“In form, I pursue simplification, down to the essential core.... Precision has a power that is sometimes even more abundant and unlimited.” -Sanyu, 1946
Pink Chrysanthemums in a Basket is perhaps the classic example, among Sanyu's floral-themed works, that demonstrates just how exceptional he was in the way he shaped the forms and spaces of his paintings. By combining simple, well-chosen colours with cleverly interwoven forms and spaces, Sanyu successfully used Western media to create poetic, elegant works that richly evoke Eastern themes and conceptions. This Pink Chrysanthemums stands out even among his many floral-themed works for its unique spatial layout and its depiction of detail. It symbolizes a culmination of his abilities, an achievement made possible only by his profound understanding of both Chinese tradition and Western painting.
In the 1930s, Sanyu was able to welcome the first golden era of his career. During this period, he was painting works in a highly simplified style, typically employing areas of colour in muted pinks, whites, blacks, or greys as backgrounds. At the same time, he used empty space in a wonderfully poetic manner. In classical Chinese poetry, the beauty lies in language that is simplified enough to leave much room for the imagination. The idea that 'the meaning lies just beyond the reach of the words' can be extended, in painting, to 'the meaning lies just beyond the brushstrokes.' It is clear that in China, the arts of poetry and painting have shared common origins and aesthetics since ancient times. Sanyu embodied those ideals. He implicitly expressed the spare, exquisite beauty of this tradition, giving his works a certain character not found in either Matisse or Picasso, and in fact rarely even discussed in art theory in the West. Pink Chrysanthemums in a Basket is a classic representative of this period. The outlines of the basket, which Sanyu scrapes out of the deep black background, stand out and project a beautiful shape. The skill behind Sanyu's freehand brushwork approach, setting off their solid forms against the emptiness, is unparalleled, imbuing the work with a special, lyrical feeling of serenity and seclusion.
“The charm of calligraphy and painting are what gives his oil painting its soul.”- Wu Guanzhong, Speaking of Sanyu
Members of the traditional literati class in China practiced making lines in their calligraphy, and it is these lines that form the basic element in Chinese painting. We see this element of calligraphic brushwork in Sanyu's impromptu 1927 ink-wash painting, Two Pines : there is the agile outlining of needles and branches, while the practiced smoothness of the brush marks demonstrates his grasp of line's importance in Chinese aesthetics. A comparison with Bada Shanren's Egret on the Rock shows how line serves to create form and meaning in both. Though there are fascinating differences in terms of modelling and point of view, both are the very essence of beautiful, freehand portrayals. In Pink Chrysanthemums , his lines are indeed what infuses the entire work with its 'soul.' They support the chrysanthemum stems and highlight the veins of the leaves. Though strongly structured, Sanyu's lines in Pink Chrysanthemums have a free, frank character; their expressive simplicity suggests meanings that 'lie just beyond the brushstrokes.' Wu Guanzhong praised the confidence and ease of Sanyu's freehand brushwork: “His lines define and occupy space, even as they exude feeling.” The relationship between forms and empty spaces also shows in the 'undefined' areas of the painting, where the viewer finds a poetic sense of hazy distance. These deliberately untreated spaces are an indispensable source of beauty in Pink Chrysanthemums , illustrating the ideas of 'taking white as black' and 'the silence that says more than speech.' In Sanyu's oil paintings, such empty spaces may appear as flat areas of pure, monochrome white or black. Their consistent compression of space, whether in Ma Yuan's Fisherman on an Autumn River , Sanyu's prints for The Poetry of Tao Qian, or this Pink Chrysanthemums , further highlights the linear elements and the painting's subject. As a result, those emotional linear elements are pushed into a leading role and become the most fascinating aspect of the painting.
Lines create relationships between forms and spaces. In this respect, East and West share a common aesthetic language: In China, it is said that 'form and emptiness give rise to each other; spaces unpainted by the artist have a miraculous effect,' while the Western surrealist René Magritte created 'negative spaces' with his silhouette technique. Bada Shanren, in Egret on the Rock , outlines forms with his textural 'cun' brushstrokes while tracing the egret's feathers with just the tip of his brush. All else, inside and outside, is left empty, allowing 'empty spaces to give rise to forms.' A flower-and-vase print by Sanyu also clearly shows this technique in the veins of the leaves and outlining of the petals. In Pink Chrysanthemums, this same original scraping technique creates the outlines that build its framework. It's easy to imagine Sanyu's skilled gestures—evenly controlled but still relaxed and free, as he scrapes out one clean, incisive line after another in the thick black oils, until finally, the 'empty' white lines against the background turn into 'solid forms' in space. The relationship between those lines and the surrounding empty spaces hint at spatial dimensions on the flat surface, creating a sense of front-toback depth even without traditional methods of perspective. With these uniquely personal methods, Sanyu links the Western idea of negative space with other ideas in the Chinese tradition, ideas about forms and empty space, undefined areas, and dimensionality. Pink Chrysanthemums was a perfect vehicle for expressing all the original aesthetic views that Sanyu both discovered and mastered so well.
