Ode to the Chrysanthemum – Bai Juyi
The night's light frost still clings to the tiles; Plantain leaves have broken and lotuses droop. But, by the eastern fence, chrysanthemums brave the cold, stamens open to make the morning beautiful.
BEYOND PARALLEL: A MUSEUM-QUALITY MASTERPIECE
By the 1940s and 50s, Sanyu, the exceptionally talented artist from Sichuan, had been living in France for several decades. Society was rebuilding after the war, and abstraction was poised to become the next great artistic wave; among Chinese artists, Sanyu stood virtually alone in his insistence on painting in figurative styles. His artistic pedigree would be bolstered by a new series of works based on Chinese aesthetic motifs, which are now seen as embodying the representative themes of his later years. Christie's Hong Kong is honoured to present an outstanding late-period Sanyu chrysanthemum painting, White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere . This work is usually classified as belonging to a series of floral-themed ‘jardinieres against red ground,' a series that appeared only in the 40s and 50s, and made all the more valuable due to their extreme scarcity. Sanyu customarily produced two or more oil paintings of similar proportions on the same theme. According to Volumes I and II of the Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonne: Oil Paintings, there are only four known paintings of chrysanthemums against a red background measuring more than one meter in height. Two paintings currently reside in the permanent collection of the National Museum of History in Taipei, and the present work is one of only two pieces currently still held in a private hands.
THE GENTLEMAN'S FLOWER: SANYU'S LIFELONG LOVE OF CHRYSANTHEMUMS
Wu Guanzhong's essay, Speaking of Sanyu , described the artist this way: “Sanyu himself is a bonsai, an Oriental bonsai in the flower garden of Paris.” The Western still-life genre, which flourished during the Renaissance, focused on a truthful presentation of nature with a rational, scientific point of view. A greater emphasis on feeling arrived at roughly the time of the Impressionists, with the experimental use of colour and modelling seen in the works of Monet and Van Gogh. But the Chinese have always had a tradition of romantic expression, stretching back to the fu bi xing concept from the pre-Qin era, which refers to the literal, emotional, and metaphorical approaches to expression. Freehand, impressionistic brushwork was always prized in their floral stilllife paintings, and their literati painters employed self-referential metaphors in paintings of birds, rocks, and flowers. During his decades in Paris, witnessed cultural clashes greater than any of the others had seen. He inherited both the Eastern and Western traditions of injecting personal feeling into floral paintings, and through his own personal artistic vocabulary, spoke of his feelings for the country he had left so long ago.
Volumes I and II of the Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonne: Oil Paintings indicate a total of 133 currently known floral subjects painted in oil by Sanyu during his lifetime. Of those, 55 are of chrysanthemums, while among the rest, no more than 13 paintings feature any other single variety of flower. Chrysanthemums have historically been a popular subject of paintings and poems in China, and Sanyu, as the welleducated son of a wealthy family, certainly understood the symbolic meaning held by the flower in Chinese cultural tradition. He produced oils with chrysanthemum subjects over the course of several decades from the 1930s to the 1950s, and the flower clearly held unusual significance for him, as the chrysanthemum is the only subject to appear continuously in his work for an uninterrupted span of thirty years.
The chrysanthemum is an embodiment of beauty, pure and strong, standing haughty against the cold; along with the plum, orchid, and bamboo, it is one of the Four Gentlemen that symbolize the ideal of striving for greater goodness. The chrysanthemum's symbolic connotations surely bring to mind Sanyu's stubborn adherence to his artistic ideals. His pioneering artistic vocabulary was elevated and refined, and few appreciated him during his lifetime, yet he persisted in his forward-looking aesthetic pursuits and never looked back. Among the various subjects of his floral works, only the chrysanthemum remained a fresh source of inspiration for him; it even became a means of interfacing with life there, of sorting out the great cultural disparities between the East and the West.
“Offering paintings” originating in the Qin and Han dynasties and especially popular in the Ming and Qing, may have also provided aesthetic elements for use by Sanyu in this unprecedented series of paintings. During the New Year holidays, paintings of “noble offerings” held deep and auspicious meanings. These offering paintings, along with paintings of the Four Gentlemen and the Three Winter Companions (pine, bamboo, and plum) became important models in the history of Chinese art. A number of motifs common to offering paintings, such as blue and white porcelain, marigolds, Chinese vermilion, and imperial yellow, can be found in Sanyu's White Chrysanthemum. In that painting, paring down the oil painting vocabulary he had developed over decades, he invited an international audience to share in his nostalgic longing for home with a kind of cross-cultural warmth and salutation.
RECONCILING EASTERN AND WESTERN AESTHETIC PHILOSOPHIES: SPACE, LINE, AND COLOUR
Western painting usually regards space and physical objects as 'entities' that have a definite existence. Chinese painting, on the other hand, often defines objects and spaces with lines, the objects and spaces both being a kind of 'supposition,' and existing only in relation to each other. White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere pushes to the extreme the kinds of conflicts that can arise between various elements of painting. But, with skilful, canny brushwork, Sanyu moderates the viewer's experience of these visual conflicts, in a way that highlights his avant-garde character and modernity.
