Eastern and western art differ significantly in their techniques, materials, and expressive styles, largely due to differences in cultural and aesthetic outlook. In the East, line and color are tools through which the artist conveys feeling. The expression of a subject's inner character takes precedence over outer form, even to the extent that the artist "ought not to be concerned with precise rendering, but with the romantic spirit of the heart," and the outer world almost becomes a vehicle for depicting inner realizations. Europe, however, has since the classical Greek era sought correct proportions, rational perspectives, and an objective portrayal of the outer world through observation and imitation. Only the modern art of the 20th century brought a radical shift in this approach; art traditionally founded in realism shifted toward the exploration of inner truths, and masters such as Picasso and Matisse found inspiration in sources as diverse as African sculptures and origami paper-cutting art. Sanyu, however, living and working in France, returned to the cultural roots of his native China, creating art which reflected and extended its poetic traditions.
In the poetics of ancient China it was never sufficient to simply describe a subject; instead, meaning that went beyond the immediate text or its scene portrayal was conveyed by the addition of a certain type of aesthetic focus. The poet Du Fu said, "Even a small scale work should have a reach of 10,000 miles," implying not just physical breadth but an illuminating concept and subtle effects of language. In Lu Ji's Rhetoric, he points out how creative thinking must embrace a broad, universal awareness; the author should "capture the ages in one instant and reveal the four seas in a single glance," while the painter should "cage heaven and earth within his forms, and hold all things in the tip of his brush." He additionally advocated a perceptive identification with one's subject, so that "we depart from perfect forms as necessary to fully depict what they are." These approaches to nature and the understanding of life are mirrored in the famous phrase of the English poet William Blake, "To see a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower." Mere depictions of scenery and landscapes were seen as conveying the artist's insights into the earth, creation, and the natural world, and in Sanyu's work, the joy and the reflective emotions he projected from his life into his work became a valuable element of his art.
From the 1920s onward, Sanyu consistently favored female nudes, floral still lifes, and animals as subjects, while his style underwent changes consistent with his personal growth and outlook. In the 1930s and 1940s Sanyu worked mostly in stark black and white palettes, de-emphasizing any feeling of layering and depth in his colors, and scraping lines into the oils he spread thickly on the canvas with the handle of his brush to help evoke physical weight and mass. He shifted toward using more diverse color in the '50s, often in flat areas that he outlined in black, and abandoned serious portrayal of real spatial depth or dimensions in favor of pure depictions of his subjects and their characteristic features. But while forms and structures are essential to an understanding Sanyu's painted works, perhaps another excellent point of departure is the poetic inscriptions he gave his works and the glimpses of his moods they provide us. Based on the publications currently available, only three to four Sanyu works include such poem inscriptions; the same poem that appears on the Cat and Birds (Lot 532) presented here is also inscribed on the Floral Arrangement with Frog, Bird, and Butterfly (Fig. 1) held in the permanent collection of the National Museum of History in Taipei. Clearly, at a time when Sanyu's powers were reaching their full maturity, he deliberately quotes these lines of poetry, "There is reward in quiet contemplation of natural things; I enjoy the four seasons, with all men," as a kind of self-portrait; they express both the spirit of the work and call attention to Cat and Birds as an important work that represents Sanyu's successful melding of poetry, painting, and calligraphy within a unified work.
