The first half of the 20th Century saw wide-ranging exchanges between East and West. Western thought found its way into China, and many Chinese artists of the time strove to unite the aesthetic ideals of East and West. Sanyu's works are perhaps the finest example of these explorations: in them, Chinese art achieved an ideal blend of exceptional elements, from the classical tradition to modern art, from ink painting to oil, and from pure line to pure colour. Sanyu's art brought together these diverse traditions in works of great individuality and expressiveness. Multi-faceted,focused on the aesthetic challenges of each subject, the works he produced in different genres each embody distinct aesthetic values. In his floral still lifes, leaves, stems, and flowers create compositions with a unique division of space and unusual combinations of shapes, colours, and planes; his animal series, with its simple and refined style, brings a greater focus on line, texture, and the dynamics of his subjects. Much of the scholarship on Sanyu's work dwells on his flower-and-vase paintings and his female nudes, while missing the importance of the animal series. In this year's spring sale, Christie's offers two works from Sanyu's animal series painted during the 1940s and 1950s, Two Spotted Horses (Lot 1018) and Pink Leopard (Lot 1017). Vastly different in both colour and compositional structure, the two works become all the more intriguing in light of the contrasting types of visual experience and aesthetic exploration they represent.
In Pink Leopard, Sanyu projects broad spaces within a work of modest dimensions, placing the leopard against a scenic backdrop with an unusual atmosphere in what might be a broad desert plain. Sanyu frequently chose similar combinations, showing horses roaming in the wilderness or eagles soaring against an empty sky. Such compositions project a mood of quiet solitude by juxtaposing the breadth of space with the small, isolated forms of the animals themselves, and hint at the mood expressed by Tang poet Chen Zi-ang, "I reflect upon this vast expanse of heaven and earth, my tears flowing in solitary grief." Sanyu's animal paintings from the 1950s in particular employ such themes, which has been taken by many commentators as a reflection of his personal mood and circumstances during that decade.
Sanyu was among the first generation of artists to travel to the West, and his early involvement in this trend meant that, by the 1950s, he had weathered many changes. During his travels he had made friends with Chinese literary figures such as Xu Zhimo and Liang Zongdai and artists Xu Beihong and Liu Haisu, but they had long since left France, and a young, ambitious new generation was arriving, among them Zao Wou-ki, Xie Jinglan, and Xiong Bingming. Sanyu had lived out the war, experiencing its hardship and poverty, and witnessed the new vitality of the art scenes in Europe and America. From Paris he had traveled to New York and then back again to his old home in Paris. The upheavals of the era, and the heights and depths of his personal fortunes, inevitably left him with a feeling of dejection. That mood settled over the years into a deep longing for his home country and a sober, solitary outlook, which found its way into his scenic paintings with animals. As often as not, they are metaphors for Sanyu's personal circumstances and portray his inner moods.
Sanyu finds a structure in Two Spotted Horses that is quite different from that of Pink Leopard. Here the background pushes the two animal figures forward, letting them dominate the space; the background is created with colour that contrasts with the horses. They fill the canvas; their presence highlighted even more vividly by their fresh, vibrant yellows and heavy black outlines. Their forms emerge as simple and clean, flowing lines in a balanced, stable composition. Two Spotted Horses is defined by its flat space and a strongly decorative character, both of which derive from the simple elegance of the folk art that Sanyu came to admire so much during this period. The background projects gentleness, warmth and reserved poise with touches of pink amid creamy whites, while its undefined space gives ample play to the imagination. Sanyu's choice of colour and its deployment across the canvas strongly echo the female nudes and pink vases he produced during the 1930s; the similarly soft and gentle tone of Two Spotted Horses helps convey the affectionate nuzzling of his animal subjects.
Specific features and aesthetic qualities of Pink Leopard and Two Spotted Horses create important points of reference for understanding Sanyu's style, the first being Sanyu's choice of subjects and his presentation of their forms. In Pink Leopard, Sanyu's appreciation for the poise of this creature breaks through long-held stereotypes of animals in traditional Chinese painting. Depicting the relaxed sprawl of the pink leopard across the ground, Sanyu borrows elements of traditional Chinese line-drawing. His clean, precise lines capture the way its limbs stretch as it rolls and the lazy, self-indulgent flop of its tail. In traditional Chinese animal painting, which reached a peak in the Northern Song, an animal such as the horse would likely be depicted first of all as lofty and noble, while paintings of birds and fish also portrayed them with a dignified, graceful poise. Few, if any at all, display the humor and appeal shown by Sanyu here in the lazy ease of the leopard rolling on the ground. Despite the increasing dreariness of Sanyu's life during and after the 1950s, he maintained his open and magnanimous outlook. He remained so enthusiastically engaged with his creative work that his friend Da Ang remembered how he once "pointed at the elephant in the painting, said 'that's me,' and laughed. " Sanyu never lost his free and easy character or his expression of generosity, and he lived with the flair of the traditional Chinese scholar-painter, still able to find joy in life even under difficult circumstances. Not unlike the amiable, lovable animals of his paintings, in fact, whose ease and enjoyment display the uniquely treasurable qualities of his thoughts and work.
