AN EXQUISITELY RARE PAINTING BY SANYU
Christie's Hong Kong is honoured to present Goldfish, a rare and unique work by Chinese-French painter Sanyu. Born in Sichuan, China in 1895, Sanyu is celebrated as one of the artistic prodigies of his generation. His works represent a visionary interpretation of Chinese art, fusing disparate elements and aesthetics: from ancient to modern, East to West, ink and oil, line and colour. As such, they hold a position of great significance in the history of modern Chinese art.
Sanyu loved animals, so it was natural that birds, fish and animals would frequently appear in his paintings. Sanyu's paintings on oil are relatively rare and limited in number; According to the first and second volumes of Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonné Oil Paintings, he only created about 300 oil paintings in his lifetime. Within this body of work, only 11 feature fish as subjects; four of those reside in the collection of the National Museum of History in Taipei. In Sanyu's paintings, fish most often appear in supporting roles, serving as foils for other subjects. Goldfish, however, is the first and only, painting by Sanyu to feature eight goldfish its primary subject and in such exquisite detail. The work is unique within Sanyu’s oeuvre for the way it adopts the style of the still life genre to present dynamic, moving objects like fish as a subject. In an overview of Sanyu's entire oeuvre, even including those works whose subjects or techniques bear no similarity to Goldfish, it is still considered a peerless example of Sanyu’s creative output. In this painting, the artist fully develops both form and empty space, while also seeking a fine harmony between the static and the dynamic elements of the composition. These disparate elements unite as one and yet highlight each other perfectly, creating the highly artistic effect of both capturing the realism of its subjects' appearances as well as their character and lively spirit. In contrast with other artists of his era such as Picasso and Matisse, each of whom introduced sweeping innovations in art, Sanyu faced more challenging circumstances. Working within both Eastern and Western traditions, with their entirely different stylistic characteristics, he had to absorb the essentials of Western modernism, while at the same time seeking to manifest the aesthetic viewpoints of the Chinese tradition. Sanyu's unique artistic style was formed through blending, deconstruction, and innovation, and his goldfish is a perfect example of this kind of special artistic innovation.
Goldfish, painted during the 1930s-1940s, is a perfect representation of Sanyu's special personal style, one that blends 'the charm of oils with the spirit of ink painting.' His brushwork, use of colour, and treatment of space aligns with the outlook and the explorations of modern Western art, while embodying aesthetic elements from the East. He presents the goldfish, swimming in a transparent glass tank, in simplified and straightforward lines, but most fascinating is his presentation of dynamic, living objects within a still-life concept. Each fish moves differently, fluttering toward the top or bottom, chasing each other and playing, or just swimming in a leisurely way. The painting is full of humour and joy, leading the audience into an expansive and cheerful world of thought, somewhere between poetry and painting, reality and dreams.
THE SPECIAL SIGNIFICANCE OF SANYU’S GOLDFISH
Goldfish – which originated in China – have a history that can be traced back over more than 2,000 years. There are records of red crucian carp in the ancient book The Classic of Mountains and Seas, and by the time of the Song Dynasty, fish ponds were being built to breed decorative goldfish. In Eastern society and culture, goldfish are seen as talismans — symbols of peace, happiness, luck, and prosperity —invested with special meanings of beauty and harmony. In Chinese, 'goldfish' sounds very similar to 'gold and jade,' implying abundance in life and 'halls full of gold and jade,' while 'fish' sounds similar to 'surplus' or 'abundance,' hence the popular phrase 'surplus every year.' These connotations made fish a common decorative theme on items crafted for the imperial residences. In the West, goldfish also imply luck and wealth. Tradition has it that in 17th-century Europe, married men would present goldfish to their wives on their first wedding anniversary, for a happy and prosperous life together in the future. The number 'eight' is a symbol of creation myths, and when the Arabic numeral 8 is turned on its side, it becomes 8, a sign of abundance and infinity. In Chinese popular culture, 'eight' also symbolizes wealth, due to its pronunciation like 'fa,' meaning to generate wealth. White tablecloths are decorated with auspicious Chinese symbols, including patterns representing money, the eight auspicious patterns that symbolize luck and abundance, and 'shou,' the symbol of health and longevity. When he first arrived in Paris, Sanyu received generous support from his older brother, but as the family fortunes fell, life became difficult and neither his work nor his marriage went well. Goldfish, while expressing Sanyu's hope and aspiration for a better life, employs Eastern style themes, and introduces transformation and variations of traditional Chinese symbols and patterns. It clearly shows that Sanyu, at this time, already wanted to move closer to his own culture, a goal that would provide important context for future creative work.
