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

Two Pink Chrysanthemums in a Clear Vase

SANYU (CHANG YU, 1895-1966)
Two Pink Chrysanthemums in a Clear Vase
signed in Chinese and signed ‘SANYU’ (lower right); signed ‘Chang Chang Yu’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
81 x 54 cm. (31 7⁄8 x 21 1⁄4 in.)
Painted in the 1930s
Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris (acquired directly from the artist) (inventory number 90)
Acquired directly from the wife of the above (Madam Denise Roché) by Madam De Villeneuve in 1969 in Paris, and thence by descent to the previous owner
Christie’s Hong Kong, 28 May 2011, lot 1005
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Rita Wong (ed.), Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings (Volume II), The Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan, 2011 (illustrated, plate 272, p. 79, 128).

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Lot Essay


In the early 1920s, Sanyu immersed himself in the romantic atmosphere and the freedom of artistic creation in France. Two Pink Chrysanthemums in a Clear Vase dates from his "Pink Period," an important phase of his artistic career. It was originally acquired by the famous French collector and literati Henri-Pierre Roché (1879- 1959). Roché acquired it directly from the artist, listing it as "No. 90" in his inventory of the 109 Sanyu works in his collection. Roché and Sanyu first became acquainted in 1928, and Roché began to purchase works by the artist the following year. Later in the years, Madam De Villeneuve from Paris bought the work from Madam Denise Roché in 1969, and it remained in the family collection for 42 years. The current collector purchased this work from Christie's sale in 2011. Having been in private hands for 10 years, Two Pink Chrysanthemums in a Clear Vase appears again on the auction market and is a testament of the important provenance and collecting history of this painting.


During the “Pink Period”, spanning from 1929 to 1939, Sanyu explored colour, space, and modelling of form in his still lives through the spectrum of his unique personal feeling. He created a total of 52 floral-themed works, of which 47 can be classified as belonging to his "Pink Series." Those works tended to employ a minimalist approach, with precise, simplified compositions and limited palettes of pink, creamy white, and black. The floral still life was a continuous theme Sanyu explored in his life, focusing on flowers and vases on tabletops rather than plants from natural settings. The Chinese art of flower arrangements has a longstanding history dated back to the Ming Dynasty, and extensive treatises written such as Gao Lian's Three Theories of Floral Arrangement and Zhang Qiande's Floral Arrangement. Literatis found a pleasurable pastime in floral arrangements, and it was taken as embodiments of personal feelings and affections. Chrysanthemums were a favourite theme Sanyu spent his lifetime exploring; 50 out of 140 floral-theme paintings depict chrysanthemums.


In Two Pink Chrysanthemums in a Clear Vase, two chrysanthemums appear in this painting, one facing front and the other facing back, each with its own shape, while with a few spontaneous brushstrokes, rich gradations of colour appear in their petals. Against a creamy white background, the transparent vase reveals two slender sprigs of delicate flowers, full of vitality as they lean outward and up. Sanyu outlines their stems in light black, while the light pink of the flowers echoes the deeper pink of the table top. Two Pink Chrysanthemums in a Clear Vase is the only work from the period with a curvilinear cubic glass vase, outlined using white lines against a white background. Whereas Western painting emphasized the handling of light, shadow and perspective, Sanyu forgoes a realistic treatment of lighting effects, to present instead flattened shapes through simplified lines in an elegant monotonal palette. While employing different means, Sanyu achieves effects sought by the Cubists, in which objects are presented from different angles while abandoning light, shadow, and perspective. This treatment of the vase does not appear in any other Sanyu still life; thus, Two Pink Chrysanthemums in a Clear Vase transcends long-held conventions of Western still-life paintings and the barriers they create.


In Sanyu’s early years, he studied calligraphy under Zhao Xi (1867- 1948), a famed calligrapher of the late Qing and early Republican era in China. He had a solid foundation in traditional Chinese art and understood that the beauty of line was best reflected through the art of calligraphy. In Two Pink Chrysanthemums in a Clear Vase , Sanyu's brushwork is similar to the central strength employed while writing seal script calligraphy; the flower stems reach upward in a long fluid of vertical lines, accentuating the thriving flowers sitting in the vase. To highlight the texture and firmness of the leaves, the colour of the background’s underpainting seeps through the light black lines of the stems and leaves, resembling the eliminating strokes seen in cursive script. Sanyu's lines are implied, or "hidden," rather than brushed-on, solid lines. This is the subtractive principle, "to paint without painting," or the use of empty space to imply or present solid real forms. This aspect of Sanyu's composition could be considered to derive from the "one river, two mountains" approach in traditional Chinese paintings; though adapted and much simplified by Sanyu to make this landscape-like presentation of space workable in the context of an interior still-life. He paints two simple vertical flower stems that overlap one another and joins as one unity, as if growing out from the same form. This Eastern mode of expression also harks back to the artistic creations of Bada Shanren (1626-1705)— Sanyu adopts the freehand "boneless" technique used in traditional Chinese paintings, and here, with a few spontaneous brushstrokes, he reveals rich gradations of colour, conveying the lyrical and conceptualizing principles of Sanyu's work. The use of scraping technique is another important element of this work. Sanyu began by laying down a thick layer of powdery white oil, and then scraped the palette knife across the not-yet-dry pigments to form the outlines of the chrysanthemum and vase. His artistic expression that amalgamates the aesthetics of the East and the West underscores not only Sanyu’s inclusiveness, there is a profound creative spirit in his work, transcending cultural boundaries, and popular culture.

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