Sanyu's Zebras (Lot 1317) is an exceptional work in every way. Current records show it to be Sanyu's only dated work, allowing us to pinpoint it firmly within his total oeuvre and to consider it relative to his circumstances at the time. Its inscription gives the date as March 3, 1945; it was Sanyu's gift to a French collector, Mrs. Annette Andersen, a token of their sincere friendship during Sanyu's life in Paris. Sanyu had experienced difficult circumstances in the early 1940s. From 1942 to 1944 his production of oil paintings virtually came to a halt. Europe's economy suffered enormously during the war, making oil pigments a valuable and hard-to-find commodity; to make matters worse, the war also cut off material support from the families of Chinese artists, and made sales of paintings difficult for a number of years. Reports also indicate that in order to survive, Sanyu at one point even resorted to selling paintings in department stores. Records show that he continued to participate each year in the exhibitions of the Salon des Independants, but was showing sculpture rather than paintings as he was able to afford only plaster for sculpting. No doubt Sanyu's frequent changes of residence during the 1938-1943 period can also be explained by his difficult personal circumstances and the turbulence of the wartime era.
By 1945, Sanyu had endured the worst, and his life was gradually regaining a semblance of stability and normality. He began to paint again, producing nudes and paintings of horses, chrysanthemums, and lotuses, among others, which he once again continued to show at the annual Salon des Independants. During the same period, Sanyu seems to have regained his enthusiasm for art, and on January 19, 1945 he authored a piece in Paris' Liberation Daily entitled A Chinese Artist's Thoughts on Picasso, which summarized much of his artistic thinking at the time. He also prepared solo shows, including one which took place in 1946 at the Women's Club of Paris. All in all, the period after 1945 was a relatively smooth and agreeable one for Sanyu, and it was in this specific period and frame of mind that Sanyu produced Zebras. Some aspects of its style are characteristic of Sanyu's work in the 1950s: presenting large views within a small canvas, and further depicting tiny animals within vast spaces. But the mood of Zebras bears little trace of the solitary or isolated feelings that he sometimes projected in the works of his later years. On the contrary, this view of a herd of zebras, bounding in unison across a green grassland, seems filled with humor and joy. Sanyu wonderfully captures the sense of movement of each zebra, the younger members of the herd cavorting alongside their full-grown partners in a leisurely and carefree atmosphere, while his view of them departs from the Chinese painting tradition and its stereotyped conception of horses as supernaturally noble creatures. The fact that the animals he painted were often a projection of Sanyu's mood hints at the complexity of this artist's character. The many obstacles and unexpected turns of fortune in his life inevitably brought some degree of sadness and isolation, yet he managed to retain his fundamentally easygoing and generous outlook, continuing his enthusiastic devotion to art-making. With his open and carefree character, Sanyu continued to live with the flair of the traditional Chinese scholar-painter, able to find joy in life even under difficult circumstances. The vigorous and spirited animals in Zebras are a reflection of his personal qualities and display what is most uniquely treasured in Sanyu's outlook and work. As soon as Sanyu had resumed working in oils, he immediately presented Zebras as a gift to his friend Mrs. Annette Andersen, an indication of the strong friendship the two surely enjoyed. Mrs. Andersen continued to build her collection, which after her death was sold for the benefit of charity.
Sanyu outlines his zebras and their stripes in pure black, leaving significant areas of blank white space that are defined only by the dark black outlines. This, however, causes the white areas to take on representational qualities and indicate form-a marvelous trick of the Chinese scholar-painters called "using white as black" and "painting with blankness." Sanyu's spatial layout and the textured strokes of background colour also display his highly simplified and refined technique. Pure blue-green pigments, applied with a dry brush, break into streaks of white, and wide swathes of colour spread horizontally to create the tripartite white-green-white division of the composition. The successive layers of greens and whites contain a bouncy motion of their own and work to enhance the sense of depth and the variety of spatial effects. Sanyu places the prancing, leaping zebras in groups that lead us to follow their rhythmic movement across the painting and through its spaces, suggesting the sense of distributed visual perspective in traditional Chinese paintings. Zebras also gains an animated yet easygoing character from the regular cadence of shifting colours and the rhythm of its overlapping spaces. Sanyu's application of dense colour with horizontal, vertical, and arcing strokes of a large dry brush lets the viewer sense the brush movements directly and imparts a fresh feel to the green oils, while creating layers of visual penetration. These pure green tones take on an abstract beauty of their own and help to express the feeling and atmosphere of the work. 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, almost as if a wind were whipping up the sands of a desert. The eye is encouraged to move laterally as it might 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. Zebras perfectly joins the beauty of colour and line with the narrative theme of bounding zebras on a grassy plain, displaying once again Sanyu's talent for reaching out and touching the heart.