“His paintings have compositions of subtle elegance and nobility and his colours are exquisite, lending his paintings and irresistible character.” - Jan D. Voskuil, 1932
Colour, too, is a highly expressive element in Sanyu's works. Even with similar subjects, he could create new kinds of layering and depth with different combinations of pure colours. Traditionally, the Chinese spoke of how there are 'five colours in ink,' meaning that even a single ink colour can change in tone. In the West, the Impressionists' colours reflected natural light, The Fauves who released colour, giving it freer and more subjective interpretations. For Sanyu, it was traditional painting that inspired the use of a single colour to express changeable states of light and shadow. Sanyu adds a gentle wash of white around his chrysanthemum blooms, and, as if shrouded in deep inks, they quietly release their own halo of light against the deep, shadowy background. Sanyu also deliberately avoids perfect alignment at the edges of the white and pink oils, for a slight dislocation that cleverly lets them achieve their own natural, three-dimensional quality; this kind of brushwork resembles the offsetting of modern prints or the washes of ink in freehand painting and calligraphy. It frees Pink Chrysanthemums from the literalism so stereotypical of traditional still-lifes and elevates the genre to new heights.
In the 1930s, the two most important friends of Sanyu's life, Henri- Pierre Roché and Johan Franco, entered his life. In fact, Sanyu's success much on the encouragement and guidance he received from Roché; the popular art dealer managed to push Sanyu toward a golden era that became the most prolific of his career. Johan Franco too was generous in helping tide Sanyu over some economic difficulties so as to continue with his creative work. Franco came from a family with close connections to the art world, and helped Sanyu mount a number of solo exhibitions in Haarlem and Amsterdam, where his work received high praise from Dutch art critic Jan D. Voskuil. As Franco noted in an introduction to one of the Dutch exhibitions, 'Only after repeated viewings can we really appreciate both the sincerity and the full control of his artistic conceptions.' If we cast our imaginations back, it's easy to see how, at the time, the work of Matisse and Picasso might have been regarded as childlike, and their true greatness recognized only after the tides of history had washed in a new era. The same is true of Sanyu. After this Pink Chrysanthemums was completed, it became part of Franco's personal collection; following his emigration to the US in 1935, it was transferred to another private Dutch collection where it remained for many years. Pink Chrysanthemums in a Basket is a tribute to the sincere and moving friendship between Sanyu, Roché, and Franco, and one of the best examples of how Sanyu's art spread through the Netherlands.
Sanyu exhibits here a special part of the Chinese literati tradition, as the chrysanthemums also come to metaphorically represent himself: a person detached from the mundane, material world and pursuing at his own pace the total integration of painting and poetry with his life. Close inspection shows that concealed those earlier traces. As we encounter the work over time and come to appreciate those patterns, symbolic of the traditional wish for 'fortune, prosperity, longevity, and happiness,' they inject into the work a sumptuous sense of serenity and fresh beauty. The uniqueness of Pink Chrysanthemums in a Basket is its simple elegance and its fresh, refined beauty when viewed from a distance; up close, one can only be impressed by the concentration, profundity, and spontaneous ease of Sanyu's freehand brushwork. He guides his brush with deep affection, eliciting a spare, ethereal beauty that transcends reality and blooms quietly inside the painting.
In contrast to other Sanyu floral works, Pink Chrysanthemums conveys a beauty that, like the ancient Chinese saying regarding beautiful women, 'dims the moon and puts flowers to shame.' In its simple, reserved, and unassuming manner, Pink Chrysanthemums exudes a noble air of mature elegance. With its deep conception and its unostentatious lines, it is like a great, classic beauty of the East, who sways gracefully toward you from the painting, with 'enticing charm in her shy glances and a trace of a smile on her red lips.'
In Pink Chrysanthemums , Sanyu drew on the deep understanding of line, colour, space, and light and shadow that he had learned in both the East and the West. It crystallizes the way he merged Eastern traditions with Western art and then transformed them, and stands as a great achievement in the modernization of Chinese art. Zao Wou-Ki, speaking of Sanyu's art, once said that “his greatest works are those completely, unabashedly simple ones.” Cézanne, the father of modern art, once said, 'To paint a painting does not mean to blindly reproduce reality; it means creating harmony in all the relationships within it.' In its exquisite colour, rich lines, and attention to fine detail, Sanyu's Pink Chrysanthemums in a Basket remains a continually engaging and appealing work. The Chinese poet Li Bai wrote, 'I raise my cup toward the bright moon, inviting it to join me. It, my shadow, and I make three. I sing, and the moon wavers, I dance, and my shadow flickers beside me.' In just this way, Sanyu, juxtaposing forms and spaces in monochrome, projects a relationship between the three elements of colour, the still-life subject, and space, And, like the three roles that emerge in the poem in the form of the moon, the poet, and his shadow, this work shows the artist exploring the essence of the natural world and in dialogue with himself. He then projects his feeling into a genuine act of creation, in a work of concise simplicity and pure, touching beauty.