"I contemplate the works and then I contemplate them again. I have been completely submerged in dreams, hallucinating because of these works. It is no longer just painting but something colossal and grandiose; it is a python as long as the Great Wall of China, a mosquito as large as the pyramids, an athlete who lifts mountains, a thousand fireflies in the dead of night."
Excerpt from Sanyu, ‘Reflections of a Chinese Painter on Picasso’, Parisien Libéré, 1945.01.19

Sanyu and Picasso: A Century of Converging Genius

In the first half of the 20th century, Paris was the epicenter of art, drawing travellers from all over the world. Artists converged on the city and brought with them diverse and complex cultures that collided and intermingled, making great strides in art that would have been unimaginable in just the previous decade. Among them was Picasso who journey up north from Spain to Paris in 1904. Through his ceaseless creative output over a career spanning more than 70 years, Picasso had written a legendary chapter in the annals of modern art for countless artists following in his footsteps. As Picasso’s singular vision was changing the face of the art world, Sanyu arrived in Paris in 1921, becoming one of the few Chinese artists to witness the development of modern art overseas. Over the course of a century, Sanyu’s fusion of East and West had developed into a pioneering artistic language that would continue to resonate from the past into the present and resound throughout the world.

Image courtesy of The Li-Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation

Pablo Picasso may be the Western modern master most admired by Asian artists. He became acquainted with several artists who traveled from Asia to live and work in Paris. Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita visited Picasso’s studio early on, and the two entered into a friendly correspondence. Picasso collected several of Foujita’s early paintings. Lin Fengmian was also deeply inspired by Picasso’s work, seen during his brief trip to France in the 1920s, and the experience would shape Lin’s later efforts to reform Chinese art. Wu Dayu’s letters from the 1940s mentioned Picasso, or “Mr. P”, multiple times. Zao Wou-Ki’s studio in the south of France was close to Picasso’s, and Picasso appreciated Zao’s early work. Sanyu and Picasso also had intersections: by the end of 1920s, Henri-Pierre Roché, the famous French novelist and collector, became Sanyu’s dealer. It is believed that Roché’s strong personal network became a major channel for Sanyu to get into the modern French art scene. It’s very likely that Sanyu acquainted Picasso through Roché. At the same time, Pang Xunqin also provided evidence of the fact that the two met in Chapter 35 of his book And This is the Way We Came: “[Sanyu) was friends with Picasso and other artists of that era… I am also sure that Picasso painted his portrait.” In this year’s Spring Sale, Sotheby’s is delighted to present Buste de matador (Lot 8005) and Nu avec un pékinois (Lot 8004), important post-war works by two pioneers: Pablo Picasso and Sanyu. A special section of the auction, “Sanyu and Picasso,” will feature the paintings of these two masters, linking East and West, and looking at Asian modern art as it grew from a regional to a global phenomenon and redefined modern art as a whole from an Asian perspective.

In January 1945, Sanyu published “Reflections of a Chinese Painter on Picasso” in Parisien Libéré. In the monograph, he wrote, “With Picasso, here too is audacity. He has moved us away from the era of academic painting. It is he who fights conservatism. It is he who takes us down a new path.” Picasso’s attitude toward art and life emphasized emotion, independence, and the courage to break with tradition. All of this resonated deeply with Sanyu, who was alone and far from home, and it led him to create a solitary aesthetic quality in his work. Picasso was clearly an artistic inspiration for Sanyu, but he was also a kind of spiritual guide for Sanyu’s search for meaning.

In this year’s Spring Sale, the dialogue between important post-war works by these two masters showcases an understanding of life and artistic perseverance. Picasso began painting Buste de matador in the second half of September 1970. This work is historically significant because it is the first work in the last matador series of his life. Picasso, who was close to 90 at the time, did not feel the strictures of age. Instead, the changes in his life and the passage of time inspired intense creative passion. His affinity for cultural tradition is expressed in his depictions of Spanish bullfighting, an evocation of the swashbuckling spirit of the valiant matadors and the glory of Spain. Nu avec un pékinois is a brilliant masterwork by Sanyu from the 1950s, representing another breakthrough in the classic nude. Sanyu communicated the meaning and philosophy of life through the trusting and protective intimate relationship between a nude woman in repose and her dog. The offering of these two masterworks at the Sotheby’s Spring Sale reflects their immense scholarly value and historical significance, but it also allows us to appreciate this new juxtaposition of works of modern art from an international perspective.

