First published in the catalogue of Ravenel Spring Auction 2011 Hong Kong
Text / Odile Chen
I. A First-Generation Western-Style Chinese Painter
In China, the early 20th century was a time of new departures and revolutionary transformation. Groups of Chinese intellectuals, acutely aware of the shortcomings inherent in the country's fossilized, corrupt traditional system and culture, and at the same time exposed to a constant influx of Western thought and ideas, became catalysts for a number of reform movements, acting as driving forces for change. In the field of literature, modernization began in earnest with the May Fourth Movement of 1919 - part of the larger "New Culture Movement" that swept across China with concepts such as democracy and the scientific method. In the fine arts, it was the students of influential thinker and educator Cai Yuanpei who brought back a fresh perspective from their studies abroad and sowed the seeds of modernity in Chinese painting. Paris was at the heart of this development, with many of the early trailblazers earning their chops in the City of Light, including Lin Fengmian, Liu Haisu, and Xu Beihong. All of them shared a strong background and education in traditional Chinese culture before coming into touch with European art, and like quite a few others they were part of the so-called "Work-Study Movement" (mouvement travail-études) promoted by Cai Yuanpei. This first generation of Western-style Chinese painters with French credentials also, and very prominently, included a young man named Sanyu.
Supported by his eldest brother, Sanyu went to study art in Paris in 1921. Not possessed of the revolutionary spirit of a Xu Beihong, and also lacking any ambition to deliberately modernize Chinese painting or reform China's system of art education, Sanyu was a true bohemian, a free spirit who loved and enjoyed life, pursuing art very much for his own, individual purposes, for the sheer pleasure he derived from expressing himself creatively. In some ways, his position was similar to that of Amedeo Modigliani, the Italian painter and sculptor who had burned up like a comet in 1920. Like him, Sanyu was a stranger from a strange land, yet very much at home in what was then the center of artistic experimentation. And like the Italian, Sanyu became associated with the École de Paris, painting in a fashion that is probably best described as "Western-style literati painting." Instead of attending a regular academy, such as the École-des-Beaux Arts, he chose to spend much of his time at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where he could practise nude sketching from life models or observe his fellow students (and make sketches of some of them as well). He was also a regular visitor of the countless cafés and bistros of Montparnasse and the Latin Quarter, where he frequently looked for inspiration and subjects for his work. His idiosyncratic approach and style made him unique among the Chinese artists of his time.
In the 1960s, Sanyu shipped a large number of his paintings from Paris to Taiwan for a proposed solo exhibition, which he planned to attend in person. But his travel plans never materialized, purportedly because of problems with his passport. After his death from accidental gas asphyxiation in 1966, that lot of paintings remained in Taiwan, falling into oblivion for many years but staying together as a substantial collection of the artist's late oeuvre. Only decades later, these works were gradually rediscovered and found their way back into the public eye via a number of exhibitions in museums and galleries, or through auctions and catalogues. And at some point, they also began to grab the attention of an increasing number of collectors and aficionados, who were as much attracted by the paintings' unconventional verve as by the air of enigma still surrounding much of the painter's life and death. Sanyu had always been an affable and fairly easygoing person, but he never liked to talk much about himself, and would not boast to people about his career as a painter. Especially in his later years, after WWII, he did not have too many friends, and his compatriots, in particular the other Chinese artists living and working in Paris, hardly knew much about him or understood him very well. Part of the reason why so much about Sanyu and his life in France is still shrouded in mystery lies with the fact that very little of it is recorded in contemporary documents, making it rather difficult to come by reliable information, even for those with a serious interest and determination in doing so. To remedy this situation a bit, we have compiled a short overview of the life and work of this artist, one of the most outstanding and avant-garde Chinese painters of the 20th century.
