Sanyu - The Paragon of Chinese Modern Art
The development of Chinese modern art in the past hundred years is encapsulated in the works of Sanyu and Zao Wou-ki, respectively the pre-war and post-war archetypes. From the early to mid-20th century, with Chinese modern art at a crossroads, Sanyu stood out, drawing from, challenged by, and finding his own place in the tools of Western modern art. The concepts that lie behind Sanyu's works are ingenious and pioneering: though they evolved on radically different paths, Chinese traditional art shares the same spiritual substance and artistic aspiration as that of Western modern art, and a synthesis of the two spawned a new form of art that exhibited a powerful new hybridity. His "Flower and Vase" series, which for Sanyu was the most daring and for which he spared no effort, is also the most representative of Sanyu's aesthetic and philosophical synthesis of the East and the West. On the one hand this series serves as a thorough manifestation of Chinese traditional expression, shrouded by the aura and ethos typical to Chinese literati art, featuring still-life subjects like flowers, a poetic touch, plain drawing and craft-like ornamentation. On the other hand, the concrete depiction of flowers and the minute variations within their interlacing branches, demonstrate Sanyu's investigation into the expressiveness and abstractness of colors and lines, which makes a rejoinder to the Paris School of the 1920s led by Picasso and the New York School of the 1950s in favor of abstract expressionism. Entwining himself around different artistic origins, Sanyu reforms and refines traditional floral paintings by turning to Western colors and reinterprets the Western pursuit of form, in the most lucid and tangible way, with the traditional Eastern themes. The expressionist quality of Chinese traditional art is augmented and stressed when situated in a Western modern context, and highlighting the unique asethetic powers of the artist. It allows a multitude of perspectives of appreciation, and stands as a paragon of cultural artistic synthesis that unites the Eastern and the traditional with the Western and the modern.
A Rare Private Collection
Blue Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase (Lot 2011) has been held for several decades by a private European collector who in turn inherited the work from a family member. Some members of the family were Sanyu's inimitates and life-long friends who were like guardian angels to him, especially in the last few years of his life in the 1960s. They recalled meeting Sanyu at weekends, plucking strawberries and watching tennis competitions together. Sanyu, a frequent visitor to their house, had once shown them his invention, "ping-pong tennis", right at their dining room. When Sanyu's health was fading fast, they took care to arrange and underwrite his living and medical treatment and, in December 1965, held a solo exhibition for the artist at their private home. Along with the exhibition, they helped print the invitation letters (fig.1), which would be the last held in Sanyu's lifetime. The exhibition was dense with Sanyu's many admirers and collectors, including those who came especially from Paris, including artists Zao Wou-ki, Chu Tehchun, Pan Yuliang and Shiy De-jinn. According to Shiy, Pan Yuliang made much of the works on display: "The paintings of Sanyu are evolving with time, advancing with the epoch. They are such a rarity." The lot featured here, Blue Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase, was among the highlights of this historic exhibit (fig.2). Since that time, the work has been held with the collector's family for three generations, bearing witness to the growth of its children and grandchildren. This painting, which contains the affection of a family and the story of a collector, has now come on the market for the first time ever. While it is a token of the amity between Sanyu and his friends, it gives us the most direct and original account of the late-life experience and artistic achievement of the artist.
The Aura of Chinese Calligraphic Art
An aura of Chinese calligraphic art pervades in Blue Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase. Proportioned like a vertical hanging scroll, the painting brings the upper part of the canvas into focus by replacing the familiar blue-and-white jardini?re with a slender glass vase. The composition, recast from the "one-river, two-banks" structure of Yuan Dynasty painter Ni Zan's landscapes, such as that found in Landscape in Autumn Twilight (fig.3), has been reconstituted in the still-life genre. It is this new reading of traditional floral art that characterizes Sanyu's idiosyncratic style. The glass vase, with its surface color relinquished and its shape roughly outlined, is depicted in a minimalistic manner, which renders the form of object by "reduction", "paint without painting", or "implicit expression". These modes of representation can seem Western minimalist in appearance but are Eastern in nature, capable of construing up an ancient and ethereal ambience emanated from ancient stone inscriptions and lithographs. They are also the heirs of Chinese "plain drawing", and similar brushwork can be found in the portraits of courtly ladies by Gu Kaizhi. When Pang Xunqin (1906-1985) was working with Sanyu in his Paris studio, he observed that his companion was "using calligraphic brushes to make quick sketches". The idea of creating forms with restyled Chinese draftsmanship took shape in Sanyu's works as early as the mid-1920s. In Blue Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase, the transparent, pallid glass vase finds its feet against a large sweep of background color, exhibiting an unusual visual sense of penetration. Our gaze seems to have passed through the still-life and rested on the different layers of the pastels and further into the boundless space of colors in the background. The aesthetic notion of Sanyu is one that transfigures from "form" to "line" and, at the end, to "colors", where lines in an unusual form are used to heighten the expressive power of his palette and to direct the viewers to get inside of the "space" of his colors.
