SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)
SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)
SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)
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THE PRESTIGIOUS DREYFUS COLLECTION
SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)

Femme nue sur un tapis (Nude on Tapestry)

Details
SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)
Femme nue sur un tapis (Nude on Tapestry)
signed in Chinese and signed ‘SANYU’ (upper right)
oil on canvas
81 x 130 cm. (31 7⁄8 x 50 1⁄8 in.)
Painted in 1929
Provenance
Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris
Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Literature
Shanghai Crescent Moon Publishing, Crescent Moon, vol. 1, no. 12, 10 February 1929 (illustrated, n.p.).
S. Zau, ‘A Treasure in the Modern Art World’, Golden Chamber Monthly, vol. 1, no. 3, 1 March 1929 (illustrated, p.83).
W. Michel, ‘Der schöne Mensch in der neuen Kunst’ (The Beautiful Person in New Art), Deutsche Kunst Und Dekoration (German Art and Decoration), April 1929 (illustrated, p. 272).
G. Ge, ‘The French Painter Sanyu’s Recent Works’, Pictorial Shanghai, no. 505, 9 September 1929 (illustrated, n.p.)
R. Wong (ed.), Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, YAGEO Foundation and Lin & Keng Art Publications, Taipei, 2001 (illustrated in detail, cover page; illustrated, p. 105; back cover).
Skira, Sanyu: L'écriture du corps (Language of the body), exh. cat., Musée des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris, 2004 (illustrated, p. 141).
R. Wong (ed.), Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings (Volume II), The Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation, Taipei, 2011 (illustrated, p.36 & 116).
Li & Li Gallery (ed.), Sanyu: In a Reverie of Black, White and Pink, exh. cat., Li & Li Gallery, Taipei, 2018 (illustrated in detail, p.6-7; illustrated, p. 111).
Exhibited
Darmstadt, Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt Städtisches Ausstellungsgebäude, Der schöne Mensch in der neuen Kunst (The Beautiful Person in New Art), June–October 1929.

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Lot Essay

'I am astonished when I realise that in 1978 I am the sole defender of Sanyu, I know that the artist is merely at the dawn of his success. Millions of people will experience the magic of Sanyu.'——Jean-Claude Riedel

The golden era of East-meets-West: A Sanyu nude from 1929
A tour de force from Sanyu’s most accomplished period, Nude on Tapestry epitomises the artist’s superlative synthesis of East and West. 1929 is often regarded as a ‘lucky year’ for Sanyu: He was introduced to the art collector and dealer Pierre-Henri Roché, whose enormous support of his works propelled his career to new heights. It was also the year Sanyu met his lover and future wife Ms Hardrouyère. Painted in 1929, the present work was shown in a group exhibition Der schöne Mensch in der neuen Kunst (The Beautiful Person in New Art) at Darmstadt and reviewed in the magazine Deutsche Kunst Und Dekoration the same year. Depicting a Western subject in an Oriental tone, Nude on Tapestry not only attracted the attention of Western collectors, but also took the art world in Republican China by storm on account of an article published in Pictorial Shanghai by the notable journalist, Ge Gongzhen. Admiring Nude on Tapestry, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the emotionally charged image, its effective composition, and the artist’s bravura control of his paint brush and colour. Exemplifying his fresh interpretation of the ‘reclining nude’—a classic theme that has fascinated countless Western masters for centuries, this pioneering work was selected as the cover image of The Complete Works of Sanyu Oil Paintings (Volume I) edited by Rita Wong.

As Pang Xunqin (1906-1985) recalled, the mid-1920s was a turning point for Sanyu as he incorporated traditional Chinese lines into the heart of his artistic practice. (X. Pang, This Is How It Came, Taipei 2005, p.76) Through ‘further simplification of the simple’ symbiotic association between line and colour, the artist conceived a pictorial language that resonates deeply with traditional Chinese aesthetic. His allusion to such aesthetic ideals—an approach that sits at the core of his art—bespeaks his deep understanding of both classical and modern approaches to space, the agitation between the mediums of ink and oil, the harmonious union between line and colour, and most importantly, the interplay of the physical and the imaginary. Nude on Tapestry is an exemplar of the artist’s pursuit in that direction during the period. Its pictorial idiom evidently derived from his early rendition of the texture of the body and its contours in light ink. By coupling coloured lines with rubbing technique, Sanyu achieved a new mode of chiaroscuro that accentuates the contrast between light and shadow. At the same time, his brushwork encompasses the sharpness and fluidity of Chinese calligraphy.

Among the last batch of like-minded Chinese students that follow the national ‘diligent work and frugal study’ campaign, Sanyu left for Paris to realise his new dream. Settled in Montparnasse in 1921, Sanyu chose to attend the relatively liberal Grande Chaumière to study figure drawing. Nude was plausibly the earliest subject that the then thirty-year-old Sanyu studied. In fact, the sum of nude watercolours and sketches produced over his four-decade career far outnumbers that of his still-lifes and animal paintings. According to The Complete Works of Sanyu Oil Paintings (Volume I & II), among the three hundreds of oil paintings Sanyu created throughout his life, only fifty-six depict the female nude. In the Thirties, right before the Great Depression hit Paris, Sanyu had only created thirteen oil paintings of a reclining nude. Among those, only five portray the female figure with her back against the viewer. The rarity and significance of Nude of Tapestry is thus beyond question.