Sanyu was born in Nanchong, Sichuan Province, in 1901, as Chang Tingguo, and his courtesy names were "Yu" (zi) and "Youshu" (hao). His zi, or first courtesy name, was the one the artist commonly used, accounting for the French transcription of his whole name as "Sanyu." The sixth of twelve siblings, he grew up in a wealthy family that owned one of the largest silk spinning mills in Sichuan. His father, Chang Shufang, had married the daughter of a local merchant family and was renowned for his skill in painting lions and horses. He encouraged Sanyu in his interest in the arts and became his son's first teacher. When it became clear that Sanyu also had a particular talent for calligraphy, his father arranged for him to learn with the famous Sichuan calligrapher Zhao Xi (1867-1948). At the time, to own one of Zhao's works was considered to be a sure sign of class and sophistication. And the young Sanyu would profit from the early lessons he learned from the master: when he stunned Parisian audiences with wonderfully vivid nude sketches, quickly outlined with confident ease and assuredness, it was really his early training in the most Chinese of arts shining through.
II. The Talented Dandy Abroad
Sanyu's oldest brother, Chang Junmin, managed the family's large-scale silk spinning enterprise, at which he was so successful that it earned him considerable local recognition as "the millionaire of Nanchong." Not having received much of a formal education himself, Junmin - who was 37 years older than Sanyu - was more than willing to lend generous support to his younger brother's artistic ambitions, allowing him to go abroad to pursue further studies. Even before that, the family's wealth had meant that Sanyu never saw a public school from the inside, and had instead been privately tutored in the comfort of the family's home. At 17, he went to Japan for about a year, and at 21 he first set foot on French soil, never needing to worry about things like travel or living expenses.
Sanyu's second-oldest brother, Bicheng (1883-1943) was a graduate from Japan's Waseda University, where he had studied engineering in the years around 1910. He went on to run businesses in Tokyo and Shanghai. Between 1918 and 1919, Sanyu stayed in Tokyo for more than a year, and Bicheng's active support allowed the burgeoning young artist to get involved in the local scene and have some of his calligraphic work published in an art magazine. From the many pictures of Sanyu together with his second-oldest brother, most of them taken in Tokyo, and some possibly in Shanghai, it is evident how strong the bond between them was. Compared with Sanyu, Bicheng was of a somewhat more portly stature, and he also excelled as a cook. It is very likely that it was from him that Sanyu picked up his ability to conjure up a tasty meal with almost any ingredients, something that time and again impressed his friends and acquaintances in Paris.
In 1920, Sanyu returned with Bicheng to Shanghai, where his second-eldest brother set up China's very first toothbrush factory, Yi Hsin. Sanyu used his artistic skills to design the packaging and advertising for the new product. Since the late years of the Qing dynasty, Shanghai had established itself as China's biggest and most important international harbor, with numerous foreign companies setting up offices and factories in and around the city. This also created a growing demand for advertising signs and billboards, with Chinese advertising calendars gaining much popularity after 1911, the year when the Republic of China was founded. Whether he helped to create designs for his family's silk business or drew promotional posters in Shanghai, there can be little doubt that this new "art form" - advertising design - had quite some impact on the young Sanyu, and was one of the many influences that shaped his later oeuvre.
During his short stay in Shanghai, Sanyu had begun preparing for his trip to France, where he was going to study Western art at the source. His preparations did not prevent him from observing some of the social wrongs and upheavals of the time: witnessing how Chinese police in the Shanghai concession were beating up rickshaw coolies from northern Jiangsu, the youthful and impulsive man with a strong sense of justice could hardly control his anger and disgust. But what was he to do? Thoroughly disillusioned with politics and repulsed by the prevalent injustice, he declared that he was not planning on ever coming back from Paris, no matter how hard it might prove to make it there. Prophetic words if we consider Sanyu's death in a faraway country.
When Sanyu eventually embarked on a ship to France in 1921, it was at least partly in response to the mouvement travail-études and Cai Yuanpei's call to Chinese students to broaden their horizons by studying abroad - at least it would seem this way from the available documents and records. However, according to the recollections of his niece Feng Xiukui, there was another important reason for Sanyu's departure: he was escaping the shackles of an impending marriage. Valuing his freedom more than anything else, it is quite possible that the prospect of a wedding arranged by his elders could have sent Sanyu scurrying for Paris, away from the confines of narrowly confined duties and into the arms of liberty and bohemia.
