SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)
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SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)

Chrysanthèmes blancs (White Chrysanthemums)

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)
Chrysanthèmes blancs (White Chrysanthemums)
signed in Chinese and signed ‘SANYU’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
73 x 50 cm. (28 3/4 x 19 5/8 in.)
Painted in the 1930s
Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris, France
Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris, France
Anon. sale, Sotheby’s Taipei, 20 October 1996, lot 63
Private collection, Taipei, Taiwan
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Rita Wong (ed.), Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné Oil Paintings, YAGEO Foundation, Lin & Keng Art Publications, Taipei, Taiwan, 2001 (illustrated, plate 78, p. 185).
Rita Wong (ed.), Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings (Volume II), The Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan, 2011 (illustrated, plate 78, p. 124).

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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

"Sanyu's works in the 1920s and 1930s are bright, their basic palettes composed lightcoloured blocks of white, pink, and yellow.... Whether he paints flowers or animals, they all seem immersed in a faint pink dream. His illusion drops us into the midst of these faint ink marks on his plain white rice paper."
Wu Guanzhong, 'On Sanyu'.

"Only repeated viewings allow us to really appreciate the truthfulness and the rigor embodied in Sanyu's conceptions. He understands how to project the flavor and essence of his subjects through the most unexpected means."
Johan Franco, 'Introduction to the 1933 Dutch exhibition catalogue'.

In Chrysanthèmes blancs (White Chrysanthemums), dating from the 1930s, Sanyu builds his palette from pastel pink, mily white and light Prussian blue; he outlines the blooming chrysanthemums with brushwork that seems casual and relaxed yet is actually meticulous and precise. The result is a marvelous representation of the first peak of his artistic career, his "Pink Period." Based on the records in Volumes I and II of the Sanyu Catalogue Raisonne: Oil Paintings, Sanyu created over one hundred floral-themed works in the oil medium, his subjects including peonies, lilies, plums, bamboo, lotuses, and chrysanthemums. That chrysanthemums account for nearly half of that number shows the artist's great love and appreciation for this theme. And among the top ten auction records for floral-themed Sanyu works, nine are held by paintings of chrysanthemums, further illustrating the intense market demand for such works. During that period, Sanyu produced only three oils on this "white chrysanthemum" theme, two of which are depicted in a bonsai style, making this Chrysanthèmes blancs (White Chrysanthemums) the only one in which the flowers are presented in a vase. The work's fresh beauty and simple elegance embody completely the way Sanyu blended a modern, Western method of modeling form with Eastern freestyle techniques. With this approach he transcended both Eastern and Western painting, creating a new look in oil painting with an intensely personal style.

Sanyu's Chrysanthèmes blancs (White Chrysanthemums) is an exceptionally simple and pure composition, its nine blooming chrysanthemums exuding pleasing freshness as they reach upward from the vase in graceful balance. Sanyu outlines the stems and petals of the chrysanthemums with a scraping technique, first applying a thick layer of white over the light pink background, then using a scraping tool on the still-wet surface of the canvas. He shows the chrysanthemum stems and leaves intersecting and bending against each other, creating pleasing motion both toward and away from the viewer and injecting the rhythmic motion and suppleness that characterize Sanyu's early works. For the vase he adopts the most minimalist approach, outlining the body of the vase in an incisive, unbroken line with his brush for a simple and a childlike presentation. The use of line to express the front-to-back context of the still-life scene is seen in Sanyu’s Chrysanthèmes blancs (White Chrysanthemums). In Xi Dejin's description of a visit to Sanyu’s studio, Sanyu told him that he had been inspired by Wu Changshuo’s floral paintings, but preferred a flatter arrangement on the canvas, and he referred to ancient Chinese porcelains for the vases and flower pots that appear in his paintings (Sanyu: An Old Chinese Painter's Lifetime of Obscurity in Paris; Lion Art Monthly, May 1975). Sanyu's Chrysanthèmes blancs (White Chrysanthemums) borrows from Wu in eschewing pure realism in favor of a delightful, freehand style that suggests Chinese brush and ink work. With his great simplification of line, form, and composition, Sanyu embraces Western modeling of form and its compositional division of the canvas, but the result evokes even more of the purity and emotional reserve typically associated with the spirit and aesthetics of the East.