Spatial conflict is explored in this painting, through the juxtaposition of different visual perspectives. Sanyu depicts two different points of view on the canvas simultaneously, as if the scene were refracted through a prism; standing close and separating those two views might result in an unbalanced, inharmonious feeling. Looking only at the white leaves and branches suggests that Sanyu adopted a somewhat flat, planar treatment, similar to Chinese ink painting. Portraying the relative depth of objects relies on the overlapping of his white lines, based on the same abstract principle that produces three-dimensional effects in monochromatic Chinese ink paintings. But lower down, the shapes of the blue and white porcelain bowl and its base present a more traditional Western handling of visual perspective. Our perspective is directed downward; we gaze from above toward the porcelain jardiniere and see both inside and outside, so that here, perception of space depends on the relative shapes and sizes of objects. Viewing both parts together, we discover that Sanyu has wisely left the soil in the jardiniere white too. He thus creates a kind of buffer zone that mediates between the differing perspectives, and frees the painting from the restrictions imposed by either the Eastern or the Western expression of space on its own.
Conflicts are also created by the weightiness of Sanyu's colours Sanyu. Each painting in the series of blue jardinieres with red bases features a large background of red ochre, but this White Chrysanthemums is unusual in also featuring a dazzling band of golden yellow at the bottom. The red background dominates the bright yellow surface of the writing desk by a more than ten-to-one ratio, making the upper part of the canvas almost visually overwhelming. The rich profusion of white stems and leaves also occupies a disproportionate volume of space, so that the painting could become unbalanced due to the extra weight of its upper portion. The minimal means by which Sanyu dissipates this overweight feeling adds to the fascination of the work. The red pigments above are heavy, and the pure yellow tones below are light, but the white lines in the chrysanthemums above are light, while the lines in the jardiniere and base below are heavy. Viewing the work as a whole, we see that Sanyu deliberately painted only the bold outlines of the porcelain base to establish the weight of the lower part of the painting against the light eiderdown yellow. With just a few simple brushstrokes, he eliminates any imbalance that might have been produced by the colours, which aids the viewer's eye in adapting to the extremes of his abstract methods of expression.
Then there is the dynamic conflict created by the lines of the painting. In White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere, the thicket of leaves growing upward forms a central line, drawing the viewer into this beautiful, natural depiction. An interwoven cluster of flower pistils, stems, and leaves winds around, the artist's leisurely brushstrokes tracing the winding stems as they move ever upward. Sanyu implies flower petals with a multitude of red brushstrokes that dot the flowers, while variations in their depth and solidity suggest the flowers' complexity. The ingenuity of Sanyu's brilliant red background lies in the way it separates the chrysanthemums from the real world; their lofty, rising forms seem to grow eternally in some exclusive realm of the artist's own. But with a slight shift, Sanyu outlines the heavy form of the jardiniere below in calm, confident strokes, pulling the chrysanthemums back into the real world, and reminding us that White Chrysanthemums is a still life scene, frozen in time. In Sanyu's series of white chrysanthemums in a blue and white jardiniere with a red base, only this one separates the background areas of red and yellow with a bold white line, and this is the only time we see him employ this experimental treatment with a chrysanthemum subject. The full, thick horizontal white line directly divides the painting's spaces by line and colour in a completely abstract manner; the vivid, distinct, and dynamic beauty of the upper portion transitions back to a basic floral theme in the lower part with its jardiniere, where the fundamental static nature of a still life in oil is emphasized.
Sanyu's White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere exudes a kind of flowing, tranquil beauty, the lean, slight figures of the flowers embodying a rich, gentle grace. A work of enduring appeal and interest, this White Chrysanthemum imbues the traditional aesthetics of the floral painting with Sanyu's own unique brand of modernity.
A DISTINGUISHED PROVENANCE: WITNESS TO GLOBAL COLLECTING
White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere was first collected by Raymond Toupenet, a well-known Parisian art dealer, decorative arts merchant, and collector, and was then transferred to the collection of another Parisian dealer and collector, Axel de Heeckeren. The final European owner was Eric Edwards, an important Parisian private collector and good friend of Sanyu's agent, Henri-Pierre Roche. The European history of ownership of this particular painting provides a profile of how Sanyu works circulated among collectors other than Roche. The work then passed to Asia, to the collection of Taiwan's Yageo Foundation. White Chrysanthemum testifies to the connections forged between European and Asian collectors because of Sanyu, creating for it a collection history spanning East and West. The current owner acquired this work at the 2005 Christie's sale, The Inception of a New Era – the Yageo Foundation Collection , and has held it continuously for the last 15 years. Oils on floral themes from Sanyu's mature period have always been rare, and White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere is the equal of similar works now held in the collection of Taiwan National Museum of History. Its appearance on the international art market at this time is a rare and special event.