Sanyu's Pink Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase (Lot 1005) derives from the collection of a European collector who acquired it at the gallery of well-known French art collector and man of letters Henri-Pierre Roch? (1879-1959). Pink Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase has remained in the family collection, inherited by the succeeding generations. Roch?'s association with Sanyu began in 1928, and he began acquiring works by the artist in 1929. Roch? was active in the French art world as a collector and an agent, particularly during the 1920s and '30s, and had a very discerning eye. It was Roch?'s introduction that brought Picasso together with Leo and Gertrude Stein, who supported and sponsored the then-unknown 25-year-old artist; they collected key Picasso works from his Blue Period through his later Cubist period, helping him achieve greater renown. Roch? was keen to discover new artists with potential, and therefore developed close relationships with a number of artists of the time, including Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, and even the Japanese artist Ebihara Kinosoke, and he remained highly influential in promoting their further development. Roch? also collected Sanyu's works in stages, revealing how much he also admired Sanyu's creative brilliance. Notes from Roch?'s daily journal, such as this one from January 10 1929, also make this clear: "He [Sanyu] is really incomparable." Roch? likewise made a note, on the back of a letter sent to him by Sanyu, of the high praise given Sanyu by art critic Max Jacob: "What a precise and pure power his work has, a combination of intellect and technique." And, on April 7, 1930, Roch? made a further note in his journal: "I had lunch today at Sanyu'sKHe showed me several new pieces in which he had scraped out images from canvases filled with color, and I bought two."
Freehand Style and Conceptualization
The scraping technique mentioned by Roch? above is one of the methods Sanyu applied in Pink Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase. As was characteristic of many early Sanyu works, he 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. This expressive elements involved in this technique would help set the tone and direction for Sanyu's later work. First, presenting the basic flower and vase images solely in outline eliminates the expression of color in their depiction. In the chrysanthemum petals, though, Sanyu adopts the freehand "boneless" technique used in traditional Chinese "bird and flower" paintings, and here, with a few spontaneous brushstrokes, he does reveal rich gradations of color, conveying the lyrical and conceptualizing principles of Sanyu's work. Sanyu's outlining is clearly derived from the Chinese line drawing tradition, as seen in paintings of courtly women by Gu Kaizhi of the Eastern Jin Dynasty. A contemporary of Sanyu's, Pang Xunqin (1906-1985), recalls painting in the studio with Sanyu. His observation that Sanyu "used the calligraphy brush to paint quick sketches" shows Sanyu developing the use of lines derived from this style for the shaping of forms and images. In Pink Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase, the presentation of the flowers and vase is light, spare, and transparent, the blank space of their outlines floating against a large area of background color to create unusual visual penetration. The viewer's gaze seemingly passes through the still life, penetrating to the various layers of the painting's pink hues and into the depths of color in the background. Sanyu's aesthetic insight is one that creates a movement from form toward color, in which color, line, and the shaping of form become very closely linked. Viewers enjoying Sanyu works from the '30s will be struck by his pink tonalities and the unique visual pull they exert. It becomes clear in Pink Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase how Sanyu achieved those visual effects-using the unique dynamics of his line to enhance the expressive qualities of color, pulling the viewer deeper into the spaces created with those colorsPink Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase also reveals an important principle in Sanyu's presentation of space-structuring a picture space so open it seems the viewer could walk into it. Sanyu's later work, particularly in the still life and landscape genres, all employ this manner of presentation.
Lines that Use Empty Space to Convey Form
Sanyu's lines in addition 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. A particularly Eastern mode of expression, this technique displays the same sparseness and simplicity as rubbings taken from stone carvings, which is the kind of minimalism that Sanyu favored. In 1930, Sanyu had produced a series of copper-plate etchings to illustrate the French translation of the "Selected Poetry of Tao Qian." He seems to have transferred this etched line style to his oils; his hollowed-out line effect in Chrysanthemums also resembles a similar technique used on porcelains from the ancient Cizhou kilns in China, in which lines revealing the porcelain substrate beneath the glaze were used to create fine, delicate flower designs.
