Presenting Sanyu’s rare and exquisite Goldfish
Imagine the 1920s and 1930s in Montparnasse in Paris, a young Chinese painter—born in 1901—sat in the balcony of the brasserie La Coupole making a painting of passersby. Constantin Brancusi sat close by, following intently every movement of Sanyu’s brush. This renowned sculptor showed a keen interest in this young stranger but did not engage in conversation. Perhaps that was the typical reserve of the artist …” These words by prominent Jewish collector and art dealer Jean-Claude Riedel take us back in time and place to that era in Paris, capturing a glimpse of two legendary artists, how they led their lives and made their art.
Freedom and waywardness known in the world
Sanyu was born in 1901 to a well-to-do, established family in the Sichuan silk trade. He started ink painting at age 13, at the same time learning calligraphy from noted calligraphist Zhao Xi, his prodigious talent already evident. In 1921, he went to France working and studying at the same time, living only with modest means. The young Sanyu had never led a conventional life. Unlike Xu Beihong or Pan Yuliang who pursued their training in art colleges, he pursued his own path, moving into Montparnasse, an area noted for its freewheeling literary cafes and art galleries. Long known as an “artistic crossroad,” Montparnasse saw the likes of Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Constantin Brancusi, Amedeo Clemente Modigliani living in close proximity, making art and socializing, in turn inspiring each other, spurring new art with creative sparks. Sanyu joined la Grande Chaumiere, a studio that provided nude models for artists. Apart from travelling and discovering Paris, he also visited La Coupole, sitting there watching people walking to and fro, observing city dwellers in their fashionable clothes, their faces showing the myriads of glee, anger, sorrow and joy, absorbing the aura belonging to the city of romance.
Coming from a relatively conservative society like China, Sanyu was overtaken by his exotic surroundings, newly inspired in his creative work. He was able to explore fully many types of subjects, ranging from still lifes, nudes and animal portraits. He also fused techniques of Chinese brush painting and the expressive ease of the East together with European modernism, developing a simple, exact and natural creative style, just as Rita Wong had written, “Sanyu’s output cannot be categorized at all within the canon of Western painting; his works are different from any works borne out of singular cultures. Sanyu combined Western concepts he understood with the detachment and quietude of Chinese aesthetics, expressing and depicting traditionally Western subjects through a Chinese ink approach.” Sanyu was a unique talent in the Western art world.
A star in the making
Beginning in 1925, Sanyu’s works were frequently exhibited in important Paris salon exhibitions, among them Salon d’Automne and Salon des Tuileries. Noted collectors also took interest and bought his works. For example, art dealer and author Henri-Pierre Roché was totally enamoured by Eastern cultural attributes combined with fresh, daring inspiration in Sanyu’s work. During the 1930s, Roché collected more than 100 pieces by Sanyu, also working as Sanyu’s dealer for three years, promoting his works all over Europe. Roché recognized Sanyu’s talents, just as he had with Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brancusi and Paul Klee. Sanyu began painting in oil in 1929. His works in the 1930s became more mature, and his unique artistic language even more impressive. Just as French art critic Max Jacob wrote, Sanyu’s works “possess a power that is precise and pure, where there is also wisdom and technique.” In 1932, French scholar Joseph Edouard, in editing his Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Artists 1910-1930, included an entry on Sanyu, attesting to the scholarly circle’s recognition of the Chinese “foreign artist.” In 2004, the Guimet Museum in Paris held an exhibition titled Sanyu, Language of the Body, curated by the deputy director Jean-Paul Desroches. This exhibition was the largest Chinese artist’s solo exhibition that has ever been held by the museum. At the entrance of the show, long cloth banners, each with a photograph of one of the key members of the Paris school, hung from the ceiling. Along with banners picturing Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse and Foujita, among others, there was one of Sanyu, displayed in the centre, another piece of evidence attesting to his supreme standing as a leading modern painter in Chinese art history. In reviewing the Asian auction market for oil paintings, Sanyu has been the top-selling artist among all 20th century Chinese artists. More than half of his output has been collected in national museums or private collections. The handful of works available on the market today is in very high demand. At this current autumn sale, Sotheby’s is proud and honoured to present Goldfish (Lot 7), a work Sanyu created from 1930 to the 1940s. This one-of-a-kind opportunity will surely create a sensation in the Chinese art world!
A rare work with extraordinary appeal
“Sanyu knows how to use the most concise way to draw out the essence and humour of things. His paintings are imbued with the special characteristics of his own ethnicity.”
— French composer Johan Franco.