One of the outstanding aspects of Sanyu's subjects in Two Spotted Horses is their interconnected, left-right symmetry. The two horse images are nearly alike; their forelegs meet but they are staggered front to back, reminiscent of images from Chinese paper-cutting art. The two stand erect and poised in a stance that also suggests horse figurines in white jade from the Qing Dynasty (Fig. 1). Sanyu's yellow pigments are warm and full, yet also light and transparent, and a jade-like luster flows across them; the artist here seems to have used the horse as a theme to explore aspects of traditional Chinese art in a different form, and in a way that also enriched his personal system of aesthetics.
A second special attribute of these works is shown in stylized brushwork that harks back to Chinese line-drawing styles and reflects Sanyu's consistent preference for a simple, refined style. Sanyu's heavy black outlines define the forms of his horses, and their almost abstract simplicity imparts strength and vitality and a clear structure to the picture space. The lines also display the flowing harmony of calligraphy and guide the viewer's eyes through the composition. This freely impressionistic use of line in the leopard and horses inherits the Chinese tradition of impressionistic line drawing, and possesses the same appealing spirit as horse paintings by artists such as the Song Dynasty's Li Gonglin or the Yuan Dynasty's Zhao Mengfu. Like them, Sanyu observes the animals closely, and his feel for their graceful bearing goes beyond their external appearances in order to capture emotional elements, reflecting the emphasis in traditional Chinese art on "vivid, lifelike impressions" and "an atmosphere of vitality."
In the exploratory process that Sanyu described to his friend Da Ang as "simplify, then simplify some more," ideas would settle into place over time, then the basic aspects of forms were extracted until only the purest and most refined elements remained. Through these pure, simple elements Sanyu was able to express rich emotional implications. This process of extracting essential elements went beyond merely observing, imitating, and reproducing forms; its 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.
Lastly, a special element of Pink Leopard and Two Spotted Horses is Sanyu's use of space, in particular "white" or "empty" space, to which he brings a fresh, individual handling. Sanyu was one of the few modern Chinese artists to consciously continue the tradition of the Chinese literati painters, and that tradition underwent a transformation in his works as he reflected on their handling of space and structuring of form. Backgrounds in Chinese paintings had always been a rather difficult element, because the focus on portraying subtle variations in black ink tones tended to limit the application of other colours. Sketching the main subject in black precluded using black to any extent in backgrounds. As a result, it would then be left as "white space" or filled in with inscriptions that helped balance the composition and express a further layering of space. But compositions that depended wholly on this empty space ultimately became formulaic and pre-patterned, and its use sometimes weakened spatial presentation. The relationship of the space to the central figure, whether close or distant, tended to be uncertain, which might to some extent diminish the integrity of the whole. These issues are touched upon in the work of Lin Fengmian, an artist in whose work we can see one path toward resolving them. Backgrounds in his work remain diffused enough to be considered empty space, but at the same time are filled in with overlapping gouache tints, the curved shapes of utensils, square tabletops, or lattice designs, whose contrasts and divisions structure the space in new ways. Sanyu took a different approach, filling his picture spaces with expanses of empty space in which no objects appear, but covering it with thickly textured strokes in monotone hues. Creamy whites and pale pastel shades form the background of Two Spotted Horses, creating the illusion of penetrating depth and layering within a single hue and adding to the gentle warmth of the painting. Pink Leopard features horizontal sweeps of deep colour applied with a large dry brush, filling the canvas with shifting layers of blue tones. The "chapped" strokes of the dry brush create rifts in the texture, and the strong, free sweeps of the brush across the canvas add a sense of movement, like a wind sweeping across desert sands. The eye is encouraged to move laterally as it would when viewing a horizontal scroll painting, extending the visual center outward toward the imaginary space beyond the canvas, and enhancing the abstract quality of the space and its colouristic tension. Sanyu's space here is diffused but suggests the same broad expansiveness as a Chinese landscape painting, which contrasts with the quiet, elegant interiors of the same artist's flower-and-vase series. Pink Leopard and Two Spotted Horses employ pure monotones in shades that set the tone for the work as a whole; these blocks of colour, in Sanyu's work, also take on an abstract nature that expresses feeling and creates atmosphere. In each case these works perfectly exemplify Sanyu's unique and individual style of presenting "empty space" with colour and blocked-out areas of canvas.
Sanyu's work brought together many of the finest elements from the East and the West, and from classical and modern art; at the same time, he sought a higher vantage point from which to view these various artistic currents, and that broader viewpoint provided new and rewarding avenues for exploration by later generations of Chinese artists. Sanyu has thus become one of the most iconic figures in the course of Asian art and its development over the last century.