When I met Sanyu for the first time, he gifted me with a present. Was it in 1953 or 1954? I do not recall as I was still quite young. I lived in Switzerland with my mother, who had remarried after separating from my father, and I would come to Paris during the holidays to visit him. He rented a studio on the second floor of the 15 Place Dauphine in the first district. I would often walk into Sennelier, the reputable fine arts paint shop, to buy crayons and blocks of paper: I wanted to draw like my Daddy whom I found fascinating when he would take out his watercolour brushes to sketch landscapes. One day, he told me “since you want to draw so much, I will introduce you to a real painter. He is Chinese and his name is Sanyu. You can have lunch at his home. He will make you taste Chinese cuisine, which is – together with French cuisine – the best in the world. But first, I will teach you how to use chopsticks”.
When I arrived at Sanyu’s house, he opened the door and said in a strong accent: “Are you Anny, Arnaud’s daughter? You are so tall for your age!” I was late but he so kindly did not mention anything about it. As we were having lunch, he saw that I was struggling with using chopsticks, so he graciously offered me a spoon and fork.
There were paintings everywhere; not hanging on the walls so much as resting against them. There was an old sofa somewhere and the stove was in the same room. The shelves were filled with all kinds of objects. He asked me a many questions, but he spoke little about himself, only that he liked horses and had high regards for my father. I did not see any paintings of nudes, maybe he had hidden them from me out of respect?
When it was time to leave, he asked me to show him which work I liked the most. I gravitated towards the small formats as the bigger ones were too impressive for me. I pointed to a small painting depicting a resting leopard. He looked at me and said “you can have it as a souvenir of our lunch together”. I could not accept, but he added “in China, it is hurtful to refuse a gift”. He wrapped it in some newspaper and I left overjoyed. I treasured this painting. During my entire childhood and teenage years, I kept it above my bed. Each time I moved houses, it found its place near me. One day, I had just enough money set aside to have if framed by a craftsman passionate about his work.
I often asked my father news about Sanyu in the years following that lunch, but the former moved to the countryside in 1959 and his exchanges with the artist slowly faded to a formal yearly Christmas card. My father would invite him to spend a few days in his home, away from the city, but he would always refuse, citing health reasons or financial burden. My father even offered to pay for his train ticket, but he declined. In 1966 one day, my Daddy announced he had passed. I was terribly sad…
One day not so long ago, I came upon an advertisement for an upcoming exhibition on Sanyu at the Musée Guimet, Paris. I met the curator and was able to loan this small painting to pay tribute to my dear friend for a day.
Remarks in conversation with Anne-Marie de Maigret, 2016