Chrysanthemums in a Vase on a Red Table
SANYU (CHANG Yu) (Chinese-French, 1895 - 1966)
Oil on masonite
62 x 92 cm
TWD Estimate on request
Private collection, Europe
Christie’s Hong Kong, May 27, 2005, lot 265
Ravenel, Hong Kong, December 1, 2008, lot 133
Private collection, Asia
Rita Wong, Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonne Oil Paintings
Volume Two, The Li-Ching Cultural and Educational
Foundation, Taipei, 2011, color illustrated, no. 276, p. 84
Many other Eastern artists who came to France with the irst wave of foreign students described Sanyu as already having the air and reputation of a great master, even in his early years. But at the same time, his rather reckless and dissolute character, and his unwillingness to break his back to do something as "trivial" as earning his daily bread, meant that in the end he died a poor man in a foreign country. Wu Guanzhong, one of the doyens of modern Chinese painting, met Sanyu once in Paris. He has words of high praise for his fellow painter, calling him a "true artist," and rating him much higher then, say, Pan Yu-liang or Xu Beihong. Wu on Sanyu, "His paintings are quite good, really. They have style, and they have character. I'd say that among all the Chinese oil painters who developed their career in the West, Sanyu deserves the place of honor." In Wu's opinion, Sanyu's brushwork is similar to the traditional Chinese "freehand" style, but his sense of shape and color, and the general structure of his compositions, are largely rooted in modern Western concepts.
Today, there is no doubt that Sanyu is one of the most distinguished members of the irst generation of modern Chinese-origin oil painters. The aesthetic appeal of his work surpasses the boundaries of time and space, and to this day his paintings remain among the favorite objects of many collectors' desire. Incidentally, Sanyu's aesthetics are clearly indebted to the Chinese cultural tradition, even though most of his output has been in Western genres and formats, in particular oil painting, watercolor, sketch/ drawings and prints. Born in Nanchong in Sichuan Province, he was irst instructed in calligraphy and painting by his father, Chang Shu-fang. At about the age of 12, Sanyu began to display his extraordinary talent, much influenced and inspired by his father's work. Chang Shu-fang had quite a reputation for his exquisite animal painting, especially his depictions of lions and horses. Possibly as a result of this, and a subtle form of paying respect to his father, landscape compositions featuring horses as the dominant theme run through Sanyu's entire oeuvre. The seeds of traditional Eastern art would continue to sprout and bear fruit throughout his whole life, even though he spent most of it as a stranger in strange lands. Although he roamed in the Western world, the basics of his art are unmistakably pervaded by a Zen-like rhythm, an almost mystical vibrancy that shows in his lines, brushwork, compositional and spatial arrangements, as well as his use of color. Though he chose to make Europe his permanent abode, the core of his work is yet brimming with the essence of Chinese culture.
When he was still a young man, his father arranged for Sanyu to study calligraphy under the famous Sichuan master Zhao Xi (1877- 1938). Zhao Xi's poetry, calligraphy, and painting (the three of which were considered to be an integral unit in classical Chinese art) enjoyed wide renown across the country, and some of his art (mostly calligraphy) is preserved in the temples, steles, and other historical relics of Sichuan Province. Under the tutelage of this master, the foundations of Sanyu's aesthetical education were laid, with a strong emphasis on grace, elegance and beauty. With the blessing and encouragement of his father, Sanyu embarked on his journey as an aspiring artist. Moving to Shanghai, he received much visual stimulation from the folk art designs of the advertising billboards, posters, and calendars one could encounter everywhere in the big city. Another influence on Sanyu were the flower painting styles of the Shanghai and Jinshi schools, and the artist in particular absorbed the classical tradition of artists like Shi Tao (1642-1718) and Chu Ta (1626-1705) and incorporated them in his own stylistic repertoire. Between 1918 and 1919, Sanyu visited his second brother in Tokyo, where he spend more than a year and managed to have some of his calligraphy published in Japanese art magazines - an indication that at this point in his career, he had already reached a considerable degree of skill and maturity in the traditional Chinese genres. While not many of Sanyu's calligraphic works are extant today, one can catch more than a glimpse of his luid brushwork and assured elegance in his early Paris nude female sketches: his technique is impeccable, his compositions all of a piece, done in one go without later corrections or changes. This near perfection, praised and envied by many of his contemporaries, also became a hallmark of his oil paintings, where he employed the lively yet abstract lines of calligraphy to draw the contours of human bodies, animal shapes, still S lifes, and lowers.Sanyu's preferred motifs were female nudes, lowers and other still lifes, animals, and a small number of landscape paintings. He never tired of these themes, and especially pictures of flowers and plants make up a large portion of his oeuvre. His favorites were the classical subjects of Chinese painting, plum blossoms, bamboo, lotus, and chrysanthemums. Among these, he particularly loved chrysanthemums, and consequently they frequently appear in his flower painting, messengers of a deeply felt nostalgia that is yet never more than hinted at with subtle restraint. In the Chinese tradition, chrysanthemums are symbols of a reclusive life, signifying a hermit or a poet. They stand for a spontaneous, independent spirit that has probably been best captured in Tao Yuanming's famous lines from one of his Wine Poems, "Chrysanthemums I was picking under the east hedge / When the South Range met my tranquil eyes ... The soul of nature was here revealed / Too subtle it was for words." We can be sure that Sanyu shares these sentiments on a very profound level, because he reveals his views on life and genuine beauty through his depictions of lowers, using them as an outlet for metaphorically expressing the sadness and forlornness lurking immediately under the surface of his merry Paris life. As Wu Guanzhong writes, "Sanyu was a great painter of flower stills and potted plants, and they are always blossoming in the most exquisite shapes and colors, brimming with life. Yet in truth, lowers in a vase are but beautiful blooms on stalks or branches already severed from the true sap of life - lingering on for a short while, but doomed to fade and wither quickly. It is a mournful sight, really, the sadness only enhanced by the sheer splendour of the subject. The overwhelming visual density is but the result of cutting and arrangement, an effect produced by squeezing thick clusters of lowers into too small a vase or pot, thus losing all sense of natural proportions. When this happens, some have plaintively observed, one forces these delicate plants to subsist on a little water or a few crumbs of soil, cutting them off from the generous nourishment of Mother Earth. Why would Sanyu be so sensitive to these truths? Why, his compassion and sympathy clearly derive from the fact that he was in a similar situation himself! I think he was a 'potted plant,' a 'lower in a vase,' too, a bonsai from the East transplanted to the huge garden that is Paris." (From Wu Guanzhong, 'About Sanyu'.) Scholar-painter and writer Chiang Hsun expressed a similar impression when he said that "Sanyu's life was like the lowers he painted." Looking at the lowers and their graceful yet lonely poise, we can get some idea of what the artist's inner life must have been like.