Sanyu used line in a manner similar to a well-known Japanese artist who was also in Paris at this time, L?onard Tsuguharu Foujita. Critics insisted on comparing the line art of Sanyu and Foujita and trying to determine which of them had influenced the other, but it may be better instead to consider the fact that the two of them, as Eastern artists in the Western art world, had both arrived on their own at a style in which line was fundamental. In addition, there was another artist who was also in Paris for a time during the '30s, Pang Xunqin. Pang returned to China in the '40s and created his People of Guizhou series and another Ribbon Dance series (Fig. 1), employing fine, supple lines in sketches of Guizhou ethnic costumes; given his contact with Sanyu, it seems likely that Pang's line drawing style was influenced to a degree as a result. Chinese calligraphy and painting both, in fact, draw their unique beauty from their lines. Human figure studies or paintings of courtly females after the time of the Han and Tang dynasties featured fine, flowing lines; this developed into an independent style known in later eras as "the spring silkworm spinning silk" or "the elegant flowing silk style." In calligraphy, the seal character style, the "regular" script style, and the cursive styles each use differing lines and types of brushwork to write the same characters, each with its own resulting beauty and appeal. Each of these different arts manifests the expressive potentials of line. In Japan, too, fine line drawing was the principal element on which the famous Ukiyo-e school of painting was founded. Sanyu and Foujita, as well as Pang Xunqin, can trace much of their work to the importance of line in Eastern art, though in some of Sanyu's works the use and adaptation of such styles gains a special depth and variety. Pink Chrysanthemums, for example, contains both solid and "empty" lines, and its lines have an abstracted and generalized quality that, beyond straightforward depiction, also lends depth to the work's conception. Both Sanyu and Foujita represent an Eastern aesthetic viewpoint, one that stands clearly outside of what is considered mainstream in the West, and which creates other possibilities for modeling forms and creating compositions. In the Paris of the '30s, it was figures such as Picasso and Matisse who represented new directions in Western modernism; their depictions emphasized three-dimensional volume and texture, applying dense color in flat blocks to present the different aspects of an object (Fig. 2). The spirit of cubism was found in the breaking down and reconstruction of those objects. A comparison of such works with Pink Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase clearly shows the how the Western artists composed and structured spatial relationships through geometrical blocks; Sanyu, however, creates outlines that are interwoven and overlapping, and this, along with the foreground and background spaces created through his pink and powdery white tones, conveys the visual depth and penetration in the unique outlook of this artist.
Composition with Landscape Elements
Pink Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase, like other Sanyu works of this period, derives its subject from the favored subjects of the Chinese scholar-painters of ancient times, yet incorporates Western concepts in certain aspects of its color, composition, and spatial presentation. The picture space is divided into two segments, in an original approach that would also be a hallmark of later Sanyu works. This aspect of Sanyu's composition could be considered to derive from the "one river, two banks" approach in the landscapes of Ni Zan, though adapted and much simplified by Sanyu to make this landscape-like presentation of space workable in the context of an interior still-life. The Ni Zan composition Landscape in Autumn Twilight (Fig. 3) features a foreground in which a vertical axis is formed by only six cypresses and pines, while the rock base in which they are rooted forms the horizontal axis. The proportions of these elements in the Ni Zan painting are very similar to those of Sanyu's Pink Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase. Sanyu's vase and flowers stand in for Ni Zan's trees, and the pink at the bottom of his painting for the rocky base. A little further analysis of Ni Zan's overall composition shows a large reach of blank space in the center, effectively separating the mountains in the distance from the foreground trees and rocks, and it is from this that the "one river, two banks" style, with its three-tiered spatial relationship, is derived. Sanyu further refines this basic compositional principle, using white pigments throughout the center of the canvas, their subtly varied shading functioning much like the backgrounds of traditional Chinese landscapes, in which shadowy floating clouds allow viewers to imagine vast, deep spaces. The flowers and vase become the middle ground of Sanyu's painting, while the pink at the bottom, gaining prominence due to its color, becomes the foreground, and the painting thus develops the same foreground, middle ground, and background relationships found in Ni Zan's landscape. The further development and alteration of this concept in the Sanyu painting takes place through the fact that the three layers here overlap and exert more pull over each other than in the Ni Zan work. The vase, for example, as middle ground, seems to half fade into the whiteness of the background because of its "hidden" lines, thus joining the middle ground and distance more closely together. In addition, by using Western oils to convey the same kind of meaning and effect as the empty space in the Ni Zan work, Sanyu adds new expressive possibilities to the medium. Pink Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase displays Sanyu's ingenious melding of line and color in a still life composition to establish the spatial relationships seen in traditional Chinese landscapes. In so doing, Sanyu reinterprets the traditional floral still life genre in the exceptional personal style that was all his own.