Odile Chen 的藝術筆記
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Seductive Lines - The Refined Beauty of Sanyu’s Works on Paper


Sanyu, a pioneer of Chinese modernism, first rose to fame during the Roaring Twenties in Paris, and soon became the most eminent representative of Chinese-born painters within the École de Paris movement. Critics recognized his outstanding gifts and called him the “Matisse of the East” or “Modigliani of the East” when praising the seductive quality of his lines and the aesthetic appeal of his female forms. Merging Western and Eastern elements in his work, Sanyu made good use of his early training as a calligrapher in his prolific output of sketches, watercolors, and prints, and these early works on paper also laid a solid foundation for his later oil paintings.


Sketching as an Inspiring Journey towards Imaginative Color and Spirit

In 2004, the Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet held a major retrospective exhibition titled “Sanyu - l’ériture du corps” (Sanyu - Language of the Body), placing a strong focus on the artist’s forte: striking depictions of the human form, outlined with skilled ease and extraordinary expressiveness. Sanyu’s nifty contours and arresting nudes owe as much to his long practice as a calligrapher and sketcher as to his natural talent. Already in his early sketches of nude model s one can immediately discern his uncanny knack for represent ing the human body artistically, and all his works on paper show the characteristic blend of modern Western rationality and Eastern freehand flamboyance.


Sanyu’s art brings to mind a few lines that Henri Matisse wrote to a friend: “If drawing is of the spirit and color of the senses, you must draw first, to cultivate the spirit and to be able to lead color into spiritual paths… It is only after years of preparation that the young artist should touch color - not color as description, that is, but as a means of intimate expression.”



Sanyu arrived in Paris in 1921, but it was not until 1929 that he first tried to paint in oil on canvas. It is hard to say whether he had read the lines quoted above, or whether he had figured out the truth they contain all on his own, but the fact is that after coming to France, he spent many years perfecting his skills in drawing and sketching. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who opted to enrol l in one of the official fine art academies, Sanyu chose to enter the more liberal-minded L’Atelier de la Grand Chaumière, more commonly known as L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière, to study painting. Founded in 1902 and located in the Montparnasse area on the left bank of the Seine, the Grande Chaumière was sort of an “amateur” art school where students were free to explore a variety of styles and approaches - quite different from the École des Beaux-Arts with its strict rules and rigorous training. In this environment, which allowed independent spirits and even autodidacts to thrive and flourish, Sanyu developed a drawing and sketching style free from conventions and constraints. Eventually, his work garnered him a spot in various salon exhibitions, including at the Paris Salon des Indépendents, the Salon des Tuileries, and the Salon d’Automne.


L’Académie de la Grand Chaumière in Paris

The dynamic development of the École de Paris movement was in many ways connected with the artists studying and working at the Grand Chaumière. Besides Sanyu, they included many famous painters and sculptors, such as Marc Chagall, Pang Xunqin, Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-chun, Alberto Giacometti, Louise Bourgeois, and Alexander Calder. Sanyu was firmly opposed to his friend Pang Xunqin’s joining the Académie Julian, one of the city’s long-established art schools, asking him, “Why would you want to join one of the official academies? The academic approach is completely outdated. People are discarding it and looking towards progress and modernity.”


Looking towards progress and taking the road to modernity: that was exactly Sanyu’ s objective in all his artistic pursuits, ever since he started out as a calligrapher and then proceeded to sketching and drawing. He showed great aptitude for calligraphy from a very young age, learning from his father, a distinguished painter of lions and horses. Later, his father arranged for him to study with the renowned Sichuan calligrapher Zhao Xi, and Sanyu delivered on his early promise by becoming a consummate calligrapher, one of whose works was even published in a Japanese art and literature magazine ( the artist spent about a year in Japan between 1918 and 1919). Today, Sanyu is best known for his nudes painted with a brush in a style reminiscent of traditional literati painting, so much so that critic Antoine Chen dubbed them “ink wash nudes.” The artist’s background as a calligrapher was conducive to the smoothness and sleek flow of his lines and contours, and Sanyu was always able to catch his model’s expression and poise with just a few deceptively simple strokes, a method he took so far that many of these works already border on the expressionist mode. It was Albert Dahan, a former journalist with France Soir and a friend of the artist for almost 20 years, who first described Sanyu as “the Chinese Matisse,” a term that stuck and has currency to this day. Dahan was particularly impressed by Sanyu’s ability to outline the contours of his female nudes in one quick succession of subtly connected brushstrokes, repeatedly praising his sure hand and quick instinct.



Sanyu was also an expert in employing the “dry brushstrokes” of traditional Chinese landscape painting to add texture and impact to his human forms, a technique that can frequently be observed in his pencil and charcoal drawings. Antoine Chen notes that the way Sanyu uses gentle strokes and soft hues to faintly indicate the contours and physique of his models closely resembles the Art Deco style that was especially popular between 1927 and 1928. And: “The emblematical comb-like representat ion of hands and feet is an expression of the artist’s creativity and originality.”


