AUCTION UPDATE: Sanyu’s Potted Chrysanthemums achieves HK$80.76 Million/US$10.4 Million, which marks the second highest price for the artist at auction.

- Born into a wealthy Sichuan family, Sanyu (1900-1966) began studying Chinese calligraphy from a young age, and briefly attended the Shanghai Art School founded by Liu Hai Su. In 1918, he travelled to Japan to study fine art and worked in Tokyo as a designer and graphic artist at the company run by his second eldest brother. In 1920, he returned to Shanghai, where he witnessed prevalent social injustice. Chinese policemen, for instance, would casually beat up migrant rickshaw pullers from Northern Jiangsu. Disillusioned, Sanyu left to study in France and never returned to his home country.

Sanyu’s paintings possess a distinct personal style, and his fame in France was comparable to that of Jean Cocteau and Tsuguharu Foujita. He was also the first Chinese artist to be listed in the Dictionnaire Biographique des Artistes Contemporains (Vol 3, 1934). Nevertheless, his name was less known among the Chinese public. It was because Sanyu, who financed his own move to France, did not move in the circle of Chinese students who went to France through the “work-study movement.” The only exceptions were Xu Beihong and his wife Jiang Biwei. In her memoir, Jiang wrote that Xu Beihong was “prone to jealousy,” which was in fact triggered by Sanyu.

AUCTION UPDATE: Sanyu’s Potted Chrysanthemums  achieves HK$80.76 Million / US$10.4 Million, which marks the second highest price for the artist at auction.

In his Bali Di Lin Zhao (“Fragments of Paris”) published in 1927, 20th-century poet Xu Zhimo wrote an essay depicting a Chinese painter and his romantic life with Parisian models. The painter was none other than Sanyu. In his letters to Liu Hai Su and other friends, Xu frequently mentioned Sanyu and his female nude sketches, and described the hugely exaggerated thighs and buttocks as “thighs of the universe,” an apt description of Sanyu’s style.

When Chinese painters returned to China one by one, Sanyu remained in Paris alone, where he had already established an artistic career. A young gentleman from a wealthy family, Sanyu’s temper could be unpredictable at times, like many artists. Even art dealers would be shunned at the door occasionally. As a painter, he was not exceptionally prolific, and the bulk of his collection is not owned by any one particular art dealer in France. It is therefore indeed a rare occasion for his Potted Chrysanthemums to be sold in the upcoming Modern and Contemporary Asian Art – Evening sale in Hong Kong.

A seminal piece by Sanyu, the artist employed substantial dark lines in this painting, thanks to his well-established foundation in Chinese calligraphy from his childhood. He created a series of paintings featuring potted flowers partly because he was familiar with the subject. “This is a representative piece, chosen by Sanyu to participate in the Triennale de la Jansonne in 1958. The complete exhibition history is known for this rare masterpiece,” says Vita Chen, Specialist of 20th Century Chinese Art at Sotheby’s. “The red hue in the background reminds the viewer of cinnabar lacquer ware, forming a captivating contrast with the potted plant in the foreground, its branches extending tall and proud into the sky, suggestive of the shape of a deer’s antler. Luxurious and graceful, this is an outstanding example of Sanyu’s creative approach in his later years when he drew references from Chinese lacquer ware traditions and his deep sense of nostalgia for his homeland.”

As it happened, Sanyu once worked at a factory run by a younger acquaintance from his hometown, to paint Chinese antique furniture, such as lacquered screens and utensils. Potted Chrysanthemums was drawn with even, thick black lines, simultaneously a response to the Analytic Cubist movement at the time whilst revealing a soul intimately connected with the Chinese folk craft tradition.