In Passionate Defence of Life and Emotion

Portrait of Sanyu. Image courtesy of The Li-Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation

Artists have traditionally held the notion that in art there are three major subjects: female nudes, animals, and flowers. Sanyu painted all three, but it was with the female nude that he was able to break with Western classical models using an Eastern aesthetic, placing him among the ranks of the modern masters. In the 1920s and 1930s, Sanyu presented the graceful curves of a nude woman’s body with a playful, exaggerated sensuality, prompting the poet Xu Zhimo to call the figure “the thighs of the universe” in one of his letters. In 2004, the Musée Guimet held a major retrospective for the artist entitled “Sanyu: L'écriture du corps,” showcasing the unparalleled charms of Sanyu’s painted nudes. After living through two world wars and spending some time in New York in the 1940s, Sanyu entered an entirely new stage in his mastery of painting the female nude in the 1950s. Nu avec un pékinois (Lot 8004), a rare Sanyu work from the 1950s, will be offered at this Sotheby’s Hong Kong Evening Sale. In the painting, the intimate, protective relationship between a woman and her dog reflects the artist’s profound views on life. Sanyu presented his feelings through art, similar to the way Pablo Picasso’s acceptance of his fate and passion for national revival are reflected in Buste de matador. To see these two masterpieces is to see the fates of the two artists intertwined across time and space. According to Sanyu’s collected essays, he created only three oil paintings featuring nude figures and dogs, including the masterpiece Cinq nus. This painting is the only one of the three to depict the woman lying on her stomach with an abstract background typical of Sanyu’s post-war work, making the piece a true rarity.

Eastern Innovations in the Female Nude

Nu avec un pékinois depicts a nude woman lying on her stomach. The viewer follows the gaze of the dog in the upper right corner, travelling from the delicate soles of the woman’s feet and her extended legs to the curve of her buttocks and the smooth skin of her back. She pillows her head with her arm, and a low ponytail falls over her shoulders. Her eyes are partially closed, as she is drifting in that liminal moment of absolute peace just before sleep. In comparing this work to Sanyu’s nudes from the 1930s, such as Femme nue sur un tapis, the artist had already moved away from the graceful, rounded brushstrokes and extremely romantic undertones and details. Instead, in Nu avec un pékinois, he stressed the use of thick black oil paint in succinct outlines, pushing the plasticity of the female form to its limit.

Influenced by Impressionism and Modernism, 20th century artists of Sanyu’s time departed from the traditional female nude with major innovations in style, composition, and colour – such as Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu couché (sur le côté gauche), Henri Matisse’s Reclining Nude, Back, and Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita’s Nu au chat. Sanyu, the only Chinese member of the School of Paris, used a freestyle ink painting technique to create the lines of the female body in Nu avec un pékinois, incorporating elements of Chinese culture. He contemplated mysteries not yet fully articulated by elevating the concept of the void, a concept of Asian art, to a spiritual plane. In this emotional void created by Sanyu, we are stimulated by the endless speculations and fantasies about the female body.

left: Sanyu, Deux nus sur tapis rouge, oil on board, 1950s, 101 x 121 cm. Collection of National Museum of History Museum, Taipei. Image courtesy of National Museum of History, Taipei
right: Sanyu, Nu endormi, oil on board, 1950s, 50 x 100 cm. Sold for HKD 46,877,500 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Modern Art Evening Sale on 31 March 2018. © Sotheby’s

This specific pose of the figure in Nu avec un pékinois does appear elsewhere in Sanyu’s work. The woman depicted here bears some similarity to the woman reclining at the bottom of Deux nus sur tapis rouge in the collection of Taiwan’s National Museum of History. The silhouette, hairstyle, and posture of the reclining female figure nearest the viewer in Quatre nus, which appeared in last year’s Spring Sale, achieve a similar effect as Nu avec un pékinois with a somewhat different approach. In the 1950s, Sanyu painted Nu endormi, depicting a woman, modelled on his then-lover, slipping into a dream. Her graceful posture and the romantic, comfortable ambience in that work resemble Nu avec un pékinois, suggesting inspiration from a shared source. Sanyu’s approach to nudes evolved from the sensuality and romance of his 1930s works to what the artist regarded as a vehicle for spirituality in the 1950s. In Nu endormi and Nu avec un pékinois, he reveals more by attempting to conceal the female form, representing a man’s endless love for a woman as well as the longing of an erstwhile playboy who had developed a more protective style of appreciation for women in his later years.

