In the 1940s and '50s, Sanyu's flower-and-vase still-lifes began to display a rich new variety and appeal. New themes appeared, along with a new diversity of compositional approaches that reflected his changing aesthetic ideas. The exceptional Vase of Lilies with Red Ground (Lot 1016), produced in the 1940s, belongs to this period. Its subject and composition, the visual experience and cultural implications it embodies, broke new ground for Sanyu; in these and other original details it provides a valuable point of reference for understanding the development of Sanyu's abstract art in this period. At the same time, it provides further insight into the historical and aesthetic significance that Sanyu's work continues to hold for modern Chinese art.
Sanyu often chose the chrysanthemum as the subject of his floral compositions, though from the 1940s on, he expanded his range to include lilies, roses, tulips, violets, and wintersweets. These changes of subject also brought breakthroughs in compositional form and colouristic expression. Lilies, with their heavy, trumpet-shaped blooms, often cause the long, tender stems on which they sit to bow, creating vivacious bouquets whose blooms stretch outward horizontally. Vase of Lilies with Red Ground vividly captures a profusion of these beautiful flowers, swaying across the canvas and decorating its surface evenly with their relaxed elegance. Leaves and stems extend and mingle to produce richly varied patterns of lines and spatial relationships, and the lilies echo each other visually in their graceful, upward arcs and downward slanting lines. Taking in the canvas, our eyes move rhythmically across the work and into its layers, with an effect similar to that of traditional Chinese paintings with their distributed rather than single point perspective.
Explorations of Line and Space
Sanyu's every brushstroke represents an object or scene, but at the same time, involves a subtle structuring or an element of abstraction that leads the viewer's attention toward the beauty in the fundamental elements of line and colour. Vase of Lilies with Red Ground superbly exemplifies this approach. At its center are lines shaded in greenish black, which, while serving to model form, also intersect and lead into each other in complex patterns. They thus cut the red background into square, rectangular, rhomboidal, or rounded shapes, capturing the shifts in space and the flow of time in the abstract, reminding one of the rhythmic lines and visual dynamics manifested in Henri Matisse's Dancing II (Fig. 1). Sanyu's handling of space, regardless of whether viewed from an Eastern or Western standpoint, is exceptional. Inside the transparent vase, the interlocking stems wind gracefully together with the uninterrupted flow of Chinese calligraphy. Floating and spiraling gently upward, with an almost surrealistic touch, they project a warm lyricism of a kind less often seen in Western oils; the lines also suggest the veined patterns found on Chinese ceramics, lacquerware, and murals. The way Sanyu maintains these Chinese traditions, while introducing variations on them, accentuates the similar functions of line in his own work, where it highlights mood and conception, pulling our eyes through the painting and structuring its spaces.
The Aesthetics of Simplicity and Inner Peace
Sanyu's handling of the vase in Vase of Lilies with Red Ground wonderfully illustrates the refined simplicity of this artist. The tall, narrow glass container, in place of the frequently seen blue vase, guides the eye naturally upward, and Sanyu's minimalist handling eliminates surface colour in favor of pure outlining, emphasizing its graceful, transparent form similar to thhe elegance of pure lines captured in Brancusi's sculptures (Fig.2 ). In its center we clearly see the painting's background tones, further reinforcing its transparency. The white of the vase stands out clearly in the midst of the brilliant red and yellow tones, but without dominating, and it emerges from this broad, vague space with a hint of surrealism and fantasy. Its transparent, light-filled form creates visual penetration and layering, while its simple outlines are reminiscent of Chinese stone inscriptions, stele rubbings and Still-life painting (Fig. 3). Perceptual shifts between colours, forms, and empty space add a Zen-like compositional spareness and edgy philosophical character. Sanyu's ingenious conception is startling and illustrates his ability to use the simplest elements to express scene and atmosphere.
Sanyu described art to his friend Da Ang as an exploratory process in which he would "simplify, then simplify even more." Ideas would gradually settle into place, after which he began to extract the most basic aspects of forms until only the purest and most refined elements remained. From these pure, refined elements emerged the rich emotional implications of his art. This process of extracting essential elements went beyond merely observing, imitating, and reproducing forms. Sanyu's essential concern was the expressive nature of art itself, a focus on the things that can be sensed but not communicated verbally, such as the conception, mood, and tone of a work, and the artist's insights into life. Sanyu inherited this kind of simplified, vivid, and impressionistic style, from the Chinese system of aesthetics, but transforms it in his own work into something utterly original.
Flatness and Colouristic Expression
Another major change in Sanyu's work, beginning in the 1940s, was the use of colour similar to that of Henri Matisse and the Fauves, combining colouristic expression with abstracting tendencies. The result was a rich aesthetic exploration that displayed the exceptionally broad range of modern Chinese art. Embracing diverse aspects of Western modernism while retaining much of the feel of the ink-wash produced by the Chinese literati painters, Sanyu brought into being a complex and beautiful aesthetic world of his own.
Sanyu's colours became more brilliant and intense during the '40s, when his work often featured very pure shades of Prussian blue, cinnamon, inky black, and fresh green. In each painting, a single colour dominates as a keynote, bringing a heightened intensity of mood and expressiveness that contrasts sharply with the reserved pastel tones of his work in the 1930s. Sanyu enjoyed a stay in New York during this period, bringing him into contact with Mark Rothko and other artists of the New York School, and this change of environment was at least partly responsible for his stylistic changes. In Vase of Lilies with Red Ground , Sanyu characteristically produces a simple, clean, and carefully considered composition, with a strict division of the canvas with two different colours whose juxtaposition marks out foreground and background. The dense reddish-brown and bright yellow of Vase of Lilies with Red Ground produces sharp contrasts, a feature often seen during this period; Sanyu's sumptuous red echoes the colours of traditional embroidery work and exhibits the simple charm of China's traditional handcrafted lacquerware and mahogany furniture. But it is the fine control of this rich red colour that is perhaps most striking. In painting, pure crimson produces unique and intense effects: it creates the sense of a uniform and expanding space, and the eye of the viewer tends to focus even more strongly on any subtle changes within it, which often produce striking effects. Sanyu employs this colour not to mimic real three-dimensional spaces or volumes, but instead to build up space within a flat area of pure colour; the kind of space that results corresponds not with any external, literal space, but reflects instead the mood and purposes of the artist. Sanyu produced this Lilies several decades after Matisse's 1908 Harmony in Red - The Red Dining Table, and though each work possesses its own unique appeal, there are instructive similarities between the two.