In the early years, things in Paris went very well for Sanyu: he lived a fast and easy life, indulging in sartorial elegance and enjoying the benefits of a spacious and bright studio in a quiet environment. When he was not painting, he would play the violin, dabble with antique cameras, play tennis or shoot some pool. Occasionally, he went on a pleasant little outing to the suburbs. He moved in wider and wider circles: in addition to some of his Chinese compatriots, he befriended many local artists and intellectuals. Soon he had blended in completely. Life in the big city suited him very well. In the daytime, he would paint or frequent cafés to read and do some sketching. In the eyes of his friends he was a natural-born dandy, fashionable yet unpretentious, and also someone who had considerable luck with women. The late Chinese-French art critic Antoine Chen even used the term "Latin lover" to describe Sanyu. Among his amorous conquests was Jiang Biwei, and in 1925 he married Marcelle, the daughter of a French aristocrat, only to be divorced a few years afterwards. Late in life, he had a German girlfriend. But for all his socializing and romantic pursuits, he rarely afforded people any glimpses of his true inner life.
There was also a literary side to Sanyu, who at various points in his life was good friends with the Chinese poets Xu Zhimo and Liang Tsong-tai, the latter also being the translator into French of Tao Yuanming's collected poems. Other soul mates included the French author and art collector-cum-dealer Henri-Pierre Roché and the Dutch composer Johan Franco. In his early Paris years, Sanyu loved to sit in a café and read the classical Chinese novel The Dream of the Red Chamber at his leisure. Later, he became engrossed by the poems of Jean Racine. His neighbors remembered Sanyu as a well-mannered, polite man who never lost his temper; the only time they ever heard him raise his voice and shout at someone was when a bunch of children playing in the yard had interrupted his flow of thought as he was writing a poem.
Adopting the lifestyle and attitude of a French bohemian and individualist, Sanyu epitomized a fashionable style that combined unconventionality with a refined elegance. At the same time, he was partial to big and tall Western women, and quickly became used to the footloose and fancy-free existence of an avant-garde artist in Paris. He retained a lifelong fondness for Chinese food, but China's society of the early 20th century, largely conservative and conformist as it still was, held very little attraction for a cosmopolitan like him. Even so, and even though he never returned to live in his native country, his late works exude a poignant sense of melancholy and loneliness. In 1966, the year of his death, he wrote back home to his family in Sichuan asking them to send him some fermented bean curd. It would be his last letter, for in August of that same year he was found dead in his Paris apartment, his life and work cut short by a tragic and regrettable gas poisoning accident.
III. Literati Oil Paintings with an Eastern Flair
Very few of Sanyu's earliest works are extant. One of his friends from those days, Wang Jigang, recalled how in Tokyo Sanyu had once shown him a copy of a Japanese art and literature magazine, which contained a reproduction of one of his horizontal calligraphies. There is a hint here that Sanyu's artistic development was firmly rooted in his calligraphic training and work, which stood him in very good stead when he moved on to drawing, sketching and oil painting - in particular, it is the essential fluidity and liveliness of calligraphic lines that allowed him to delineate human bodies with such aesthetic grace and vigor. Currently, the earliest known painting by Sanyu is the 1921 "Peonies" (colored ink on paper), which the artist gave as a present to his good friend Xu Beihong. On the back of this painting one finds a charcoal drawing by Xu, titled "Taming the Lions", making this a "double feature" by two great masters of their time. Sanyu's early colored inks are done in the free brushwork style typical of traditional literati painting: we find confident, skillful strokes and smoothly flowing lines that capture the essence of their subject with unaffected ease, be it landscapes or birds and flowers.
After he arrived in Paris in 1921, Sanyu was in no hurry to try his hand at oil painting. Instead, he first focused on sketching people, employing a variety of media ranging from pencil and charcoal to ink and wash drawings, as well as occasional watercolors. It was not before the late 1920s that he began to produce his first oil paintings. At the same time the artist became thoroughly immersed in the postwar spirit of "les années folles," or the Roaring Twenties, which proved to be an exhilarating blend of decadence and fresh ideas, bohemianism and new departures. Paris, particularly the Montparnasse district, attracted the crème de la crème of international artists and writers, giving birth to many new trends and developments in architecture, painting, sculpture, literature, music, and haute couture.
