Sanyu’s Potted Chrysanthemums:
A legend from Montparnasse and a 1950s classic
In the early 20th
-century, modernism became the holy grail in Paris — the art capital of the world — from the heights of Montmartre to Montparnasse. The Parisian author Henri-Pierre Roché introduced audiences to modernist maestros of different ethnicities and nationalities, notably Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi and Marcel Duchamp, who came from Spain, Romania and France respectively. Also included on Roché's list of sure-fire hit artists was Sanyu, a Chinese icon and first-generation Chinese-French painter. Given his excellence in the field of Chinese art, Sanyu is definitely an “uncrowned king” by Western standards. Sanyu's Potted Chrysanthemums (Lot 108)
is a masterpiece from the 1950s.A self-portrait in the form of still life; a Western subject that embodies Eastern philosophy
Sanyu adopted flowers as a lifetime subject for his paintings. While his potted flower-themed oil paintings in the 1930s showed the influence of Fauvism and Chinese brush-drawing with a two-dimensional, simplified design, he boldly incorporated fantastical imaginations into his post-1950 works to accentuate the subjective elements. The gracefully colourful Potted Chrysanthemums
for one, depicts a straight upward-growing French marigold stem bearing 28 blossoms planted in an exquisite rectangular blue-and-white pot. It presents an impressive image best described by Wu Guanzhong in his essay entitled Remembering Sanyu
: “Sanyu produced so many paintings of houseplants bearing stunningly lively blossoms… the plump flowers and richly leafy twigs in his paintings have excellent cuts and forms, but are almost always planted in tiny, obviously disproportionate pots.”
Sanyu, who spent four decades of his life overseas, put greater emphasis on his Chinese heritage in his paintings as he grew older. Compared to the flowers in his earlier works, the Potted Chrysanthemums
are larger and sturdier as if to suggest that, no matter how far away we are from home, we can plant the most spectacular, vivacious flowers with just a small amount of our hometown soil. It can be said that this painting serves as Sanyu’s autobiography!
Potted flowers, a common subject for Western paintings for four or five centuries, have focused on the objective depiction of their beautiful natural forms. Vincent van Gogh’s passionate Sunflowers
was the first in the Western world to serve the purpose of subjective expression. However, infusing flower-themed artwork with personal elements is a deep-rooted heritage shared by Sanyu and other Asian painters. After the Warring States-era hero Qu Yuan, a poet of royal descent, emphasized the link between fragrant plants and lofty ideals in 300 B.C., floral delights became a tradition in Chinese arts as well as a cultural symbol of the educated classes. Moreover, the typically reserved Chinese painters often resorted to floral art as an alternative form of self-portrait, which are a rarity in Asia, to metaphorically express idealist concepts. Consequently, Potted Chrysanthemums
is a “West-meets-East” piece that depicts not only the flowers, but also Sanyu himself.A dazzling cluster of chrysanthemum blossoms that adds a modernist touch to ethnic art
With an insight into Sanyu’s paintings, a long-time friend of his, the composer Johan Franco, praised him as someone who “knows how to incorporate with a sense of humor and simplicity, the essence of things in his paintings that encapsulate the ethnic distinctiveness running in his blood”.
Although Sanyu has been referred to as the “Chinese Matisse”, who was influenced by Fauvism in colour and composition, elements of Chinese culture are a ubiquitous part of his selection of subjects, materials and philosophy. Therefore, it is fair to say that Sanyu used Western modernism as a method of reinterpreting Chinese painting while exploring its possibilities in a new era.
Sanyu was born in the late Qing Dynasty into a wealthy Sichuanese family and immersed himself in Confucianism from a young age. He learned Chinese painting from his father Chang Shufang and calligraphy from Zhao Xi, a prestigious Hanlin Academy scholar. He was also lucky enough to have the means to acquire knowledge and skills about traditional craftsmanship and artisanship. Not only did those childhood memories pave the way for his painting career, they also added a nostalgic touch to his later works. The resistance of Western modernist artists to academic conservatism was focused on an attempt to take folk craftsmanship and foreign arts to the next level. For example, Matisse derived Fauvism from the flowery fabrics in his hometown; Picasso’s cubism was inspired by African woodcarvings. As an “Asian ambassador of arts,” Sanyu also enriched the Paris-based Chinese art circle with profound Chinese culture. Compared to its sister painting Potted Chrysanthemums
also by Sanyu and featured in Sotheby’s 2012 Hong Kong Autumn Sale under the same English title, Potted Chrysanthemums
has a different colour scheme and design, with greater emphasis on the development of vertical space. Sanyu employed exaggeration and deformation techniques to give viewers a sense of admiration for the elegant tallness of the potted flowers, which requires them to appreciate it with an upwardly-tilted head. When employing such exaggeration and deformation techniques, which could be inspired by the image-distorting magic mirror once popular in France, Sanyu adopted a Chinese scroll-like, upward-extending form to flawlessly combine the old and new, the East and West.
