Sanyu and the School of Paris
In the first half of the 20th Century, Sanyu worked in Europe. His desperate search for a link between traditional and contemporary, Eastern and Western artistic traditions is reflected in his works. Sanyu was an active figure who was part of the School of Paris. Before we explore the connection between Sanyu and the School of Paris, we must understand what is meant by the School of Paris and the circumstances under which it came into being. In Europe, the painful memories of the First World War led to a widespread shift in philosophies and attitudes on existence: people were desperate to enjoy the pleasures of the present, without concern for the future. In Europe, the 1920s became known as the Roaring 20s (Les Annees Folle). Casting off the constraints of societal codes, new and extravagant trends, lifestyles and fashions emerged; miniskirts became fashionable, the market for decorative arts thrived, interest in exotic oriental culture grew. In particular, a love for Eastern culture became visible in many aspects of Parisan life. Jewelry and watches were inlaid with jades and gemstones from the East. Parisians were drawn to Chinese Porcelain and Ming furniture. All of this attests to the unprecedented frequency of the interchange between the East and West.
Additionally, Paris flourished into an international art centre - artists of all nationalities gravitated towards Paris to immerse in the exhilarating freedom and openness of the environment. The nurturing environment of Paris helped artists discover an individualistic voice from their respective backgrounds. This group of international artists became loosely known as the "School of Paris". Thus, the School of Paris does not denote an artistic movement or institution. Instead, it describes the international imaginative cross-fertilization of a diversity of styles. The international activity described by the term "School of Paris" opened a new door for modern Art.
In 1920, Sanyu travelled to France under a government-sponsored "work-study" program. Entranced by the charms of Paris, Sanyu spent more than four decades in the artistic neighbourhood of Montparnasse, Paris. In the late 1920s, French scholar and collector Henri-Pierre Roche began to take a strong interest in Sanyu's paintings, acquiring many of the artist's works for his personal collection. At the time, Roche was an influential figure in the burgeoning art scene in Paris. In 1906, Roche introduced the 25 year-old Picasso to the Jewish-American Stein Family, who was residing in Paris. The Stein family subsequently collected key works from the artist's Blue Period and Cubist period, becoming important patrons of Picasso during this vital period that led to his subsequent success. While Roche collected numerous works by major Fauvist and Cubist artists, he often spoke of his admiration for Sanyu's exceptional creative gift. At his home, Sanyu's paintings were hung side by side with works of Matisse.
Between 1929 and 1932, Sanyu worked closely with Roche. This period represents one of the most creative periods in Sanyu's artistic career. According to bibliographic sources, during this period, Sanyu created four works on the subject of two standing nudes (Fig. 1, 2, & 3). Of the four paintings Sanyu made in this period, Two Standing Nudes, 1929 is the most complete and prominent example of Sanyu's creative genius. This work forms part of Roche's collection, and embodies the qualities Roche admired in Sanyu's works.
Sanyu's exploration of the female nude
The early 20th Century was an important pivotal moment in the Western art history. Artists were no longer satisfied with the static, out-dated ideals taught by the Academy. They stated to challenge and reevaluate definitions of "beauty" from different angles. The female nude is an established theme in Western art history, appearing in both painting and sculpture. During this free-spirited age, artists revisited this classical theme to present their own interpretations.
In Sanyu's Two Standing Nudes (Fig. 4), Picasso's Group of Nudes (Fig. 5) and Henry Moore's Reclining Figure (Fig. 6), all three artists adapt the classical theme of the female nude in an individual way. They go beyond realistic, observational representation. Classical nude paintings characteristically display harmony, balance and smooth, polished skin textures. These features are evidentially absent from these works. In the treatment of the figures, we can see a certain degree of exaggeration, and even distortion and geometrization. The disproportional relationship between the head and the body parts creates a jarring visual effect. The fullness of the physical form of the body highlights the meticulous description of the body. Embodied in the wriggling limbs is the tension between the outer appearance of the body and inner emotion of the character. This gives viewers a glimpse of the inner emotions of the figures.
Sanyu was notable among the School of Paris for his strong individual style and art philosophy. By the 1930s, he had established a distinctive artistic voice. His works were exhibited at various highly esteemed Salons, including Salon d'Automne, Salon des Independants and Salon des Tuileries. At the time, Sanyu was considered one of the most iconic Eastern painters in Paris, along with Japan's Tsugouhara Foujita. These two artists went on remarkably different paths in their development as artists and consequently diverge from each other in their artistic styles. A comparison between Two Standing Nudes and Les deux amies (Fig. 7) reveals significant differences between the two artists. Foujita focuses on the detailed, accurate representation of reality while Sanyu's works express the poetic qualities of calligraphic lines on a flat surface. Both artists use Eastern ink wash to set up a poetic atmosphere for their spiritual world.