The subject of Goldfish derives inspiration from the themes and motifs of ancient Chinese literati painting, and thus represents an Eastern aesthetic outlook blended with colours, compositions, and spatial treatment borrowed from Western aesthetics. It works outside the zone of mainstream Western aesthetics, suggesting other methods and possibilities for shaping forms and compositions. Parisian painting circles during the 1930s represented the latest developments in modern Western art, in leading figures such as Picasso and Matisse. In two of their works, Still Life with Fish and The Goldfish, we can see how they begin from a starting point of scientific logic and technical structure, with special attention to the orderliness of their spatial structures and the expressiveness of their media and colours. Picasso, in Still Life with Fish, analytically breaks down his background, table, fish, and plate into sharp geometric shapes. Subverting the normal concept of modelling shapes through his deformation, fragmentation, and deconstruction, he expresses the spirit of Cubism through this process of breaking apart and then reassembling these objects. The countless different perspectives that appear, and the suggestions of partial, momentary glimpses, create a new kind of pictorial space. Matisse, with areas of thick, flat colour, shows red goldfish swimming in a fish tank, but painted entirely differently as we see them both through the glass of the tank and on the surface as well, due to the refraction of light through the water. His colours are brilliant blocks of red and green that present the relationships between various aspects of objects, space, light and shadow. He gives colour an independent life of its own, realizing the concept of 'colour above all.' By contrast with these masters, Sanyu's Goldfish does not engage in sweeping reformation or innovation in any one single area, such as modeling or colour; instead, it integrates and perfects a new, multi-faceted language of painting. The elements of that language include simple, refined lines born out of Chinese calligraphy, to which he adds expression through Western colour, and variations on it; further, he introduces a new interpretation of a kind of simplified spatial ordering. These elements, integrated into a new, unified whole, emphasize the charm and the emotional implications expressed by the work, creating a new artistic style that had never been seen prior to that era. It created a new, revolutionary outlook and marked the beginning of a new era, establishing a model for innovation in modern art in the 20th century.
European painting is like a rich meal, with a lot of grilled, fried food and all kinds of meat. My paintings are like vegetables, fruits and salads. They help people to change their taste and their appreciation of painting. So many contemporary painters are always just a bit deceitful, painting with so many colours. I don’t deceive. — Sanyu
Sanyu's concise, deft style is everywhere in Goldfish, from his choice of colour to his dry-brush techniques. Employing only three colours, Sanyu creates a composition segmented into orange, white, and grey regions. Large sweeps of reddish-orange oils are laid out in flat areas in the upper and middle parts of the canvas, with the tablecloth below in white; one curving sweep of a dry brush loaded with black pigments sets out the base of the fish tank. The swimming fish appear in pure black, white, and cinnabar red within that swath of reddish orange colour, their forms echoing against other with pulsing visual energy. Variations in layering and visual penetration occur, with pleasing rhythms in the colour transitions and interlacing spaces. All highlight the painting's sense of abstract beauty, projecting its mood and creating a special conception and atmosphere.
Roy Lichtenstein once used his trademark Ben Day dots paired with thick black lines and bold, primary colours to create his own depiction of goldfish. Contrasting this work with Sanyu's Goldfish, we clearly see how Lichtenstein uses geometric blocks of colour to compose his paintings and form spatial relationships; Sanyu focuses on defining linear forms, and then, with a coral background paired with the white tablecloth, he establishes foreground and background, creating a unique visual depth and openness and a new aesthetic experience. The background of Goldfish is set out simply in two blocks of reddish-orange and white colour, suggestive of both the 'undefined regions' of Chinese painting and the colouristic expressionism of Western artist Mark Rothko. Sanyu pursued some of the same abstract and expressionistic elements as Western artists, but was more concerned with exploring them in still-life settings. The abstract beauty of his colours and lines thus never sinks into the dull patterns of stiff, dry, or overly theoretical work, but instead leads us back to the narrative themes of China's ancient literati painters and their cultural context. There, we travel at ease between the two different artistic systems: of Western colouristic art, and the paintings and calligraphy of the Chinese scholar-painters.