Besides a centralized composition based on Western still life and portraiture, the familiar example of chinoiserie Potted Chrysanthemums
is full of decorative elements reminiscent of Chinese New Year-themed classics, such as Still Life with Chrysanthemums
, an embroidery piece from the Song Dynasty, and Picture for the New Year
by Bian Wenjin. As for the details of houseplants, the antler-like, Asian garden-inspired main stems at the bottom of the painting comprise sturdy and small triangles that are ingenious embodiments of Western geometry. Meanwhile, the potted flowers’ glistening green hues remind viewers of the Qing Dynasty “Houseplants of Jewelry”, artificial potted plants crafted with highly prized coral, pearls, jade, jasper, agate and rubies for a luxurious visual effect. The lacquerware and old-fashioned furniture to which Sanyu devoted his later career were a mixture of old and new that demonstrated a modernist style influenced by traditional Chinese interior design.A simple Asian, lacquerware-oriented painting presented as part of the trend towards abstraction
Another example of Sanyu’s enthusiasm for Chinese furniture is the vermilion backdrop to Potted Chrysanthemums
, the dark jujube shade that reminds the audience of vermilion-painted Chinese screens, comforting them with emotions related to celebrations, auspiciousness and wealth. The colours were applied horizontally using a broad brush and evenly-distributed strokes in order to create a multilayered effect. It is worth noting that the masterful contrast between the rich-coloured blossoms and relatively simple backdrop echoes Sanyu’s attempt to summarize his career as an “ongoing process of simplification.”
Sanyu had long been regarded as a member of the “School of Paris” that thrived in the 1930s, but he also insightfully drew inspiration for his change in artistic style in the 1950s from young lyrical-abstract painters emerging in post-World War
II Paris, including Chinese artists such as Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun and Lalan. Jean-Paul Desroche, former general curator at the Guimet Museum, said, “Sanyu, who met Zao Wou-Ki on his arrival in Paris in 1948, seems to have been influenced by these new forms (abstract expressionism) and to have been forced to react. And yet, the two approaches are very different, as Sanyu did not abandon figuration
”. After removing the tapestry pattern, the backdrop of Potted Chrysanthemums
becomes a bicolour, geometric block of pure red and bright yellow, which evokes not only the form of Mark Rothko’s abstract paintings but also the philosophy underlying his 1942 manifesto in the New York Times, “We favor the simple expression of the complex thought…We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth
”. In Potted Chrysanthemums
, Sanyu boldly removed the backdrop’s realistic components while retaining the lyrical ones in order to accentuate the main subject, giving viewers a better idea of the beautiful houseplant and its hidden message.A Chinese legend accomplished in Paris
Zhao Yi, a great Confucian in the Qing Dynasty, concluded that the best Chinese artworks from the past thousands of years have invariably stood the test of time. Sanyu was born in the transitional period between the imperial Qing regime and the Republic of China, when the Chinese people were overwhelmed with their first encounter with Western culture. The experience of traveling in Japan, France, Germany and the U.S. also made him the most knowledgeable and open-minded among the first-generation modern Chinese artists of the time. Sanyu and his fellow members of the School of Paris bore witness to drastic sociopolitical changes throughout the modernism-dominated decades, and subsequently developed an insight insurmountable by any younger artists in terms of arts, lifestyle or philosophy. Sanyu continued to pursue “purity” and “simplicity” in his 1950s heyday. Sanyu’s “Bohemian period” enabled him to grasp the essence of Western heritage, while his identity as a long-time Chinese immigrant emboldened him to feature festive ethnic Chinese symbols in his paintings, in the hope that every viewer would be touched by their beauty, kindness and joy. Aesthetics scholar Chiang Hsun analyzed the emotions behind his artworks:
“Homesickness grew with time during the 40 years Sanyu spent overseas. As a matter of fact, it is very difficult to define homesickness, which may neither be an abstract concept such as land or people, nor the shallow, vague ideas of nation or ethnicity. Sometimes, homesickness refers to an unforgettable melody that lingers on forever, and other times something like the red splash in Sanyu’s paintings, cheerful and lonely at the same time
Sanyu’s potted flower paintings were among his 1950s masterpieces that transformed his loneliness into an image of a fun-filled life, as evidenced by the iconic Potted Chrysanthemums
. The tremendous talent displayed in Sanyu’s works duly earned him the reputation as a genius in Chinese art history.A rare piece of evidence that fills in the blanks of Sanyu’s personal history
The resurfaced Potted Chrysanthemums
provides an additional clue to completing Sanyu’s art portfolio and biography. Found on the back of the painting was Sanyu’s name and address, both written in French besides a label referring to his being chosen for the 1958 Triennale de la Jansonne (Jansonne Triennial Art Exhibition). Located in a lovely small town between Arles — the southern French city made famous by van Gogh and Paul Gauguin — and Paul Cézanne’s hometown, Aix-en-Provence, the Château de la Jansonne was owned by André de Tigny, an art aficionado who organized an international art exhibition once every three years. The Triennale de la Jansonne is no longer held due to the sale of the château, which remains in good condition with the exhibition documents well archived by the French Archives Nationales.