Sanyu's beloved cafés and bistros is where many of the capital's intellectuals and artists met on a regular basis to exchange ideas or talk about their work, while another of his favorite haunts, the Académie de Grande Chaumière, provided masters and students alike with a regular supply of models for sketching and painting from life. Among the students at the "large thatched cottage" were many later big names such as Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti. Here Sanyu was introduced to the world of modern sketching and drawing, skills he also frequently practiced when sitting for hours on end in the city's cafés - it is fair to say that he was thus closer to the pulse of the time, and more avant-garde and revolutionary in his approach, than most other Chinese artists of his time. As a matter of fact, the influence of Sanyu's style and technique is obvious in the work of some renowned oil painters, including Pang Xunqin (1906-1985) and Zhang Xian (1901-1936). For young artists in 1930s Shanghai looking for inspiration outside their own country, Sanyu's bold lines and aesthetically exaggerated depictions of the human body were a model of cosmopolitan avant-gardism.
In 1930, Sanyu made a splash as illustrator of a French edition of Tao Yuanming's collected poems, titled Les Poèmes de Tao Ts'ien, for which he produced three landscape engravings. Thanks to this kind of positive public exposure, in 1932 Sanyu's name even appeared in the third volume of Paris arts publisher Art Et Editions' Dictionnaire Biographique Des Artistes Contemporains 1910-1930 - a rare honor for a Chinese artist at that time.
Over his career as an oil painter (from 1929 to 1966), Sanyu's preferred motifs were female nudes, still lifes, flowers, animals, and the occasional landscape. Around the 1930s, pastel shades of pink and white, combined with some black, dominated his compositions, which tended to be structurally succinct and straightforward. The colors were applied with an astonishing degree of restraint: very soft hues that are sometimes faint to the point of being hardly visible. Thanks to financial support from various sources, Sanyu could afford to use expensive canvas for his oil paintings that are brimming with Fauvist passion and Expressionist tension and energy, at times taken to the point of Surrealist spontaneity. He excelled at employing Western media, colors and sujets to give expression to an understated aestheticism and lyrical elegance that owe a lot to the basic tenets of traditional Chinese visual arts. This strong Eastern flavor was one of the reasons why Sanyu was able to establish himself as a truly original painter on the French art scene, and to repeatedly have his works displayed at various salon exhibitions. Yuan Chu-sheng (1915-1999), who went to France to study painting in 1936, once said that at the time, the name Sanyu inspired the same awe and admiration in art circles that would much later be reserved for Zao Wou-ki. Many art critics agreed that Sanyu was the most important and accomplished pre-WWII Chinese-French painter.
Sanyu's situation became more difficult during the 1940s. The Second World War meant that even staple goods were in short supply, and painting materials such as canvas and oil colors turned into prohibitively expensive luxury items. Unfortunately, all support from home had also stopped some time ago, and so Sanyu was forced to make do with cheaper materials and equipment, and try his hand at a different medium: using plaster and paint, he began to experiment with sculpting. And the results were quite impressive - his animal sculptures even made it into a Paris Independent Salon exhibition. While oil on canvas works from the forties are very rare, Sanyu still managed to do quite a bit of oil painting on masonite. His style underwent some changes in this period as well, with the shapes of his nudes becoming more elongated and the compositions more loosely structured. The coloring of background and contours was now kept in somewhat darker, gloomier shades.