The reclining beauty as landscape: The classic Western art subject in the eye of Sanyu
In the 1950s, the famous art historian Kenneth Clark succinctly summarises the reason why ‘nude’ became the most universal subject in Western art history: Under the mind-body dualism in Western philosophy, the nude embodies both the rational and the sublime. (K. Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, London 1956, n.p). Since classical antiquity, idealised forms of the female nude have appeared in religious paintings and have come to represent the paragon of beauty. As a matter of fact, the reclining figure has appeared in both Eastern and Western visual history. In the East, the reclining Buddha is a major iconographic theme in Buddhist art. In the West, the renowned 2nd century CE sculpture Sleeping Ariadne from Greek mythology exemplifies the ubiquitous nature of this motif. Yet, the person who brought together the ‘reclining posture’ and ‘female nude’ and turned them into a timeless Western subject is perhaps the 16th century Italian master Giorgione. His celebrated painting Sleeping Venus (later completed by Titan) broke new ground for the reclining female nude with its commanding presence and sensual beauty. In the centuries that followed, generations of masters continued to revisit this iconic subject matter, seeking to purge it of its memetic and mythological preoccupation. Sanyu, as a Chinese artist who was exposed to Confucianism and traditional Chinese aesthetic from a young age, Sanyu was able to conceptualise the ‘reclining nude’ in a completely new light, one capable of transcending the East-West dichotomy.

For Nude on Tapestry, Sanyu deliberately eschewed the conventional approach to linear perspective and naturalism. Rather, by employing simple lines and colour planes, he has successfully invigorated the static subject of the female nude with life. This method was fresh and completely different from Van Dongen’s expressive brushwork or Foujita’s classic emulation of Western paintings. Here, the nude is full of life—her bent legs and plump buttocks anchor the entire painting with their undulating lines. Almost as if swirling towards the centre, these lines form a stark contrast against the figure’s rectangle body and the emphatically horizontal lines in the background. But it is also precisely her seemingly unattainable posture that unlocks a series of motion on a supposedly flat canvas surface. Indeed, the scene is analogous to a series of continuous camera shots captured with burst mode and then condensed into a single moment. Sanyu’s endeavour therefore differs from Picasso’s deconstructionist attempt and perhaps aligns better with Duchamp’s approach to creating Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2). Sanyu’s reclining nude looks as if she is about to roll over into our space at any moment. This brilliant technique of evoking motion with a static subject imbues momentum into the painting that is usually seen only in moving images. The artist’s unequalled sensitivity to motion may be attributed to his enduring passion for photography. Depicting a mirror image that alludes to a photographic vision, Two Standing Nudes (1930), for example, attesting to Sanyu’s acute awareness of framing and camera angles. As for Nude on Tapestry, its staccato-like rhythm is channelled through the artist’s careful arrangement of colour and line. In this respect, the present work speaks a language that is uniquely distinct from that of Cubism, Fauvism, and even Surrealism. While Nude on Tapestry may be comparable to Modigliani’s Reclining Nude for their similar allusion to photographic elements, the latter work presents a different composition—a closed-up view of the subject where parts of her arms and legs are cropped out of our view. Sanyu’s nude does not cause the same visual tension contingent on such sensual allusions. Instead, the Chinese artist treated the human body like landscape. In a few humble brushstrokes and simple colours, he managed to evoke—perhaps even invoke—a curious sensation or erotic desire that resonates with the viewer. It is this approach that elevates Sanyu’s painting to a higher realm of poetic evocation and even embraces a subtle sense of humour that underlying the time-honoured literati tradition of Chinese landscape painting.

‘…the painting enacts the surrealist perception of the female body as a gateway into ‘the marvellous’, a horizon of redemption that offers glimpses of ‘what lies ahead, beyond the real.’——Eugene Wang

The Surrealist undertones in Sanyu’s art have long been overshadowed by the predominant discourse of his aesthetic unification of East and West. Art historian Eugene Wang sheds light on the brilliance of one of his early female nude paintings as follows: ‘[it] enacts the surrealist perception of the female body as a gateway into “the marvellous”, a horizon of redemption that offers glimpses of “what lies ahead, beyond the real”.’ (E. Wang, ‘Sanyu: a Chinese Surrealist in Paris’, in Sanyu: l'écriture du corps, exh. cat. Musée des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris 2004, p. 62) According to Wang, Sanyu’s first batch of nude paintings from the 1930s recalls the Surrealist tradition of ‘automatism’ (ibid.). Having lived through les années folles (‘Roaring Twenties’) in France, the artist was well acquainted with the Surrealist concepts so popular in Paris at the time. This is not to mention that his dealer Roché was himself an ardent supporter of Duchamp and Man Ray. Compared to Sanyu’s early works of female nudes which the Chinese poet Xu Zhimo humorously referred to as the ‘cosmic thighs’—in this sense his nudes are also comparable to Andre Kertesz’s photographic series of DistortionNude on Tapestry is much closer to Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres in its associative thinking and interpretative framework. Concurrently, the present work also inherits the poetic sentiment unique to Chinese literati painting. His female nude, majestic like a mountain, almost becomes one with the background, much like how the immortal depicted in Liang Kai’s splashed ink painting also doubles as the landscape. Effective in eliciting emotional responses, this Southern Song Dynasty painting invites the viewer into its pictorial realm and be part of the ‘heaven and earth’ that the immortal metamorphoses into. Sanyu’s painting also surprisingly resonates with Xia Gui’s fantastical landscape. ‘She’ in the eye of Sanyu is no longer part of our sphere for ‘she’ now represents a space of infinite possibilities. What is great about this artist is how this East-West unification through the Surrealist lens also extends to his floral and animal subjects. It is therefore no exaggeration that Sanyu was a true master in the 20th century who had understood the essential principles of surrealism, through which he projected his own imaginative and symbolic vision of utopia.