CREATING HIS OWN RULES
BRUSHWORK AND LINES 'THAT SEEM TO LIVE AND BREATHE'
Sanyu once showed some of his paintings to his friend Serge Tcherepnin, explaining that he was always striving to produce the perfect line, to avoid artificiality, and to produce sinuous, curving lines that seem to live and breathe. Pang Xunqin (1906-1985) recalled how in 1927, painting in the studio with Sanyu, he observed Sanyu 'using a calligraphy brush to do his sketching,' indicating that as early as the 1920s, Sanyu already had in mind ideas about using Chinese linear elements to model the forms in his paintings. Goldfish testifies precisely to Sanyu's pursuit of these aesthetic ideas. His inky black lines set out the shapes and markings of the goldfish, and the utter naturalness of the few simple, clean and incisive lines he uses are less concerned with strict realism than with capturing a vivid, lifelike image of the fish; he wants to grasp their living, moving forms, to convey both their form and spirit in just a few strokes. Outlining the transparent fish tank is accomplished smoothly in strong, taut calligraphic lines; Sanyu presents its crystalline clarity and sense of openness with his most practiced brushwork. Sanyu once described his process of artistic exploration to his friend Albert Dahan as "simplification, followed by further simplification." This long process of precipitation, of extracting a form, ultimately leaves only the purest and most refined elements on the canvas, and it is these simplest of forms that produce the richest emotional impact. Sanyu's entire process of refinement moved well beyond objective representation or simulation of objects. Painters have chosen flowers, birds, insects, and fish as subjects throughout the ages, making any innovation in such well-established themes an very difficult thing. But Sanyu's unconventional approach and his self-created lines and brushwork create their own new stylistic rules. They recall the romantic, highly expressionistic style of Bada Shanren, who never sought completeness in his landscapes and flower-and-bird paintings, but achieved it anyway through sheer suggestiveness. In his own way, Sanyu also achieves effects similar to Qi Baishi, one of the great modern masters of Chinese painting, who followed his own path in highly creative depictions of flowers, birds, insects, and fish. Goldfish shows Sanyu exquisitely combining the characteristics of calligraphic, ink-and-brush lines with oil paints, reinterpreting traditional bird, fish and animal paintings and creating an exceptional style of his own.
A POETIC EASTERN SCENE
IMBUED WITH WESTERN MODERNIST THOUGHT
In Goldfish, Sanyu constructs a pictorial space that beckons the viewer to enter, and his later works, especially the still lifes and landscape-themed works, adhere to this same principle of presenting space. Their themes, lines, and conceptions are Chinese, their source rooted in Eastern aesthetics, even as their spatial structuring borrows much from Western modernist thinking. The spatial arrangement of this Goldfish coincides with constructivist ideas once put forward by Mondrian. Mondrian was one representative of a group of Western painters who engaged in a series of theoretical discussions on the expressive power of lines and spaces. They believed that colours and lines have independent symbolic meanings, and that they presented spiritual images: Vertical lines, for example, created space, development, and power, whereas horizontal lines represented time, extension, and deep thought. This Goldfish takes the fish tank as its vertical axis, supplemented by the white table as its horizontal axis. The fluttering, floating goldfish express a kind of upward impetus and life force, and Sanyu cleverly presents the symbolic meaning of vertical lines in terms that are more emotional, figurative, and imagistic. Similarly, Mondrian's ideas about horizontal lines, under Sanyu's brush, turn into an ordinary object from daily life — a white table. The table extends the breadth and visual centre of the painting toward the left and right, and into the imaginary space outside the painting, extending even further the abstraction and the tensions of the colours. Sanyu's still-life theme and the poetic scene he creates conceal the formalist, abstract beauty of modernism. Alexander Calder's mobile sculpture of a fish and Sanyu' both use extended lines to express the flow of time and sensations of space, but whereas Sanyu's vehicle is a figurative still life, Calder tends toward the maximal simplification and reductionism of the West, in which emotions are expressed through pure colour and line. The creative processes of Mondrian and Kandinsky followed exactly this principle of development: from figurative, to semi-abstract, to abstract, and then to pure colours and spaces. Up until the 1950s, Yves Klein was using blue tones across his entire canvases to convey a specific mood and atmosphere, perhaps the ultimate expression of minimalism and simplicity in the use of colour in Western art.
