s, Sanyu had painted the same teapot as the subject of an oil work (Fig. 3). His gift to Constantin of this special teapot he had kept for 30 years provides further evidence of the friendship between the two men during this period.

Creative Ambition and Achievement in Plum Blossoms and Green Branches

Sanyu's painting of this screen was a rare and valuable occurrence, indicative of his creative ambition to achieve new breakthroughs. Fellow artist Xi Dejin recorded an event in Sanyu's life from 1965 that adds light to this notion. On December 17, 1965, Sanyu held a showing of works at his home, and on that evening his home was filled with an international group of guests, including other famous Chinese artists sojourning in France such as Pan Yuliang, Zao Wou-ki, Zhu Dequn, and Xi Dejin. As Xi Dejin recalls, Pan Yuliang praised Sanyu's continuing creative development, to the great delight of the artist. At age 65, Sanyu remained full of creative energy. Holding this exhibition in his home and taking the initiative to show his work to others of his own profession indicated the confidence he felt toward his works

and the extent of the value he placed on them; he believed they were representative of his creative achievements. Seen in this light, the status of this painted screen and its significance within Sanyu's total output become apparent. The currently available information indicates that this painted screen can trace its background to roughly the mid-50s. Sanyu was then working for a furniture maker, painting screens and furniture in colored paint and lacquer, a task from which he derived a number of novel creative ideas. Designs with an Eastern folk character, based on such items as celadon ware flower vases, rosewood furniture, and Eastern decorative designs, began to find their way into his oil painting. Painting on a screen directly in oil simply took this line of development one step further, and pondering the compositional layout of his oil painting in light of the way the screen would partition space helped Sanyu move into another level of creative thinking.

A Convergence of Line and Color

The fact that Pink Plum Blossoms and Green Branches was produced in 1963, and the original images from which the screen's design evolved, show it to be a further derivation of three separate oils produced at different times during the 1950s and '60s. The compositions and details of those three earlier works show Sanyu experimenting with different ways of handling this subject-almost as if they were exploratory works made in preparation for the later, larger work seen on this screen, and had to wait for its appearance to achieve their finest realization in terms of color and compositional layout. Of those earlier works, branches has undergone the fewest changes in color, but examining white plum blossom, we see that between the plum branches, Sanyu has now added white plum blossoms in full bloom, bringing extra layering and variation to the color. To the earlier Prunus Branches in a Green Landscape, Sanyu has added the red tones of plum blossoms, embellishing the space between the branches with extra touches of red and white for greater variety and contrast. During the period of these paintings, Sanyu had been attempting more complex compositions in which he arrayed branches against landscape-like backgrounds similar to those he painted during this period, which brought the branches forward in space against a contrasting deep background. These three works segment the picture space with the varied layouts of their branches, showing Sanyu pondering different modes of presenting space. But the three have certain points in common: their lines are set out in an inky black tone, with relatively light color contrasts and random clusters of lines. Their branches occupy essentially a single layer and seem almost to block the viewer from gazing more deeply into the space of the painting. Plum Blossoms and Green Branches brings together certain elements and ideas from each of these three other paintings, but goes beyond them in presenting a more open and extended painting space, with a more accomplished and mature handling of color, line, and space.

In its color, Pink Plum Blossoms and Green Branches revisits Sanyu's 1950s style, in which he applied heavier layers of pigments. Its bold, intense, rich, and layered color contrasts strongly with the three earlier paintings, with their deeper, more muted tones derived from a single color series. Here, deep red tones, in a style reminiscent of traditional embroidery, are the dominant keynote, imbuing the painting with the simple flavor of traditional Chinese handcrafts and rosewood furniture. Plum Blossoms and Green Branches is in many ways a study in color contrasts and balance. Its fresh, eye-pleasing yellow calls up associations with the flesh tones in Sanyu's nude studies of the same period, while its powdery white branches recall works from Sanyu's "pink series" of the 1930s; the blue-green seen in the branches on the right side of the screen, however, containing a hint of Sanyu's special Prussian blue, was a color he rarely employed. The deep reds of the background, with a white sandbar reaching across, also suggest other Sanyu works such as his Nude Under the Moon(Fig. 7), and bring together disparate elements found in Sanyu landscape paintings and still lifes dating from this period. In an overall palette with an intensely moody and expressive aura, the contrasts of red and white in the background complement the contrasts of yellow, white, and green in the foreground. Sanyu eschews any kind of realistic depiction in this work to continue his longstanding pattern of lyricism and conceptualization, lifting what is essentially a still life into an entirely new realm of abstract expressionism, with a lyrical expression of feeling; in so doing, he reaches a level of artistic expression seldom attained by other modern Chinese artists. Perhaps the work's most important feature can be found by comparison with Western artists: Sanyu's exploration of color in Pink Plum Blossoms and Green Branches occurs in combination with still-life themes; nowhere does it fall into the pattern of dry, mechanical, or purely theoretical studies of color. Instead it retains a narrative feel and a poetic presence that links it to the literati painters of ancient China, and to a traditionally Asian aesthetic outlook.