This trend continued into the 1950s, as the color black started to play a prominent role in his work. In particular, Sanyu now favored thick dark lines to outline his increasingly economical compositions. A growing number of elements borrowed from traditional Chinese painting also began to make their appearance, including ceramic bottles and vases, as well as coloring schemes commonly found in Chinese handicrafts. Postwar life was far from easy, and Sanyu's aloof attitude and unwillingness to make any compromises made it hard for him to get by. There were times when his sole source of income were paintings sold through friends and patrons. At one point he was even forced to take on a job in an imitation antiques factory, where he painted fans, screens and other furniture or lacquered objects. These would later find their way into his paintings, as Chinese-style patterns and background components for his nudes, flowers, stills and portraits. Sanyu could not remain entirely unaffected by his experiences, and in a 1955 letter to his good friend, the American photographer Robert Frank, he wrote, "Finally, after a lifetime of painting, I now truly understand how to paint." This was a characteristically Chinese understatement, overly modest if we consider that Sanyu had been a prominent figure on the Paris art scene since the 1930s, and had his works displayed at salon exhibitions numerous times. In truth the artist was well aware of his status, and his late work is distinguished by an even more confident and unrestrained approach. More and more returning to the Chinese literati tradition, Sanyu now often preferred darker, deeper tones, and infused his work with a powerful dose of nostalgia and isolation. But from the late fifties up to his death in the sixties, he was also able to completely free himself from convention, a fact clearly evident in the daring use of color and bolder nudes that characterize his latest work, in a way more avant-garde than his early oeuvre. Last not least, the flower paintings of this final period show brighter colors and more exuberant shapes than ever before.
IV. When East Meets West: Five Nudes
The first time Sanyu encountered the - to him - exotic and strange world of nude sketching was in the 1920s at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. For the average Chinese person at that time, it must have been hard to accept that depictions of naked woman should be anything but a form of glorified pornography, even though in the West there was a long tradition of nude art. Back in China, in the years before Sanyu left for Europe, prominent painter and art educator Liu Haisu had introduced the practice of sketching from nude models to Shanghai, a move that sent major ripples through Chinese society and triggered a heated ten-year dispute over naked models and nudity in art. Sanyu, who was personally acquainted with Liu, must have been aware of those goings-on, and he would remain fascinated with the glamorous subject of nude painting right up to the 1950s.
The 1950s were also the time in which "Five Nudes" was completed, the largest currently known female nude oil painting by the artist, and also the one depicting the biggest number of nude women in one single opus. It is also noteworthy that in contrast with the customary sitting or reclining positions, these women are all standing up. According to Rita Wong's Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonné Oil Paintings, of the artist's known extant 51 female nude oil paintings, only seven feature standing postures, and four of these belong to the period between 1920 and 1930, all of them showing a nude pair. The fifth is "Nude with Puppy" from the 1940s, originally part of Robert Frank's collection, and the last two, both from the 1950s, are "Nude in Front of a Mirror", which currently belongs to the collection of the National Museum of History in Taipei, and this lot, the magnificently sensuous "Five Nudes".
The great masters of classical and modern Western painting usually liked to depict nudes in reclining or horizontal positions, such as lying on their side, their back, or flat on their belly. Examples include Titian's courtesans, Giorgione's Sleeping Venus, François Boucher's Nude on a Sofa (aka Reclining Girl) and Manet's "Olympia", as well as nudes by 20th-century artists such as Modigliani, Picasso and Matisse.
Of course there are exceptions: French Neoclassicist painter Jean-August Dominique Ingres' "The Source"(1856) is a typical example of a standing nude. However, the first painting coming to mind in this context is probably Italian Early Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus". After the mid-19th century, standing nudes suddenly gained in popularity, mostly depicted in bathing scenes (likely reflecting the influence of Turkish bathing culture). Examples are found in Paul Cézanne's and Auguste Renoir's work, especially the latter's "Baigneuses" paintings.
During the early 20th century, Picasso was impressed by the aesthetic qualities of African wooden masks, an influence that clearly shows in his "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907), which features five nudes, four of them in a standing posture. This piece is generally considered to be one of the seminal works in the development of Cubism, and with its radical departure from conventional nude representations, and its abstracted, disjointed body shapes, it offers the viewer a fresh perspective on reality. Another painting, Henri Matisse's "La Danse" from 1910, also shows five nudes, but they are dancing in a circle, holding each other by the hands, and their shape and style is reminiscent of classical Greek and Roman sculpture. The coloring is kept deliberately simple: just intense warm hues of red, blue and green. Both the Picasso and the Matisse painting are among the classics of modern art.