AN ILLUSTRIOUS PROVENANCE AND WITNESS TO DEEP BONDS OF FRIENDSHIP
The first owner of Goldfish was Sanyu's good friend and one of the most influential photographers in the 20th century — Robert Frank (1924-2019). His photo collection, The Americans, influenced many later generations of photographers and had a transformative significance in political and cultural history. Later, he produced journal-style photo works and experimental films and documentaries, inspiring creators and artists such as Jeff Wall, Mary Ellen Mark, and Ed Ruscha. When Sanyu and Frank met in 1949, Sanyu was already middle-aged, whereas Frank was a young Swiss émigré of only 20-some years, developing a career in the US. Their meeting was quite dramatic. A disappointed and unhappy Sanyu was hoping to leave Paris and seek out new opportunities in the US, while the quiet and still unknown Frank thought that Europe similarly offered new vistas for him. The two agreed to trade residences, but the plan fell apart when Frank failed to go to Paris. But as Sanyu had already arrived in New York, the two became roommates instead, and best friends for life as well. Sanyu had originally hoped to promote a ping-pong-like game he had invented while living in America, but when that didn't work out, Frank, who was always supportive, helped him mount an exhibition at the Passadoit Gallery in Manhattan. But the exhibition drew little interest, and Frank bought all the works with his own funds. They remained in his collection for nearly half a century, and were only sold at auction in 1997 to raise money for Yale University's Andrea Frank Foundation Sanyu Scholarship Fund. Among his many works, it was this Goldfish that was chosen for the cover of the Sanyu Scholarship Fund brochure, confirming its unusual importance and its unmatched position among his works.
‘SUCH POWER IN HIS PRECISION AND PURITY, AND SUCH WISDOM AND SKILL’
Sanyu's accidental death in 1966 left another a legendary chapter in the story of his life's vicissitudes. Looking back at his more than 40-year career in art, setbacks and frustrations seem to dominate, yet he remained steadfast and never abandoned his desire to create. Arriving in Paris in 1921, he was part of the first wave of Chinese artists to study in Europe, which included Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian, and Pan Yuliang. Unlike other international students enrolled in art academies, Sanyu frequented the cafes around which art and literary life revolved, and chose to paint in the freer, less academic style of the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Not limited to any particular 'school' or system, he developed a highly individual style that gradually won approval at the annual Salons. Living in the Montparnasse district, the centre of literary and artistic life, he came into contact with a number of foreign artists then active in Paris, including Moïse Kisling, Alberto Giacometti, and another artist from the East, Japanese painter Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita.
It was also at this time that Sanyu met Pierre-Henri Roché, the famous art collector and dealer. Roché, keen to discover new potential talent, had close contacts with many important artists, including Constatin Brancusi and Pablo Picasso, and would play an important role in promoting their future development. Roché recognized Sanyu's talents, just as he recognized those of Picasso, Georges Braque, and Modigliani, and was deeply attracted by his works, which he felt were on the same level as the outstanding modern artists of the West. Roché admired Sanyu's works enough to make a number of successive purchases over different periods of time. On the back of a letter from Sanyu, he made a note of art critic Max Jacob's high praise for the artist: ‘such power in his precision and purity, and such wisdom and skill’.
Roche's strong affirmation of Sanyu's talent seems perfectly embodied in this Goldfish, with Sanyu's unique ideas on display everywhere: in the innovative ink-and-brush style lines, the simple but refined use of colour, the spatial handling, and the Eastern poetry of the scene. Sanyu's paintings feature a diverse array of animals, from sparrows, falcons, and butterflies in the sky, horses, leopards, and tigers on the ground, and fish, ducks, and oxen in the water, all of which take either leading or supporting roles in those works. Perhaps due to homesickness or the hardships of his life, Sanyu deliberately reduced the size of the animals in his works after the 1940s and '50s, placing them against vast, deep backgrounds that convey a heightened sense of loneliness and isolation. Unlike those later works in his animal series, Goldfish focuses more on Sanyu's exploration of art and aesthetics, as he seeks to create, within the scope of modern art, a mode of expression blending Eastern and Western aesthetics, and a new kind of modern Chinese art but with the use of Western media.
Despite all the abstract beauty of line and colour to be found in Goldfish, Sanyu eschewed the more extreme versions of expressionism or formalism, and instead became more of a connecting point between the two. He created a huge new realm for exploration and opened up great new territories, establishing a beautiful example for later generations of modern Chinese artists, and a very high level of achievement toward which they could strive.