“In the beginning, God created man. Finding him weak, he gave him the dog. He charged the dog to see, hear, smell, and run for man.”
excerpt from L'Esprit des bêtes, Alphonse Toussenel

The little dog curled up in the upper right corner of Nu avec un pékinois is languid yet alert. The dog is a kind of guardian angel, keeping close watch on the sleeping woman. Figures with similar expressions and gestures appear only in Cinq nus, an oil painting from the same period. It is very likely that these two works inspired one another when Sanyu was painting them, and the little dog is an image or finishing stroke that links the two pieces. Protected by the dog, the nude woman reclines on her stomach in the centre of the painting, escaping the worries of the world. In that vulnerable posture, she calmly presents her back to the viewer, slipping into a peaceful dreamland.

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, oil on panel, 1934, 82 x 59.5 cm. Collection of National Gallery, London. The National Gallery Photographi

Dogs were extremely important symbols in Western art history; they were loyal companions to hunters and friends to the gods. In the Middle Ages, hunting was a privilege of the nobility, so hunting dogs became symbols of noble rank and power. As a result, dogs appeared in royal or noble portraits and in heraldry. During the Renaissance, artists favoured the depiction of shepherding dogs – ones that relieve sorrows, heal wounds, ward off evil, and guide toward goodness. Dogs in popular imagination have become synonymous with steadfast love and loyalty. Perhaps the most famous example is the fluffy lap dog in Jan Van Eyck’s masterpiece The Arnolfini Portrait. Since the 17th century, the popularity of dogs as pets have prompted their depictions of dogs in oil paintings, adding many layers of symbolism related to lifestyle and familial harmony. Dogs in modern works of art have also served as vessels for artists’ emotions. The trusting and protective intimacy between a woman and her dog must have meant something important to Sanyu, perhaps a reminiscence of an earlier time when he had experienced such intimacy or perhaps a tribute to the friends and lovers in the art world he had met over the course of his life. In this way, he invested every brushstroke with emotion and significance.

A Silhouette Set Against Red Lacquer and Cream

With the rise of post-war abstraction, a new generation of artists threw themselves into abstract art, including several post-war Chinese artists who were close to Sanyu. Chu Teh-Chun turned to Lyrical Abstraction while Zao Wou-Ki launched his Hurricane period. In navigating between abstraction and representation, Sanyu and Picasso took a similar approach. Neither artist ever fully abandoned representation, however their works obviously reflect a keen sensitivity to the changing times and how these changes interacted with their life experiences. The clean three-band composition in Nu avec un pékinois was likely the result of an artistic interaction with Zao Wou-Ki. The cream section in the middle creates an abstract space with a vague sense of time and place, reminiscent of the shadow play lighting effects in Lin Fengmian’s paintings of opera performers. Two red stripes are separated by a section of cream; the lacquered finish is reminiscent of Chinese classical furniture, maybe a nod to Sanyu’s job painting replicas of Chinese lacquer screens and other decorative items for a furniture manufacturer in the 1950s. A viewer might note the background of the work appears flattened and simplified. Sanyu’s integration of the representational and the abstract was likely influenced by Mark Rothko and the other American Abstract Expressionists after his brief stay in New York in the 1940s.

left: Sanyu, Nu, oil on masonite, 1965, 122.5 x 135 cm. Sold for HKD 197,974,000 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Modern Art Evening Sale on 5 October 2019. © Sotheby’s
right: Sanyu, Quatre Nus, oil on masonite, 1950s, 100 x 122 cm. Sold for HKD 258,341,000 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Modern Art Evening Sale on 8 July 2020. © Sotheby’s

Sanyu’s nudes have set auction records in recent years. In 2019 and 2020, Quatre nus sold for HK$258 million, Nu sold for HK$198 million, and Nu sold for HK$168 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. His animal works have also made a strong showing. Léopard sold for HK$79 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2017, and Goldfish sold for HK$170 million in Hong Kong in 2020, setting a new record for his animal-themed works. Works that bring together these two subjects are unparalleled for their artistic achievement and scholarly value, and this combination of subjects has been important in establishing Sanyu’s place in the market. Sanyu only painted three oil paintings depicting nudes and dogs. The first is Nu au petit chien, painted in the 1940s, from the Robert Frank collection. The second, Cinq nus, set a new global auction record for Sanyu’s work in 2019. In the third, Nu avec un pékinois, Sanyu made another breakthrough in the classic nude. This is the first time that Nu avec un pékinois will appear at auction, and the piece is certain to further cement his status as a market leader; this is an excellent opportunity to collect one of Sanyu’s rarest works.