Flower stills from different periods of Sanyu's creative career displaymarked stylistic differences. Around the 1930s, pastel tones and simple, succinct shapes dominate the pictures, and most of the "flowers" shown are cut branches inserted in a plain vase or basket- delicate structures pleasing to the eye. Since the artist received much sponsorship and support during this time, most of theseworks are on canvas. By the 1940s, the economic situation had worsened dramatically due to WWII, and decent painting materials were hard or impossible to come by. Sanyu was forced to paint on fiberboard, often recycling the same piece for multiple paintings.
The lowers and vases from this phase are usually outlined with thick strokes, and colors and composition are kept terse, giving the paintings a certain naive charm that is further enhanced by the freehand brushwork. In his later works from the late ifties and early sixties, the coloring suddenly becomes mottled, brighter and
more varied, and the lowers shown are dazzlingly beautiful in a more abstract, surreal manner, their pure aestheticism offering keen pleasures to the observer's eye.
Sanyu very rarely dated his later flower paintings, but judging from its style and execution, "Chrysanthemums in a Vase on a Red Table" is very likely a piece from the late forties or early fifties. This lot perfectly illustrates the observations of French critic Pierre Joffroy, "The particular gift of this artist is to unite East and West in his paintings, not in a confused, sacrilegious way, but with an elevated awareness where one loses usual points of reference. Sanyu has found one word to describe his minimalist art using basically three tones of color: Simplicism." Indeed, Sanyu was a lifelong proponent of "Simplicism," and he would sometimes use cooking metaphors to illuminate the concept, stating that while standard European cuisine reveled in the rich lavors of cooked, roasted or fried meats, his own creations focused more on fruits and vegetables, resembling a light salad rather than an opulent feast. Sanyu also felt that his art had the potential to change the way people appreciate artistic works, and thus ultimately revolutionize their tastes.
The three basic tones of color in Chrysanthemums in a Vase on a Red Table" are yellow, black and red, with broadly applied strokes of orange- golden yellow setting the main tone, the black of the uniform, silhouette-like stalks, leaves and blossoms supplying the simple yet powerful dynamics of the painting's theme, and the bright red of the table extending into the picture in the very foreground adding a sense of space to the otherwise mostly two- dimensional composition. The overall visual effect of this simplistic arrangement can be described as a stunning combination of balance and vigor, tranquility and excitement. One might also point out that orange gold and bright red are frequently used colors in Chinese folk arts, and displayed in lavish abundance during festivals, weddings and other happy occasions, as they symbolize good fortune and prosperity. But for all their somewhat mundane connotations, Sanyu manages to employ these colors without the slightest suggestion of triteness or banality. Quite on the contrary, there is an air of tasteful elegance, an understated refinement about the painting that someone of lesser talent could never have achieved. As for the black of the chrysanthemums: it is probably no coincidence that this is the very color that is also at the heart of traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting. Chinese painters excel at working with black ink, but in this piece, Sanyu does not use the conventional yunran ("haloed coloring") technique, applying the color in a lat and even fashion instead to create an effect reminiscent of Chinese paper cutting (jianzhi), fresh and innocent in its appeal.
As in Sanyu's other works, the subject of the painting is placed more or less in the middle of the composition. The stalks, leaves and flowers are highlighted in forceful strokes of black, setting them irmly apart from the background. The vase, on the other hand, almost seems to merge with the background at points, as it is kept in very similar shades of orange and gold, although for the most part a deeper and more intense coloring is employed for clearer contours and a three- dimensional effect. The composition with its spreading branches is arranged along horizontal lines, which is rather unusual for Sanyu: in most of his still lifes, he prefers a vertical arrangement. However, the National Museum of History has a few stills titled "Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase" that show a similar layout to this lot. Another thing that deserves our attention is that in "Chrysanthemums in a Vase on a Red Table", the artist gives us "antler branches" (lujiaozhi in the parlance of classical Chinese painting theory), which can also be seen in many of the vertical- style still lifes mentioned above. Basically, the term describes branches that grow upwards more than outwards or sideways. Sanyu was fond of creating dynamic tension in his paintings through unusual arrangements and techniques, as here with a mixture of lateral and vertical curved lines representing the chrysanthemum branches. Fusing the particular aesthetics of folk art with his individualistic attitude and natural, unaffected lair, Sanyu was able to make a name for himself in European art circles. Leaving us prematurely at 65, he yet gave us many wonderful oil paintings (a little less than 300 are extant according to recent estimates) to remind us of his unique talent and creative power. His body of work is an artistic treasure that will continue to shine brightly for many years to come.
Modern & Contemporary Asian Art
Ravenel Autumn Auction 2019 Taipei
Sunday, December 1, 2019, 12:00am