Unlike the painter’s “pink period” of the 1930s, when most of his paintings are dominated by pinks and whites, Sanyu employed bright hues typical of the East in his colour palette for Goldfish. He used coral and white as the dominant colours, dividing the canvas into upper and lower parts. While the lower part constitutes the table, the top represents the wall on which the table leans, perfectly capturing their spatial relationship. In the middle of the canvas is the subject matter, and Sanyu’s brushstrokes are vigorous, confidently delineating a transparent fish bowl and eight goldfish—ranging in colours from cinnabar, white and black—swimming around at ease, frolicking in the water. From the speed and clarity of his brushstrokes, we can detect the artist’s assuredness and maturity, as well as that ease of expression inherent in Eastern art as he captures the lively fish. The fishbowl joins together the upper and lower halves of the canvas, allowing colours to extend, adding life to the entire scene. A thick brush dipped into dark gray paint is applied in a single stroke to represent the mat where the fishbowl stands, adding a threedimensional feel. The black paint further accentuates the fish against the orange background. Although this composition first appears to be utterly simple, minute details reveal the artist’s amazing power and meticulous planning. Just as Qing dynasty painter Cheng Zhengkui wrote in his Recollections of a Clear Brook, “It is not difficult to create complex drawings, what is difficult is creating something simple, which requires much more power than creating what is complex. To use fewer strokes but not to diminish the effect of the scenery, that is truly difficult.” How to use the simplest method yet create music that can move people, and for the listener to still recall the music even deep into the night, this is due to Sanyu’s wondrous abilities and appeal. Goldfish originates from China. More than two millennia ago, the Classic of Mountains and Seas already recorded its existence: “The Sui tributary flows to the southeast before joining the river, where there are goldfish, red and multi-colour.” During the Tang and Song dynasties, a royal pastime was rearing goldfish, auspicious symbols signifying “abundance year after year.” Goldfish are often found in tableware used by royalty and the aristocracy. Ever since 1921 when Sanyu left China for France, he had depicted goldfish from his home country in paintings such as Lotus and Red Fish and six-piece polyptych Lotus and White Crane. In many of his works, fish swimming in water play mere supporting roles in the composition, but in Goldfish, Sanyu placed them front and centre as the main focus. This is a unique piece in Sanyu’s entire output, a rare gem indeed.
Elegant without being mundane, a longing transformed
Goldfish encompasses a grandeur filled with Eastern aesthetics. Apart from the lines and brushstrokes imbued with calligraphic sensibilities, the spirit of the East reduces complexity into simplicity. All of the above is evident in the tablecloth decorated with embroidered Chinese symbols. In fact, this piece of cloth has been a recurring motif in Sanyu’s works from the 1930s to the 1960s, such as Reclining Pink Nude from the 1930s, Potted Chrysanthemums from the 1950s and Green Leaves from the 1940s. Clearly, the tablecloth holds far deeper significance than just an object in a painting, as art critic Jiang Xun once wrote, “Sanyu lived abroad for more than four decades. His pining for home grew stronger and stronger as the years passed by. Such abstract sentiment is not confined to such concepts as the earth or its people, and especially not such mundane ideas of nation or ethnicity. A longing can be encapsulated in an unforgettable song, its melody recurring in our consciousness, unwilling to depart. Longing could just be transformed into the colour red in Sanyu’s output. It signifies joyful celebration and yet appears all alone.” Here, longing for home could be captured in a tapestry that the artist brought with him across the seas. The work exhibits a leisurely life, pleasant fun and rich colours, but quietly speaks of Sanyu missing his motherland.
When East meets West
Sanyu loved cooking. He once said, “European painting is like a rich banquet of roasts, including seared and fried dishes heavy with meats. My output is more like vegetables, fruits and salads, helping people switch or transform their appreciation of paintings. Often, contemporary artists use a plethora of colours as they paint; they are cheating. I don’t do that.” Sanyu used delicately flavoured fruits and salads as an analogy for his painting style. In his works, nothing is redundant. Every brushstroke is meaningful and there are no complex colours. He tried to convey his faith and depict his world in the least number of colours and lines. The works are no less effective, still appearing fresh despite the passage of time. Just like Sanyu’s best friend and renowned photographer Robert Frank wrote: “Sanyu’s works constitute the core of his life. His works conveys love, solitude, as well as a longing for his home country far away. He bequeathed his serene soul to his flowers, women, fish and leopards.”
Sanyu’s daring use of colours and free-flowing lines have garnered him the acclaim as the “Matisse of the East,” with Goldfish coming from the height of his mature period. If we look at Matisse’s Goldfish, also created during the prime of the older artist’s career, Sanyu’s work is imbued with even quieter elegance. He successfully fused the Eastern civilized spirit with rich national qualities, creating a natural and complete balance in which East and West shine forth. Goldfish’s lineage has been well-documented. First collected by his friend Robert Frank, it was included in the sale of Frank’s private collection organized by Sotheby’s in 1997. Of the 21 works on offer, Goldfish was featured as the cover picture in the catalogue because of its uniqueness. Later, this work was included in many publications of Sanyu’s works, and selected as cover picture by Yale University for its “Sanyu Scholarship Fund” brochure. There is no doubt about the work’s importance. Sixteen years ago, a renowned private collector bought this work and kept it in pristine shape. Its reappearance at this sale will certainly create a new wave of interest!