Naturally, Sanyu, who practically spend more than four decades of his life in Paris, would have seen or known most of the nude masterpieces described above, and it may well have inspired the wish to create a monumental work like that himself. Of course, with his background in Chinese painting and calligraphy, Sanyu painted nudes that still display some marked differences when put in the context of the Western tradition. Albert Dahan, a former reporter with France Soir and one of the artist's friends in his later years, perfectly captured the hybrid nature of Sanyu's work when he described him as the "Matisse Chinois," a moniker that gained some currency at the time. Dahan praised Sanyu's nudes for the fluidity and sensitivity of the black lines delineating the body shapes, always drawn with quick and sure single strokes. Like Matisse, Sanyu was very fond of painting female nudes, and liked to enhance his compositions with decorative patterns or geometrical shapes, yet the resultant style and mood is very distinct from the French painter's.
Make no mistake, Matisse's work - at least to European eyes - did have something of an Oriental flair, Middle Eastern maybe, mixed with a Mediterranean predilection for ornate embellishments. Sanyu's nudes, on the other hand, are rendered in an artistic language that is intensely individual and idiosyncratic, and cannot be readily compared to any particular model or prototype. Employing the calligraphic lines he had excelled at since his early youth, Sanyu imported the liubai (roughly: "leaving blank spaces") concept of Chinese landscape painting into his tightly composed oil paintings, thereby creating an alluring amalgam of Western-style overt expressiveness and subtly humorous Oriental understatement. Other elements effortlessly incorporated into his nudes include patterns and palettes from Chinese folk art and handicrafts - as we saw earlier, Sanyu had an intimate knowledge of these from his experiences in his family's silk business, as well as later in Shanghai, were he was exposed to the budding art of advertising design in the form of billboards, calendars and other popular media, or even in his later years in Paris, when he had to work in an imitation antiques factory, decorating screens and lacquerware to earn a living.
In "Five Nudes" we find exactly the type of women Sanyu was so partial to: big, tall, voluptuous, and sure of their charms, but at the same time tantalizingly casual and nonchalant. As usual, they have a sculpted feel about them, and their shapes are slightly distorted to accentuate the lower halves of their bodies, making them ooze with feminine sexuality. For all that, and in spite of the fact that the five nudes in this lot fill up almost the entire picture, the prevailing atmosphere is one of peculiar restraint and elegance, redolent of a very Eastern penchant for implying rather than revealing one's inner world. The women's hands and feet are done in the emblematic "comb-style" first found in his paintings from around 1925. According to art critic Antoine Chen's research, there is a Matisse portrait of a lady, with the artist's signature showing it to be from 1946, in which the lady's fingers are represented very much in the same "teeth-of-a-comb" fashion that is typical for much of Sanyu's work. Now it is far from certain whether Matisse ever met Sanyu, although it is quite possible that he had seen some of the Chinese artist's work, seeing as they moved in similar circles and were both parts of the vibrant Parisian art scene. Whether or not there was any influence, however indirect or obscure, or if we are simply dealing with a "great minds think alike" scenario, is something we will probably never know for sure, but there is no doubt at all that in terms of talent and skill, Sanyu bears comparison with even the greatest among European painters.
The opulent tones of yellow and red that make up the background of "Five Nudes" are rarely found in Western-style painting, but are staple colors in Chinese folk art, handicrafts and everyday life, where they symbolize prosperity and good fortune, or help to generate a festive atmosphere. Very similar hues are also seen in Sanyu's late flower stills. In the foreground of the painting we can discern little flowery designs that are drawn in comparatively fine black lines. These can be observed in oil paintings from every period of the artist's career, and a closer look reveals them to be peony-shaped designs, the kind that were traditionally applied as decorative patterns to ceramic vases, furniture or garments. As we have mentioned, Sanyu's earliest know painting is Peonies - a recurring motif, then, that possibly reflects his longing for a better past when life was easier. After all, in China the peony is considered to be the "king of flowers" and frequently serves as a symbol for affluence and nobility.