With this work, Sanyu has made the expressiveness of lines his centerpiece. Shaded with thick, compact dark-blue pigments, the interlacing branches of the chrysanthemums are as robust, sprightly and flowing as Chinese calligraphic strokes. Mimicking the blossoming flowers and their leaves in a calligraphic and script-like structure, the canvas is imbued with the gist of Chinese aesthetics that emphasizes the homology between calligraphy and painting. Sanyu's lines, apart from giving shape to objects, are also compositional elements used to build up space and structure. Lines in crescent and waning slate blues map out an iridescent web in the middle of the canvas, with branches in a variety of gestures stretching out from the stem and twigs in interweaving and interlocking patterns. The colored spaces in between are square, diamond-shaped, round and narrow, dividing the pastel background into many spaces and delivering a vibrant, intricate visual image. The intertwining lines and spaces create a rhythm that beats across time and space. Such textural entanglement looks even more Chinese in essence when we consider how it has been metamorphosed from traditional blue-and-white procelain and lacquer work motifs.
Sanyu's Modernistic Concept
In relation to brushwork, composition, theme and aura, Blue Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase is certainly Chinese in style, deriving its aesthetics from an oriental origin; considering, however, its spatial construction and use of color, we also encounter the highly modernistic concepts that also lie in the work. The spatial arrangement of Blue Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase is congruous with Piet Mondrian's constructivist principle. Mondrian represents the school of Western artists who, in their investigation into the pure expressive quality of line and space, maintained that color and line held their own autonomous aesthetic value, , and are efficient in communicating spiritual imageries. Vertical lines, for example, signify space, development and power, whereas horizontal lines have to do with time, extension and meditation. In such a framework, the vase of flowers in Blue Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase serves as the vertical axis of the canvas, which intersects with the horizontal axis denoted by the red desktop. The vase of chrysanthemums, with the florets, leaves and the upward-growing buds, opens up a space atop and fills the work with sheer vitality. The connotations of vertical lines are shrewdly manipulated as the shaping force of the sentimental, concrete and perceptible still-life. With Sanyu's alteration, the horizontal lines of Mondrain become a quotidian object, the red desktop, which broadens our focal point and span of view towards the left and right and even to the imaginative space outside of the canvas. It is an infinite extension of the abstractness and the draws from the force of the composition's colors. Western modernistic form and abstract aesthetics markedly inheres within the still-life of Sanyu, albeit hidden under its poetic milieu.
From the Eastern point of view, the works of Sanyu are less a rational study of aesthetics but instead more amiable and visually delightful. While Sanyu takes up abstraction and expressionism as other Western artists, his exploration is compounded with the still-life theme. Blue Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase might be comparable to Alexander Calder's sculptures (fig.X) in that both of them employ lines to kindle the imagination of space and the sense of passing time, but the abstraction of Sanyu is carried through by flowers, a material medium, when that of Calder, with color and line the only means of expression, is pure in the extreme, devoid of any description, story, modeling and narrative. Such mode of representation follows the creative trajectory of Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky: from figurative to semi-figurative depiction, then to abstraction, and finally to the pure realm of color and space. In the 1950s, Yves Klein went so far as to mask the entire canvas within a single blue hue to create a distinct ambience, marking the acme of minimalistic coloring of Western modern art. But the works of Sanyu remain unencumbered; they illustrate the beauty of lines, colors and abstraction without being dull, tedious, or overtly theoretical and analytical. Instead, they bring us back to the narrative framework and the cultural context of Chinese literati painting, and, travelling freely between the traditions of Western and Eastern art, they find harmony in these two disparate artistic systems. It is for this accomplishment that Sanyu stands at the zenith of artistic achievement, and his works soar to such an artistic height that they become the paragon of Chinese modern art.
Aesthetics and Life
The Story of the Stone:
Poem on Chrysanthemums - Admiring the Chrysanthemums
Transplanted treasures, dear to me as gold -
Both the pale clumps and those of darker hue!
Rare-headed by your wintry bed I sit
And, musing, hug my knees and sing to you.
None more than you the villain world disdains;
None understands your proud heart as I do.
The precious hours of autumn I'll not waste,
But bide with you and savour their full taste.
Chrysanthemums as a creative theme convey more about the artist's sentiment, philosophy and ideal than his vision of the exterior world. In Blue Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase, the distinguished, lofty buds are bolstered by the dense, meandering and seemingly ascending foliage, a motif that emphasizes the precious equanimity of chrysanthemums, which blossom when other plants wither. Throughout Chinese literature, and in poetry in particular, the chrysanthemum is analogical to the spirit of the benevolent and superior mind, and artists often liken chrysanthemums to themselves. Sanyu, by dint of his idiosyncratic use of lines, highlights the traits and symbolic significance of the flower. The slate blue pigments, limpid and untainted, deliver our mind to a quiet, serene realm, while the blooming chrysanthemums reflect the universalistic rhythm of life and the wisdom to take life as what it is. From a straw the artists shows us the wind; from the chrysanthemums we are told of his insight, which values the present, the instant in which life is captured. This is the finest expression of Chinese aesthetic philosophy. The still-life genre, in the hands of Sanyu, is endowed with rich cultural implications, and its artistic form, cultural analogy, coloristic beauty, animated ambience and philosophy is a thorough showcase of the deep-rooted Chinese thesis on the relationship between aesthetics and life.