Lines That Build Space

Sanyu's expressive lines in Pink Plum Blossoms and Green Branches were an innovative development. Lines in his previous flower-and-vase paintings were often monochromatic, just as in the three works cited above, where he used black lines to apportion the space of the paintings. In Pink Plum Blossoms and Green Branches , Sanyu instead chooses to depict the plum branches in an inventive combination of white, yellow, and green; their overlapping lines and their strong color contrasts both unify the work and create complexity and variety within it, bringing three-dimensional layering and penetrating depth to the picture space. This creates new possibilities and subtle shifts in Sanyu's style of spatial presentation, allowing him to build up an imaginative space with three or perhaps even more distinct levels. The first of these levels is formed within the powdery white, fresh yellow, and blue-green tones of the overlapping plum branches. The differing hues of these branches and their placement in front of or behind one another brilliantly convey their twisting paths through the space. The branches interweave vertically and horizontally, though in three different colors, making color the aspect that guides the flow of the lines, while also creating clarity and order out of what might have been a confused jumble. The second distinct level of space derives from the placement of the plum branches above the red background with its white sandbar; the juxtaposition of these elements gives the painting its three-dimensional quality and scenic aspect. The third level is the imaginative space that extends beyond the painting itself: all the lines continue to the edges of the painting, and by implication, beyond it, carrying the viewer's eye outward into a space rich with imaginative possibilities. In addition, the white sandbar, its empty internal space sketched out with strong brushstrokes, stretches across the middle and carries the eye left and rightward, also ultimately leading to the edges of the painting. Yellow branches enter the painting's space from below, spreading up and out, guiding the viewer's eye upward and toward the left and right corners, serving the compositional function of expanding the picture space outward in all directions. Sanyu also deliberately exaggerates the size of these branches and intercepts them so that they seem to be cut off by the painting's border. This highlights their continued visual extension beyond the picture space, evoking a feeling of rich and profuse growth in the space around the edges of the canvas.

Changing Spatial Relationships and Screen Design

Sanyu also ingeniously takes advantage of the folding, partitioning feature of the three-section screen to manifest a fourth, fifth, or even more levels of space, further redefining and structuring its spatial possibilities. A three-section screen can actually be set up in as many as eight distinct configurations (Fig. 8): The sections can be aligned to create a flat straight line, like a large-scale oil canvas, for a quiet, relaxed effect; they can be arranged in a "Z" pattern, to create a presentation like the space unfolding in a Chinese landscape, sometimes meandering and sometimes abruptly layered. The plum branches bend rather than running flat and seem to bloom all the more luxuriantly. Or a "U" shape can be employed, with new levels of depth appearing on both left and right to tremendously expand perceived spatial depth. Sanyu's union of oil painting with a three-section screen means that the oil work at once becomes a three-dimensional sculptural work as well. When placed in a viewing space, the screen virtually becomes a three-dimensional floral arrangement within the viewer's living space, allowing them to stroll past it, view the work, and take it in at their leisure, in a traditional Chinese approach to aesthetic appreciation. Plum Blossoms and Green Branches thus reflects, in its spatial presentation and its overall aesthetic, an ambitious return to traditional Chinese aesthetic principles by Sanyu.