In his book Overseas Chinese Fine Arts Series - Sanyu, Antoine Chen gives a detailed introduction to "Five Nudes": "After WWII, Sanyu painted considerably fewer nudes. There are now only about a dozen from that period to be found on the global market. "Five Nudes" is a monumental work dating from 1955, in which dark red and bright yellow serve to set off the white figures of the nudes, each of them striking a distinct pose. There is significantly less distortion of their shapes when compared with the artist's 1930s nudes, yet neither is the style realistic. The somewhat choppily outlined black contours create the brand of almost classical simplicity typical of some of Sanyu's late work. Some of his inspiration for this piece may have been derived from a pencil sketch from his early years titled Four Nudes, although the dissimilarities in technique and effect are actually more striking than the parallels. One thing the two works have in common is that in each the three women to the left have just one eye, even though at least part of the other "should" be visible, even with their heads slightly cocked to the side. When a friend from North Africa asked him about this, Sanyu gave an unexpected and rather cryptic answer, ‘I may be painting women with only one eye, but in reality I love nothing more than women who are absolutely perfect.' Maybe he had a twinkle in his eye when he said this, and maybe a possible interpretation of the "missing" eyes is that these women are winking at the observer: an intimate gesture that can be flirtatious or indicate tacit understanding, and in any case leaves some room for the imagination - something quite in sync with Paris in the 1930s, where nothing seemed certain and everything possible. There is a photo of Sanyu by the seaside from around 1945, showing him winking at the camera. In Five Nudes, the main hair colors found in Europe are all represented: blond, black, brunette and red, putting one in mind of young Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita's picture of five young girls with different hair colors. Under the brush of the mature Sanyu, we get five full-grown women in beautiful, confident postures. As for the artist himself, at this point in his life he has come a long way from the wealthy young dandy from Sichuan. The carefree man of the world, while having matured as an artist, yet seems to have been cut down to the size of a Pekingese lapdog or cute little kitten, more than happy to put himself at the mercy of larger-than-life nude women. The peony patterns scattered across the yellow carpet in the painting's foreground can probably be read as a metaphor for the life as a member of a rich and influential family in the "old" China, where wealthy men could have several wives and concubines. Or in the words of the painter Shiy De-jinn, "Once a ladies' man, always a ladies' man." There is another nude painting by Sanyu to be considered in this context, Four Reclining Nudes (1963), currently in the collection of the National Museum of History in Taipei. Here the artist employs a bird's-eye view to show four women lying close to each other on their backs, head and feet alternating. Taking up nearly the entire canvas, their orange-yellow bodies quite literally push the similar colored bed sheet - embroidered with the decorative Chinese characters for happiness, wealth and longevity - to the fringes of the picture, marked at the top and bottom by narrow red margins. The composition swings with a kind of undulating rhythm, generated mainly by the smoothly interlocking bodies and the curves of the closely adjoining breasts and legs. Monotony is avoided by arranging the hands and feet in a variety of positions. If we compare the earlier Five Nudes with this painting, we find that as he grew older, Sanyu expressed himself in an increasingly direct and revealing fashion - it seems that in Four Reclining Nudes the last vestiges of constraint and cool understatement have been brushed aside in favor of a much more blunt expressiveness." (Antoine Chen [Chen Yen-fon], Overseas Chinese Fine Arts Series - Sanyu, Artist Publishing Company, Taipei, 1995, pp. 51-52)
V. The Art of Sanyu: A Priceless Treasure
Sanyu was not the most prolific of artists: at this point, less than 300 oil paintings are known to exist. But what may be lacking in quantity is certainly more than made up for by the astonishingly even quality of each single piece. Currently, 49 of his oil paintings are in the collection of the National Museum of History in Taipei, one is in the possession of the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) in Beijing, and the remaining more than 200 works are all in the hands of private collectors. Most of Sanyu's close friends were not Chinese, but came from many countries around the world. There was the French journalist and art collector-cum-dealer Henri-Pierre Roché, one of Sanyu's biggest patrons and a man with a keen eye for recognizing talent. Before discovering Sanyu, he had already befriended and supported the likes of Marie Laurencin, Georges Braque, Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp, and Ebihara Kinosuke. Other important friends of Sanyu included the Dutch composer Johan Franco, the American photographer Robert Frank, and Jean-Claude Riedel, who ran an antiques business in the 1960s. All of them had actively supported Sanyu at one point or other in his life, be it by helping him sell his works, buying paintings themselves, or providing other forms of sponsorship.
