Sanyu is a formidable force who works with precision and purity. And what intelligence! What technique! - Max Jacob
In the 1930s, Sanyu created Bouquet of Marguerites (Bouquet of Marguerites) (Lot 21), a representative masterpiece among his flower vase oeuvres. During that period, Sanyu had mastered his unique painting style that brimmed with sophistication and personal flair. He was hailed as an iconic artist in the School of Paris alongside Japanese artist Tsuguharu Foujita, both reputed as outstanding artists from the East. Sanyu's works frequented the prestigious Salon d’Automne, Salon des Indépendants and Salon des Tuileries.
Sanyu excels at infusing calligraphy techniques in paintings. The influence of calligraphy can be seen everywhere-the strokes and ink wash complement each other perfectly, where the simple composition is inspirited to produce a strong visual impact. Born in 1900 into a well-off family in Sichuan, China, Sanyu grew up in a literary household and began learning calligraphy at the age of 10 under the tutelage of famed calligrapher Zhao Xi. Over the course of 45 years since he moved to France in 1921, he dedicated his artistic creation to concocting the aesthetic essence of the East with that of the West. Regardless of his subject matterflowers, animals or nudes-his compositions come from the impeccable balance of sparsity and density, as refined lines meet gracious colours to evoke a feeling of affection. Bouquet of Marguerites embodies the concept of "five tints of ink" (Fig. 1) in traditional Chinese painting, in which Sanyu skilfully depicts the twigs and leaves of the marguerites with varying gradient shades of black, imparting shape and form that abstractly symbolizes the figurative expression to bestow rhythm and agility to the painting (Fig. 2). Viewed from afar, the vase artistically filled with flowers is elegant and beautiful, yet with a closer look, one can't help but be in awe of Sanyu's subtly spontaneous, daring strokes. The restrained calmness with which the artist moves the brush pulsates a pure spirit that transcends the beauty of realness-an undulation of affection swells wherever the tip touches the canvas running with emotions. As Chinese landscape painter Shitao (Fig. 3) put it: "When the heart is weary and the spirit is low, there will be no painting nor calligraphy ... when true spirit and life force avail themselves, one will suddenly wield the full strength of the flowing strokes penetrating straight through the paper, that even the strongest sword cannot cut through this intense fortitude."
The composition of Bouquet of Marguerites is delightful to the eyes. The flower vase is positioned at the connexion of the pastel pink background and broad white edges. The upper portion of the vase and the flowers are somewhat blended in with the pink background, the exception being one red blossom slighting poking out to the milky white. This gives the composition a hint of uncertainty, that underneath the tranquil beauty lies a certain restlessness. Sanyu also chose to place his stamp-like signature at the upper left corner, instead of his usual placement at the lower corners, further accentuating this imbalance and deviation from normalcy. In contrast to Van Gogh's presentation of sunflowers that are wild with passion in form and shape (Fig. 4), Sanyu's flowers limbo between static and moving, dynamically transitioning between the demure of a maiden and quickness of a rabbit, to suggest the emotional coexistence of subtlety and wildness residing inside the artist.
When seen from another perspective, Sanyu's painting exemplifies the concept of subtraction (Fig. 5, 6). In retrospect of his creative career, Sanyu almost always chose minimalist colours over vibrant, rich colours in his paintings (Fig. 7); nevertheless, his compendious lines encompass all the aspects of a great painting, which is reminiscent of how scholars described the works of Wu Daozi, one of the art masters of the seventh century in China: "Merely a couple of lines maketh form." In Xie He’s influential The Record of the Classification of Old Painters, he proposed the six principles of Chinese painting: "Six points to consider when judging a painting include Spirit Resonance (vitality), Bone Method (way of using the brush), Correspondence to the Object (depiction of form), Suitability to Type (application of colour), Division and Planning (placing and arrangement), and Transmission by Copying (copying of models)." On another note, Paul Cézanne, the father of modern art, once said, "To paint is not to copy the object slavishly, it is to grasp a harmony among many relationships." Although presented with seemingly sparse lines, Bouquet of Marguerites is the condensation of Sanyu's meticulous thoughts and clever arrangement, showcasing his consummate brushwork in this refreshing yet timeless classic.
Particularly worth mentioning is Sanyu's innovative approach to the expression of space in Bouquet of Marguerites . White is brushed on the right and lower margin of the painting, with the bottom of the vase slightly placed downward, so that it is positioned in between the pink background and the lower white edge. This special treatment introduces the concept of three-dimensional perspective of the West into the planar spatial layout common in eastern paintings, allowing two different viewpoints on the plane to be simultaneously placed in the same space, much like a prism refraction. The preliminary exploration of Cubist still lifes in the early twentieth century saw the use of the folds of white tablecloth to obscure the relationship between the table and its side edge and the space at the bottom of the painting; the original clear perspective gains multiple perspectives, thus further challenges the viewer visually by engaging re-creation and re-interpretation in the mind. If we look at Henri Matisse's masterpiece French Window at Collioure, 1914 (Fig. 8), we see a large black centre framed by grey, green, and blue horizontal colour bands—a space coexisting with straightforward and vertical depths eliciting a feeling of uncertainty and impactful visual sensations. In a way, Sanyu is using his creation to pay homage to Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso.
Bouquet of Marguerites was first collected by Henri-Pierre Roché, the famous French author and collector. Roché met Sanyu in 1929, and had already amassed a large collection of Sanyu's oil paintings, sketches and prints by the early 1930s. Roché played a significant role in Sanyu's career. They became closely acquainted over the course of only a few years, during which Roché not only offered financial support to Sanyu, but treated him as a dear friend. Like a mentor encouraging Sanyu's creative drive, Roché introduced him to the top-tier art scene of Paris, which allowed Sanyu to be free from any worry and devote wholeheartedly to his creations and socialise with other first-class artists. This painting was later collected by Jean-Caude Riedel. Born in 1940, Riedel immediately recognized Sanyu's talent when he first ventured into the art circle as an aspiring dealer in his twenties. Thoroughly impressed by his artistic attainments, Riedel's first exhibition in his gallery in Paris featured Sanyu as the main focus, evidencing his overwhelming admiration towards the artist. In 1992, Bouquet of Marguerites became the first oil painting of Sanyu to be auctioned off in Asia, and at a phenomenal price; it has remained in the private collection since then. Now, this asterpiece re-emerges 25 years later to grace the auction floor, peerless and precious as it can be.