A combined 5 million francs was awarded to the three Triennale de la Jansonne categories each year, namely an established artist, a rising artist and a young hopeful, which in 1958 were won by Durand-Rozé, Robert Humblot and Gabriel Godard respectively. The currently 81-year-old Gabriel Godard, who is the youngest among the three, said a poster displayed in 1957 at the Paris-based Salon d’Automne prompted his participation in the event. In Godard’s Le Provencal
clipping archives, a paper dated March 11 1958 bears the legibly printed name of Sanyu alongside other Asian exhibitors, such as Vu Cao Dam from Vietnam. It is presumed that Sanyu also learned of Triennale de la Jansonne through the Salon d’Automne and its spring edition, which he participated in frequently. In the fiercely competitive triennial event, André de Tigny and the other 10 judges selected 240 entries out of 617 from 7 countries, and displayed them from April 5-August 31 1958 at Château de la Jansonne. The label on the back of Potted Chrysanthemums
is also found on the other exhibited works, a sign that Sanyu carefully submitted his painting in an effort to introduce Western audiences to his distinctive “East-meets-West” aesthetic.A forgotten gem testifying to Sanyu’s legend
In the early 1960s, Sanyu sent some self-selected works to Taipei in an unrealized plan to move back to Asia. Those works became high-profile exhibit items in the National Museum of History in Taipei, as well as the best international public collection of Sanyu’s paintings in terms of quantity and quality. This included several potted flower works bearing similarities to Potted Chrysanthemums
in size, backdrop, pot, and flower arrangement. These paintings look even more intriguing when juxtaposed with one another, indicating that Sanyu might want to celebrate his heyday by creating a revolutionary group of works in similar scales and sizes that can be viewed either as a whole or individually. Potted Chrysanthemums
is one of a few Sanyu’s works, whether circulating in the market or privately collected, that is comparable to the collection at the National Museum of History in size or composition. Sanyu’s oil paintings are not only highly prized among collectors for their rarity, but are also considered an indicator of the market for 20th
century Chinese art.
Memories of Triennale de la Jansonne
In 1958, we could find a poster about a contest in all the Parisian Salons, inviting painters to submit one of their paintings to a jury that would officiate at Château de la Jansonne, in Raphèle-les-Arles. This contest was to be the first of an art triennial (another one was to be held three years later). A large number of artists swiftly submitted their application.
I still see myself pondering on the text, naively hoping that my work would be noticed. I must’ve had in common with all the other painters who participated in the contest, the idea that the quality of the work alone would count and that quality alone would be the key to success. I am certain that this candid hope was shared by all of us.
In that spirit, after the jury deliberations, three of us found ourselves at Château de la Jansonne: a prize for a mature artist, a prize for an artist halfway through his career and finally a prize for a promising young artist, me. The joyful mood must have been equally felt by all three of us, and as for me, it was enormous.
We were at Château de la Jansonne, in the company of local officials and the masters of the castle. The flow of champagne and congratulatory compliments, the laughs and animated conversations only died down by the end of the afternoon.
In that era, before the emerging notion of ‘marketing’ had insidiously replaced the real collectors’ knowledge and passion by some commercial spirit, which put ‘the deal’ before the taste, the intellectual joy was represented by sculptures, paintings and music. The debate is important, all our attention, and possibly all our vigilance, has been drawn.
The following days, back in Paris, the papers were still writing about the event. Back then, artists could still count on the press to publish its art critics everywhere to present new works of art.
As far as I know, there has never been a second contest of the Triennial. What had happened to this project? Nobody seems to know about it…
Gabriel Godard – Prize Winner of Triennale de la Jansonne’s Rising Talent category