What further sets apart Sanyu’s Nude on Tapestry is its ingenious treatment of the space. Through montage of diverse images, the artist expands on the subject of reclining nude into a sequence of non-linear narratives built up by unfolding layers. Take the tapestry on which she lies as an example. It is in and of itself a work of art filled with an array of Chinese auspicious symbols and riddles. Deer, pronounced lu in Chinese, is a homophone for social status; egret is a rebus for continuous success; the Chinese rose is a symbol of longevity; the fight between the snipe and the clam is a well-known folklore. These pictorial word-puns that are deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture add an extra layer of meaning to Sanyu’s paintings. In addition, this period also saw him falling deep in love with Ms Hardrouyère, whom he met in Grande Chaumière. His paintings from this period therefore often capture the enchantment of romantic encounters. It is also worth noting that Sigmund Freud’s theories of dreams and subconsciousness were influential during the early 20th century. Immersed in the Surrealist ideas that were given broad exposure across the Parisian art scene, Sanyu was naturally attracted to the Surrealist literary and artistic works by such influential contemporaries as André Breton. Upon first glance, Nude on Tapestry may read as an ordinary figure painting. Yet, Sanyu recast it as a masterpiece of substance capable of recounting stories. The tapestry, then, also performs as a receptacle of motifs—a canvas within a canvas. In this metaphysical space, the carpet design and patterns all lend themselves to engendering imaginations rooted in the Chinese visual tradition and isometric perspective. This stream of endless imaginations continues to breathe life into the female nude, so much so that she will forever linger in this transformative dreamscape full of possibilities.

‘She dominated the era of Montparnasse more than Queen Victoria ever dominated the Victorian era.’——Ernest Hemingway

The legendary and liberated muse behind the rising masters
The figure that captivated Sanyu was perhaps Alice Prin, also hailed as Kiki de Montparnasse. Instantly identifiable by her signature bobbed hair, the dazzling muse held everyone in the Parisian art circles spellbound. Born in 1901 to a single parent family in a small town in France, Kiki moved to Paris alone to study at the age of twelve. A few years later, she began her career as a model for various artists. By befriending the artist Soutine, she made her way into the inner circle of Montparnasse. Passionate and sometimes intense, this woman of multiple talents—a singer, actor, painter, and writer—thrust herself into the limelight of the Bohemian art circles and made a name for herself. Soon, she became the muse of several artists active in the city including Foujita, Kisling, Cocteau, Calder, Modigliani, and Man Ray. It is therefore no exaggeration to attribute the success, at least in part, of many of the leading artists from that generation to magic of this legendary woman. Yet, Kiki was never merely a source of inspiration willing to sit passively behind the easel of these men. The protagonist of Sanyu’s Nude on Tapestry is none-other-than this shining star who marched to the beat of her own drum in the highly patriarchal art circle of that era.

In merely a few strokes, the artist has successfully sketched out Kiki’s signature hairstyle. Such a whimsical portrayal, reminiscent of La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard) by Brancusi, is the only clue to identify the mysterious subject of this masterpiece. Until now, as there are no extant textual records about the relationship between Sanyu and Kiki, one can only make speculations about their interactions based on Kiki’s diary. With his unparalleled observation, the Chinese artist saw through this Queen of Montparnasse. What is even more remarkable is his virtuosity to imbue the figure of Nude on Tapestry with her enchanting personality. It is in this regard that Sanyu’s sincere depiction of this Queen outshines the attempts by other artists. Here, she is anything but an ordinary woman with a curvy body as rendered in other paintings. We know for a fact that these formulaic portrayals by other artists do not do justice to the young Kiki. Contrariwise, Sanyu dressed her in a robust, if not masculine, body, one that exposes the artist’s sincere admiration for an ideal heroine type. As a male artist active in the previous century, Sanyu broke free from the conformist understanding of women so pervasive at the time. Already in the 1930s, he dared to shatter stereotypes with his progressive thinking about the other sex. Today, one cannot help but be in awe when admiring Nude on Tapestry. In this exceptional painting, ‘she’ is a woman with a voice and agency. She proudly announces to the viewer that she is the personification of liberty—an eternal symbol of modernity that transcends time.

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