In addition, Sanyu’s sketches reveal his understanding of, and willingness to experiment with, foreshortening and perspective. A lover of photography, he boldly depicted his models’ legs and bottoms in distorted ways, as if seen through an extreme wide-angle lens. One of Sanyu’s literary friends, the renowned Chinese poet Xu Zhimo humorously described the legs of his nudes as “thighs of the universe.” For all his easygoing charm and debonair ways, Sanyu was actually an intensely private person when it came to matters of passion and romance. It should be remembered that Sanyu came, after all, from a very conservative society, and likely still felt just a tad uncomfortable in the presence of casually voluptuous women in the nude. Partly as a result of this, his style tended towards the concise, abstract, and distorted, with a soupcon of self-deprecating humor thrown in for good measure. In this combination of diverse elements lies much of his work’s unique appeal.


Most of Sanyu’s sketches of human figures originated in the Grande Chaumière, but they were not always the models on the stage that he drew. Sometimes he would rather depict his colleagues and fellow students. At other times, he would dash off quick sketches of customers at neighboring tables in a bar or café, gradually perfecting his skills in sketching human figures from life. From 1928 to 1931, Sanyu was married to Marcelle Charlotte Guyot de la Hardrouyère, a French woman who was also attending sketching classes at the Grande Chaumière, and greatly admired his skills in drawing and sketching. She enjoyed the way his work was brimming with vitality and confidence, and was eager to learn from him. One thing led to another, and eventually they fell in love.


Sketches, Watercolors, and Prints Appealing to All Tastes

Sanyu became completely immersed in the artistic circles of the City of Light, spending much time in the streets and cafés of Montparnasse, where he had ample opportunities to mix with other artists for a free exchange of opinions and ideas. A close look will reveal that his sketches of human figures share quite a few characteristics with those of modernist artists like Matisse, Modigliani, and Kees van Dongen. And since Sanyu had an additional background in traditional Chine s e l ands c ape pa int ing and calligraphy, and was more than familiar with painting on paper, his work during his early years in France displays a width of style and breadth of vision unusual in such a young artist. Apart from sketching and drawing, Sanyu also occasionally produced watercolors, always using color sparingly and often simply applying pale smidgens of paint to finished sketches as a way of accentuating the bodies’ contours, or adding rouge to women’s faces and tints of color to their clothes. All in all, his watercolors show a simple elegance and charm that has a very “French” feel to them.


Drawings and sketches constitute the staple of Sanyu’s works on paper. Most of these were completed during the 1920s and 1930s, and according to estimates there are more than a thousand of them. After making the acquaintance of Sanyu in 1929, French author and art collector Henri-Pierre Roché (1879-1959) bought 111 of the artist’s oil paintings and 600 of his sketches over the next two or three years, becoming Sanyu’s most important sponsor during this seminal phase of his career. When Roché died in 1959, his widow put up an auction at the Hôtel Drouot auction house in Paris, at which art dealer Jean-Claude Riedel bought 80 of Sanyu’s oil paintings and a considerable number of his sketches. Many works of Riedel’s collection later found their way into the Taiwan art market in a roundabout way.


During the early 1930s, another patron of Sanyu’s was the Dutch-born composer Johan Franco (1908-1988), giving the artist much financial support and organizing three exhibitions of his work in the Netherlands for him. In 1995, Franco’s collection was sold at auction at Sotheby’s Taipei, featuring several oil paintings and a range of works on paper, including 11 watercolors, 10 sketches, and 20 prints of varying sizes.


In his writings, Antoine Chen mentions that in 1981 in Paris he once saw some seven or eight hundred of Sanyu’ s sketches and watercolors from the 1930s. Fascinated by the artist’s work, he began to collect his works on paper, and in the following year he held an exhibition at Print Artist Gallery in Taipei, titled “Sanyu Sketches and Watercolors from the 1930s.” Most of the works shown originally came from the collection of Sanyu’s friend Michel Habart, who at one time owned several hundred of Sanyu’s watercolors and sketches. With the exception of Sanyu’s works on paper that form part of the Taipei National Museum of History’s collection, the ones brought to Taiwan by Antoine Chen were the first to appear on the Taiwan art market. Later, art galleries like Mingmen, Jinling, and Apollo also began to import Sanyu’s sketches and watercolors, displaying them in small exhibitions.



Most of Sanyu’s works on paper stem from the early years of his career, with his prints widely distributed over the marketplace and private collections. In the 1930s, Sanyu produced three bronze engravings for a French edition of Tao Yuanming’s collected poems, Les Poèmes de T’ao Ts’ien , translated by Liang Tsong Tai and with a foreword by Paul Valéry. It was a limited edition of 290 copies, with another 17 of a “special edition” also issued, making for a total of 317 copies. In addition to the illustrations for this much sought-after volume, other coveted prints by Sanyu include small sized bronze engravings and lithographs issued in small numbers of 10 or 50, black and red monochromes mostly depicting animals, human figures, nudes, and still lifes of flowers in a vase, or containing decorative New Year’s greetings. From the dedications and signatures found on these prints it is evident that many of these miniature works were made as gifts for friends and not intended for the market. 