In Harmony in Red - The Red Dining Table (Fig. 4), Matisse sets out the dining room, table, and chairs in a single shade of red, deliberately flattening the effects of layering and spatial relationships. Matisse makes almost no distinction, in spatial terms, between the horizontal tabletop and the vertical wall in red that stands behind the figure of the woman; both seem to exist in a single spatial plane. Even at the left, the view beyond the bright yellow windowsill seems more like a painting of a garden than an opening into another space with real depth. Blue floral patterns, strongly decorative and one-dimensional, spread freely across the table and wall, and everything essentially becomes like a tablecloth, existing in the same flat space. This form of flat space and colouristic expression imbues the picture space with an artistic beauty and value that belongs solely to itself, rather than being significant for reflecting or reproducing the external world in microcosm. The aesthetic values that this work represents formed the basis for much of modern Western art and its flourishing progress over succeeding decades.
Viewed in this light, a strikingly clear line of development emerges, leading from Matisse's Red Dining Table to the expressive techniques and innovations in Sanyu's later Vase of Lilies with Red Ground. Red is the keynote of Sanyu's work, and the bright yellow at the bottom, applied in textured strokes with the brush flat against the canvas, also resembles Matisse's yellow windowsill. Sanyu's flowers can be compared to the floral patterns in the Matisse work, though Sanyu pushed ahead even more aggressively in the use of flat space and expressive colour. More willing than Matisse to depart from a purely realistic depiction of his subject, he focuses exclusively on arranging space through enhanced colour expression and on the calligraphic quality of his lines. Sanyu's space has been entirely purged of nonessentials: only the lilies, glass vase, yellow tabletop, and red background remain, and those seem to have been placed within a unified spatial frame. Sanyu flattens the flowers, vase, and tabletop, and their points of overlap signal not so much spatial layering or distance as a dialogue, a contrast between different hues in an exploration of colour's expressive effects. Each of the still-life elements is conceived in terms of a one-dimensional representation through points, lines, or planes. Sanyu does not rely on perspective, the volumes of objects, or lighting to create effects, and there is no successive deepening of distance from foreground to background. Sanyu's interpretation of his space deliberately minimizes the layering and spatial relationships between flowers and vase, vase and tabletop, or vase and background to such an extent they seem almost imagined. Viewing Vase of Lilies with Red Ground, one sees not depth but flat space, arrangements of colours within it, and the expressive effects that result. These comprise Sanyu's subject and his artistic world; they also represent the quintessence of modern art.
What allowed Sanyu to become one of the most noted of modern Chinese artists, and to make contributions of real aesthetic value from a broader global perspective, were his perfect realization of a "flat" style and his colouristic expressiveness-two principal elements on which modern art was founded. Such depth of insight and such a degree of success were enjoyed by very few modern Chinese artists, while in comparison with Western artists, his attainment was also exceptional, and flavored strongly with the allure of his native Chinese culture. Sanyu thoroughly understood the concepts of the ancient Chinese literati painters, the idea of finding different "colours" within varied applications of black ink, and he ably transformed that concept and realized it in the oil medium. His monochromatic tones often exhibit faint layering effects, resembling the way ink seeps and spreads across paper in areas of varying brightness or dampness. These effects lend his oils the charm and fluidity of Eastern ink-wash works and add an extra dimension to their colouristic aspects. Sanyu's red background in Vase of Lilies with Red Ground is sumptuous and elegant, and when moderated by the cool, serene white of the lilies and their glass vase, suggests a characteristically Chinese kind of elegance, composure, and restraint. Sanyu's lines, more abstract and artistically pure than those in Matisse's work, possess the supple strength of Chinese calligraphy. Not restrained by pure realism, his lines give shape to forms in a highly stylized, freehand, and impressionistic manner that makes line and colour independent of each other. The viewer then tends to focus separately on the strong, graceful lines or on the varied layering of the colour. In this way Sanyu's work shows how he both continues and transforms the ink-wash painting styles of China.
Most important is the way in which, in comparison with Western artists, Sanyu's explorations of colour are wedded to the subjects of his still lifes. Those subjects, and their artistic imagery and settings, were drawn from the cultural traditions of the Chinese scholar-poets and painters and reflect their personal circumstances and aesthetics. Sanyu was able to play upon colour's abstract and emotional qualities in his still lifes, but without slipping into cliche or becoming didactic. He often retained some of the narrative character and cultural ambience of the traditional Chinese literati paintings, so that his work strongly reflects an Eastern tone and aesthetic value, though Sanyu favored the still life to an even greater degree than other modern Chinese artists. Very few have displayed Sanyu's ability to establish a visual setting, and in it, to engage in such personal explorations of aesthetics and form. This Sanyu did, reflecting in his still lifes the philosophical outlook of the traditional Chinese literati artists, making the genre an all-encompassing one, pouring all of his aesthetic and philosophical insights into this contemplative and elegant form. To bring such depth and completeness to the still-life as a vehicle for aesthetic exploration was something that could only have been done by Sanyu.