In the Chinese world, Sanyu for a long time received much less attention. Of course he was known among the other Chinese students who had come to France with the first wave of the mouvement travail-études, but it was not before 1970 that the National Museum of History in Taipei held its first exhibition of the artist's works in its collection. Unfortunately, it did not meet with much of a response. In 1983, Antoine Chen brought back a number of watercolor sketches from his travels in France and put on an exhibition at a Taipei gallery. In 1988, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum held an exhibition titled "China – Paris, Seven Chinese Painters Who Studied in France, 1918-1960," which attracted a larger number of local aficionados and collectors and heralded a new era of rapidly growing interest in Sanyu among Chinese art lovers. Ever since then, Taiwan art dealers and auction houses have made increasing efforts to locate and buy more of Sanyu's work at the source, in Paris. In other words, Sanyu has only been on the radar of the Chinese art market for some 20 to 30 years. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Taiwan dealers and galleries over the past two decades, the work of one of the most unique modern Chinese painters is finally receiving the attention it deserves.
In the September 2004 issue of the Ravenel: Art & Investment quarterly, the present author published an article headlined "The First Person on the Chinese Western Art Collectors, Most Wanted List: Sanyu." As the title suggests, much of Sanyu's allure lies in the fact that his works are so hard to come by. Taiwan blogger Ailleurs (Ch. "Tafang") also posted some thoughts on Sanyu in 2008, describing his works as modern "He Shi Jades", an indicator of their high value - in Chinese history, the "He Shi Bi" was a precious piece of jade that was made into the imperial seal. Ailleurs' comments reflect a steadily mounting interest in Sanyu, and a more widespread awareness of what an exceptional painter he was. To those in the know, it does not sound like an exaggeration when Ailleurs calls Sanyu's paintings "divine" and finds that "no words can do them justice."
Within the past few years, Sanyu's art was exhibited overseas. As one of the world's leading museums of Asian art, the Guimet Musée National des Arts Asiatiques held a retrospective show of "Sanyu, Writing of the Body" in 2006 with sponsorship of Yageo Foundation from Taiwan. It became the largest exhibition in Paris for the artist. In October 2008, when the exhibition "Madonna Meets Mao" of Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden featured the masterpieces from the East and the West, Sanyu's paintings became some of the highlights. The two exhibitions have brought more attention to the deceased Chinese-origin artist.
Since his works are both rare and artistically valuable, the prices for Sanyu's oil paintings continue to rise. At this time, the most expensive Sanyu work ever auctioned is the 1950 "Potted Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere", which was sold at a Hong Kong auction on Nov 27, 2010, for HK$ 53.3 million (US$ 6,895,426/more than NT$ 200 million), breaking the record set only a year and a half earlier, also by a 1950 painting, "Cat and Birds", which had sold for HK$ 42.1 million (US$ 5,456,703). When "Potted Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere" appeared in an auction four years ago, it also achieved the highest price for a Sanyu painting up to that time, selling for HK$ 29.24 million (US$ 3,753,530).
Now, this coming May, a very attractive lot will be offered for sale at auction: the oil painting "Five Nudes", also from 1950. It is the largest of Sanyu's nudes and was previously shown at the 1988 exhibition "China – Paris, Seven Chinese Painters Who Studied in France, 1918-1960" at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. It also graced the front and back cover of art critic Antoine Chen's 1995 book Overseas Chinese Fine Arts Series- Sanyu, a further indication of the painting's important position in the artist's oeuvre. "Five Nudes" was also the work that represented the artist at the 2010 exhibition "Treasures of the Century - Masters of 20th Century Chinese Art" held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center. Now this monumental lot is up for sale, and there is much expectation that it will set a new price record for a Sanyu painting.
(written in March 2011)