When the Taipei Fine Arts Museum held an exhibition in 1989 titled “China - Paris: Seven Chinese Painters Who Studied in France,” Sanyu’s art became known to a broader public in Taiwan, and soon other galleries began to import some of the artist’s works from Paris, including in 1992 Dimension Endowment of Art, Lin & Keng Gallery, and Jia Art Gallery. In the 1990s, local artists still constituted the mainstream in Taiwan’s marketplace for oil paintings, and a clear dividing line was drawn in the domestic market between traditional Chinese paintings and Western-style works. Sanyu’s work, however, effortlessly straddled both traditions, and was able to attract aficionados of Chinese calligraphy and paintings as well as connoisseurs of other genres. His appeal to foreign collectors is probably best explained by the strong undertow of Eastern understatement and subtle charm that permeates all his work.

Auction houses did their best to add momentum to the growing interest in Sanyu by digging up previously unknown works and documents that revealed new aspects of the artist and his oeuvre. In this context, Rita Wong (former president of Sotheby’s Taiwan) deserves special mention, for not only did she hold two auctions dedicated entirely to works by Sanyu, but after leaving her position at the auction house, she published a complete chronological catalogue listing all of the artist’s known oil paintings, and continued to research Sanyu, his life and his work, in an attempt to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Currently, she is embarking on the compilation of a complete chronological catalogue of the artist’s works on paper, a task even more monumental than her previous catalogue of his oil paintings. Hopefully, her work will contribute to a more complete understanding of Sanyu and his oeuvre, and spark a wave of fresh appreciation, both in artistic and in market terms.


Works on Paper in the Current Marketplace: Time for a Reevaluation

From the attached list “Top 20 Most Expensive Works on Paper of SANYU Ever Sold at Auction” it is apparent that Sanyu’s watercolors command the highest prices in this category, followed by sketches and prints. Rarity creates value, and Sanyu’s most expensive ever watercolor nude to date is worth NT$3.585 million (approx. US$120,000), which is 4-5 times more than about a decade ago. There is a marked variation in value with his ink wash sketches, simply because there are so many of them: prices range from tens of thousands to 3 million New Taiwan dollars. Another reason for the sometimes huge gap in value is the existence (or lack) of documentation attesting good provenance, while the place of auction will also affect a lot’s performance. Bidders in Hong Kong and Taiwan are more familiar with Sanyu’s work, explaining in part why sketches at auction in these two places sell for an average price of around NT$1 million (approx. US$33,300); on the Mainland Chinese market Sanyu sketches occasionally sell for 2-3 times the average rate, but the overall number of completed deals is rather small.

Sanyu’ s print s popped up in the marketplace comparatively rarely, but they surfaced at auction in Europe, North America, or Asia now and then. It is worth mentioning that pieces formerly belonging to the collections of famous aficionados tend to achieve higher prices. For example, Ravenel Spring Auction 2010 Taipei sold a set of two lithographs titled “Nudes” that had formerly been in the possession of Dutch-born composer Johan Franco for a very respectable NT$1.32 million (approx. US$40,000). Before that , a set of seven bronze engravings sold at auction in Hong Kong for NT$3.5 million (approx. HK$900,000 or US$115,000), a deal that made it to the fourth spot in the above-mentioned list of the most expensive works on paper by Sanyu, with each individual print worth NT$500,000 or roughly US$16,000.



Sanyu’s works have been available in Taiwan’s art market for more than 40 years, yet for quite a long time collectors showed relatively little interest in sketches and watercolors, and so prices for works on paper remained rather low. Yet this long-term trend came to an end when prices for Sanyu’s oil paintings continued to climb to ever new heights in the auction market, including the well-known “Five Nudes” - when this painting changed owners for NT$480 million (US$16.5 million), it became for a time the most expensive oil painting by a Chinese artist ever sold. Today, buying one of Sanyu’s oil paintings has become an impossible dream for many collectors, so maybe it’s time to readjust our focus and take a new look at the artist’s works on paper.

Recently, the market has been abuzz with contemporary ink wash paintings, many of them creating new price records. At a time when the market for contemporary art has not quite come out of its last slump, bidders are already beginning to eye the works on paper by long-established artists such as Shiy Dejinn, Yu Cheng-yao, and T’ang Haywen, or the even better known Zao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-chun, Pan Yu-liang, and Sanyu, practically all of whom belonged to the first wave of Chinese painters going to France in the first decades of the last century. In its 2014 autumn auction, Ravenel Taipei presents 11 particularly attractive works on paper by Sanyu, mostly coming from the former collection of Antoine Chen or Print Maker Art Gallery. One of the lots was part of the 1989 exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum titled “China - Paris: Seven Chinese Painters Who Studied in France,” and has appeared in a number of catalogues. All pieces are of excellent provenance and are set to reinvigorate the Chinese art market, and launch another wave of interest in Sanyu’s work.