Sanyu's Lines and Matisse's Blocks of Color

Sanyu, like Matisse, continually pondered the question of spatial presentation. In 1908, Matisse created his Harmony in Red-the Red Dining Table (Fig. 9), exhibiting two different modes of spatial presentation within the same picture space. The view through the window at the left adopts traditional fixed perspective for a three-dimensional effect, whereas in the interior scene Matisse deliberately flattens spatial layering and distance, compressing the various elements into a flat, red plane for an exceptionally flat projection of space. In his Piano Lesson, from 1916-17 (Fig. 10), Matisse demonstrates how depth and spatial relationships can be created with geometrical blocks of color. Just how to present space was a question with which Matisse, not to mention modern Western artists in general, wrestled with continually. Sanyu's view of this question, and his most satisfying response to it, is found in his Pink Plum Blossoms and Green Branches . The energy of his lines, combined with the movable panels of the screen, creates surprising new spatial layering within the flat space of the canvas, manifesting limitless depth, breadth, and even spatial extension beyond the canvas. Sanyu's lines also clearly express the Chinese art traditions to which he was heir, and his personal transformation of them. In the Chinese art of calligraphy, brushed lines form square characters whose structures possess a high degree of visual appeal and beauty. In the "regular script" (kai shu) style of calligraphy, the balance and symmetry of the characters gives them both strength and stability, while the lines in the cursive style display liveliness and freedom in their more spontaneous, agile movement. A sample of calligraphy in the "slender gold" style, by the Song emperor Huizong, shows slender and well-integrated lines that convey a more gentle and graceful character (Fig. 11). A fundamental principle in Chinese art has always been the use of line to create compositions, give shape to forms, and define space. Sanyu both inherited and transformed this use of line that is part of the Eastern aesthetic tradition.

The New York School also explored the qualities of line in the 1950s and '60s, often focusing on the compositional strength of deep inky black lines in works by artists such as Franz Kline (Fig. 12). Sanyu had turned his attention in this direction as early as the 1930s, and after three decades of exploration and development, this Pink Plum Blossoms and Green Branches of his later years displays his ingenious success in using line to open up the various possibilities of space. During Sanyu's era, information flowed very slowly by comparison with the global Internet of today, and Sanyu's exposure to outside influences would have been limited, especially when considering the circumstances of his later years. This work, then, is most likely a truly independent and original work, a creative success reflecting many aspects of Sanyu's life and his artistic development. Sanyu was 62 when he created Pink Plum Blossoms and Green Branches , an age that, artistically, often implies a summit of maturity, when creative concepts have been tested and refined to perfection, and when an artist wields his various expressive techniques with complete naturalness and freedom. In 1960, Sanyu's compatriot from Sichuan province, Zhang Daqian, was 61; he was still mounting exhibitions that traveled to Paris, Brussels, and Madrid, and developing his new freehand style. Two of his major works, Aachensee Lake and View of the Yangtze River, which cemented his position as a master, were both painted at the age of 69. Many examples of productivity in an artist's later years can be found in the West as well: Matisse, 80 years old in 1950, was still trying out new creative ideas, moving from blocks of color to exploring lines and collage. Thus, despite his economic circumstances, when Sanyu created Pink Plum Blossoms and Green Branches his creative techniques and concepts were at their full maturity, and what he produced is a major work that represents a summit of his creative career.

The highest ideal of Chinese art has been to create, within the limited space of a painting, a conception with a sense of limitless breadth and depth. This represents a transcendence or sublimation that occurs on several levels: an expression of feeling that grows from the portrait of a specific scene; unlimited growing from the limited means; and broad sweeps of time evoked by the painting of a physical space. These represent something different from the Western demands for fixed perspective, which compresses space and time and regulates its expression within a flat space, and in effect, confines the world within the man-made dimensions of the canvas. Eastern artists by contrast use small dimensions to imply far larger ones, extending a limited picture space into an unlimited world of space and time, and linking the viewer mentally and emotionally with the painting's subject. Sanyu's presentation of space and his aesthetic concepts in Pink Plum Blossoms and Green Branches definitely belong to this latter, the Eastern style of presentation. From this perspective, a grand historical overview informed the entire course of Sanyu's career and artistic explorations: Not only did he wish to create a kind of art that would blend the expressive forms of East and West; this type of expressive form should also be one that inherited the grand spirit and vision of Eastern art. Further, the great aesthetic tradition of China's past-its unique lines, its manner of presenting space, and its suggestions of unlimited imaginative space within the limited dimensions of the art work-would be reintroduced into our present world, and reinterpreted through the Western oil medium. It is all of these things that make up Sanyu's great and original contribution to modern Chinese art.

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