Two Standing Nudes is a classic example of how Sanyu uses quick, vigorous lines and curves to describe the psychological character of the figures. The Chinese poet, Xu Zhimo uses the term "cosmic thighs" aptly to characterize the manner by which Sanyu's lines evoke a contemplation of the vastness of the universe. The succinct, controlled and complex character of the brushstrokes guides the viewer into the deep, expansive space of the imagination.
Working under the more liberated conditions of Paris at the time, Sanyu uses oil paint on canvas to explore the subject of the female nude, an unprecedented subject matter in traditional Chinese art. While his work show a certain degree of distortion and exaggeration in the female form, in essence, they are still different from the strong, wild colours of Western Fauvism (Fig. 8) and the Cubist fracturing of objects into geometric forms.
In Two Standing Nudes, Sanyu delineates the contours of black hair, apricot-like eyes, red lips and pinkish forms with fluid, elated lines. This reiterates the artist's liberation from the constraints of portraying realistic detail. The two female figures are placed side by side in front of a white curtain. Although there seems to be an unspoken interdependence between them, their gaze is diverted from each other. The female figures thus exude an indistinct elegance and grace that exploits a tension between the artist's carefreeness and restraint. These two qualities co-exist on Sanyu's canvas, adding to the complex layers of the painting.
The duality of Sanyu's abstracted poetic world
From a young age, Sanyu was taught by the renowned poet and calligrapher, Zhao Xi. As a result he was cultivated in calligraphy. Sanyu's later artistic style inherits the simple, inartificial and honest character of Zhao Xi's calligraphic style. Sanyu's profound understanding of calligraphy can be observed from his well thought out arrangement of lines and spaces. In the aesthetic tradition of calligraphy, the structuring of a word and tacit control of lines and spaces is of vital importance. According Shufa, a Qing -dynasty pamphlet on calligraphy, "before you proceed to write, it is important to calculate where to put the ink and where to leave blank spaces on the canvas to optimise the balance between "black" and "white"." White" points to the empty spaces, untouched by ink. "Black" points to the areas touched by black lines. One can only achieve this when the "mind is leading the brush." Qing Calligrapher, Deng Rushi says "a clever arrangement between "white" and "black" can create a spectacular and wonderful effect on painting."
The aesthetic notions behind Chinese painting and calligraphy are inseparable. In painting, lines do not only delineate the contours of figures, they divide the canvas. At the same time, they also reflect the calligraphic concept of leaving blank spaces. (liu bai). From a Western perspective, the method of leaving blank spaces in one's paintings is part of the composition. The wonderful spatial arrangement in Two Nudes is a quintessential example of the seamless integration between Eastern and Western artistic traditions. Sanyu's clear division of space in Two Nudes exhibits modern avant -garde aesthetics (Fig. 9). At the same time, it evokes the ethereal moods found in the open, uninhibited spaces of Ma Yuan and Badashanren.
In Two Standing nudes, Sanyu artfully divides the background into an arrangement of black, white and pink colours; this arrangement is interrupted by the large white area behind the two nudes. Sanyu uses the tip of the brush to scratch away some of the paint, creating half-visible, half-disappearing patterns of flowers, koi fish, birds and plum blossoms found on traditional Chinese Porcelains (Fig. 10) and lacquerware (Fig. 11). These markings function as transitory, shifting visual stimulants. This is not only reminiscent of the charms of Chinese stone rubbings, it also hints to the curtain's dual role as a transparent layer and a barrier.
The "whiteness" of the void interchanges with the "blackness" of the filled-in areas. This reflects the calligraphic philosophy of "treating whiteness as blackness" to reverse the traditional boundaries between the subject and the background. The artist borrows Western colours, mapping them onto an Eastern narrative space. This reinforces the layered space, creating an imaginative ream of lines and colours. In Two Standing Nudes, Sanyu skilfully integrates traditional Chinese abstraction with Western colour structures. The two nudes relax freely in a vast area divided into milky white, pure black and pink.
Two Standing Nudes is a quintessential example of Sanyu's style at the end of the 1920s, being the most complete, extraordinary work of the four works he created in the same period. Looking back at Sanyu's artistic career, we can see this work as one of his most iconic. It hints to the co-existence and simultaneous development of Eastern and Western art. Sanyu's forms are imbued with a uniquely Eastern elegance. On the canvas, figurative and abstracted elements co-exist to form part of Sanyu's unique visual vocabulary. This has established Sanyu's foremost position as an artist navigating the fluid boundaries between Chinese and Western art.