When I'm at leisure nothing breaks my composure
As I go to sleep, the sun glows red through the window
There is reward in quiet contemplation of natural things
I enjoy the four seasons, with all men
The Tao, beyond form, permeates heaven and earth
My thoughts merge with the changing wind and clouds
Wealth doesn't seduce me; the poor have their pleasures
Realize this, and a man will be rich and powerful
- Cheng Hao, Northen Song, Chance Creation of an Autumn Day
The deep feelings in poetry grow from the experience of life. For the rationalists of the Song Dynasty, the experience of life included their exploration of the mind itself. "Reward in quietly contemplating natural things" and "enjoying the four seasons with all men" expresses their reflection on seasonal change and the forgetfulness of self achieved by letting our subjective awareness enter into the things around us. "Quiet contemplation" means quieting the mind and projecting oneself into the object of contemplation, to appreciate its beauty and to sense the Tao; the term "natural things" suggests the appearance, order, and harmonies of things in nature. Only such quiet contemplation, without thought of gain or loss, brings awareness of the source of all things in the Tao. The title of the poem, Chance Creation of an Autumn Day suggests not just a momentary creative flight on the part of the author, but also that the present moment is a doorway that leads us to insight. Sanyu was born into a family of some means but, after many years in France, his economic situation had taken a turn for the worse; he overcame the oppressiveness of his relative poverty by finding joy in the spiritual aspects of life, especially by immersing himself in painting. In Cat and Birds, Sanyu depicts a cat and bird with a miniature bonsai, with the suggestion that they are "natural things" which may be the objects of contemplation. The peaceful scene evokes a pleasant, enjoyable simplicity, and it embodies the Taoist conception of man in unity with nature, successfully bringing the viewer close to the object of contemplation and encouraging contentment in enjoying simple things.
Sanyu's long sojourn in France, his increasing age, and his ever deeper yearning for his homeland meant that such paintings as this inevitably became a vehicle for the projection, and the release, of his feelings. As a child in China he had studied calligraphy, inheriting its "language of line" and the principles of using line to shape forms and express feelings. Here Sanyu outlines the contours of his cat, bird, and tree to set them off against a simple monochromatic background; its washes of color derive from China's lyrical painting tradition and provide empty space as a foil for the solid forms in the foreground. Each of the elements of this painting were at one time the subjects of paintings by ancient China's literati painters: the cat, called a li-nu by the ancient Chinese, with a suggestion of wildness, and the shape of the plant, the bird, and the auspicious patterns of the flooring all figured in the paintings of the literati. Sanyu's adaptation of such a traditional language of forms, combined with the quiet flatness of the pictorial space, seems for a moment to bring time to a halt. These splendid living creatures will seemingly not be allowed to age, and Sanyu through them expresses his feel for the movement of the Tao and the passing of the seasons, giving concrete expression to the lines of the poem, "enjoying the four seasons with all men."
The Chinese believe that the universe is composed of the complementary opposites of Yin and Yang, Yin being the soft, yielding principle and Yang the hard, generative element. In Cat and Birds, Sanyu's vocabulary includes the use of white in a kind of figure-ground reversal, corresponding to the Yin-Yang duality, in which darker background tones form an inverted "U" around the sides of the composition, against which the vertical lines of the bird, cat, and bonsai miniature lead the eye back to the white floor. The aesthetic of the composition is one in which hard and soft elements contribute equally to its structuring. In it, Sanyu's arrangement of space and harmonious layout of compositional elements, along with his building of lines and attention to detail, carry subtle reminders of the care given to the building of a Chinese garden. Any structures in such a garden should complement their environs and join together in pleasing rhythms and arrangements; curving walls and partitioned spaces work together with picture-window scenic views and varying perspectives to suggest much broader spaces. Looking at Sanyu's painting from this point of view explains some of its features, such as the curvature of line and the staggered planes of space. Like a walk through a Chinese garden, Cat and Birds encourages viewers to let their eyes rove and enjoy the symmetries and harmonies of its spaces.
While Sanyu inherited from Chinese culture its tradition of naturalistic expression, his painting borrows neither its broad, roughly impressionistic styles nor the exactness of the Chinese gong-bi, or "fine-brush" technique. Instead he expresses depth and breadth, time and space, with the most minimal means possible, incisively capturing the subtle features of his subjects and their natural grace. Only Sanyu's approach could unite both the broadest and the subtlest aesthetic elements in a single viewpoint and create such a fine tension between them. In contrast with the intense expressionism of modern western oil painting in the early 20th century, Sanyu here returns to basic portrayals of subjects and to painting as a spiritual exploration, so that neither his use of the oil medium nor his traditional expression of poetic feeling require a great deal of interpretation or deconstruction. Sanyu simply imbued his art with great feeling by means of a simple but refined vocabulary, and in so doing, created art that transcends national and cultural boundaries and attracts audiences in both the East and the West.