Wu Guanzhong once described Sanyu’s works from the 1920s and 1930s as “immersed in a faint pink dream”; this Chrysanthèmes blancs (White Chrysanthemums) perfectly embodies his way of weaving a romantic and intoxicating dream out of colour. Based on current published records, the earliest of Sanyu's Pink Period paintings dates from 1929; Chrysanthèmes blancs (White Chrysanthemums), dating from the 1930s, is a representation from the period in which Sanyu explored the possibilities of that hue. Here, pink no longer merely outlines or sets off flowers and leaves, but instead is the primary colour that sets the tone of the entire canvas. Adopting a very limited palette of romantic pink, warm milky white and tranquial deep blue, it is Sanyu's pink that occupies the largest area; both the background and the body of the vase emerge in this pink, which produces the painting's sense of breadth and openness. Looking closely, we become aware of layering in the pink background, which has faint touches of white pigments, somewhat like the blooms of colour that spread when xuan paper contacts ink, and imbues his pink color with extra implications in the feeling of the different layers. This expressive technique also suggests light slowly permeating through the canvas, or fleeting lights and shadows that surround the viewer in a romantic, dreamlike world. While different from Impressionism, with its exploration of the fleeting, shifting colours and hues of a landscape, this shifting light evokes similar feelings. The artist carried out his study of pink hues through the special textural feel of oils, establishing his own interpretation of Western theories regarding colour and light sources. In his pink tones, Sanyu refined the ability to express light sources that only oils have, and further enriched the tradition of monochromatic painting.

The composition of Chrysanthèmes blancs (White Chrysanthemums) sets the vase and flowers along its vertical axis, replacing Sanyu's typical blue and white jardinières with a tall vase, leading the viewer's eye naturally to the white chrysanthemums at the top. The flowers, their leaves, and the upward-reaching buds express spatial uplift and the impetus toward life and growth. The dark blue desktop becomes Sanyu's horizontal axis, extending the painting's visual centre broadly toward both left and right, and even to the imaginary space beyond the canvas, greatly heightening its abstract quality and coloristic tension.

Since ancient times, the chrysanthemum has been a symbol against which Chinese literati and scholars measured themselves; in traditional Chinese culture, the plum, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo were deemed "the four gentlemen." The chrysanthemum's appeal lay not in gaudy color but it in its quiet, delicate beauty and in blooms that can endure the frost, which made them a symbol of high moral character and outlook. Chrysanthemums were not just the subject that appeared most often in Sanyu's floral works, they did so throughout his career, suggesting that they reflected in some way the artist's own condition. Perhaps by painting chrysanthemums he was recounting his own experience in a foreign country, which required him to stand proudly and maintain his own creative ideals, and to remain unbowed by the demands of reality or the mundane world around him. Chrysanthèmes blancs (White Chrysanthemums) was first collected by the well-known French collector and literary figure Henri-Pierre Roché. Roché first made Sanyu's acquaintance in 1929, after which he collected a great many of his works and further provided both financial sponsorship and continuing encouragement. The result was that Sanyu created over a hundred works in just a few short years; that is, nearly half of his entire oeuvre was produced during the period of his association with Roché. The stretcher on the reverse of Chrysanthèmes blancs (White Chrysanthemums) bears Roché's label and inventory number, indicating its collection history and the important status Roché gave the work. That original frame has been preserved to this day, highlighting the era in which the painting originated and its historical significance. Chrysanthèmes blancs (White Chrysanthemums) later became part of the collection of Jean- Claude Riedel, and has remained in a private collection since its sale at auction in 1996. Today, 25 years later, it is a truly rare and valuable event to see this matchless work reappear at this season's Christie's sale.

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