圖片來源/ 財團法人立青文教基金會

論現代藝術之興起,歸根結底是向傳統文化窠臼發起的一場激烈革命,它代表著一種勇於叛逆的進取精神,而在此過程當中的每一位現代行者之個人奮鬥皆為時代背景與歷史之反映。而在眾多西方現代大師之中,畢加索是一眾亞洲藝術行者嚮往和崇拜的藝術之神,亦是全球範圍內最為耳熟能詳的頂尖藝術家之一,更為難得的是,他與當年西行巴黎的亞洲藝術家甚有淵源:藤田嗣治早年便已拜訪畢加索畫室,之後二人來往鴻雁,其數幅早年畫作為畢翁所藏;林風眠自二〇年代短暫留法接觸畢翁作品其,深受啟發,從平面圖像的立體主義解構切入,大舉革新中國美術;吳大羽四〇年代書信中曾屢次提及畢加索,並稱之為「P氏」;趙無極法國南部的畫室毗鄰畢加索畫室,二人常常交流繪畫心得,畢翁對其早年作品更是賞識有加;常玉與畢加索亦有交集:法國著名小說家暨收藏家亨利・皮爾・侯謝(Henri-Pierre Roché)於二〇年代後期成為常玉經紀人,而侯謝與畢加索則早於 1905 年左右相識,常玉與畢加索,很可能通過侯謝而認識,同時,龐薰琹亦曾經在《就是這樣走過來的》第三十五章〈常玉〉一文中為二人相識的事實加以佐證「他(常玉)和畢加索等人是老朋友……畢加索為他畫過油畫像。」蘇富比是次春拍有幸徵得畢加索及常玉兩位曠世奇才戰後時期重要作品《鬥牛士》(拍品編號8005)及《裸女與北京狗》(拍品編號8004),並特別企劃『常玉與畢加索』專題,旨在以二者筆下經典的人物繪畫為切入點,營造一個貫通東西的暢想空間,將亞洲現代藝術之區域性概念擴展至全球化的範圍,立足亞洲視野重新定義現代藝術之標準。




常玉肖像。圖片來源/ 財團法人立青文教基金會



《裸女與北京狗》中呈現了一位俯臥的裸女,順應右上角小狗的目光,由其自然擺放的精緻腳掌、伸直微開的雙腿、豐滿的臀部曲線、到光滑的後背肌膚,曲臂為枕,低馬尾落於側肩,鳳眼迷離,安然入夢。若以本畫對比常玉三〇年代的裸女作品,譬如《花毯上的側臥裸女》(79 x 127.5 cm),不難發現藝術家在創作本畫時,已然脫去三〇年代優雅渾圓的筆觸、極致浪漫的色調和細節,反而著重採用濃重厚實的墨色油彩,以簡潔的線條勾勒,將女體輪廓的可塑性發揮至極。


左:常玉《紅毯雙美》油畫木板,一九五〇年代作,101 x 121 cm。國立歷史博物館典藏,台北。
(圖片來源/ 台北,國立歷史博物館藏,典藏編號26915)
右:常玉《睡美人》油畫木板,一九五〇年代作,50 x 100 cm。2018年3月31日香港蘇富比現代藝術晚間拍賣,成交價46,877,500港幣。 © Sotheby’s

常玉對這一特定的裸女身姿,曾在創作中反复雕琢:台灣國立歷史博物館典藏的《紅毯雙美》(Deux nus sur tapis rouge,101 x 121 cm,1950s)中下方俯臥裸女之倩影與本畫如出一轍;去年春拍亮相的《綠色背景四裸女》中靠近畫面最前方的側臥裸女背影,髮型、姿態亦與本畫異曲同工;五〇年代,藝術家曾以當時的戀人為模特創作油畫《睡美人》(Nu endormi, 50 x 100 cm, 1950s),描繪伊人入夢之情景,畫中麗人窈窕安睡之姿態、洋溢而出的浪漫安適之氛圍與《裸女與北京狗》可謂一脈相承。對比三〇年代裸女作品中對於女體情色浪漫地呈現,五〇年代的常玉不僅將裸女主題視為精神的寄託,並從中釐清理性和感性兩條分支:理性部分展現藝術家對於宇宙哲理的感悟,例如前文提及之《曲腿裸女》和《翹腿的裸女》,而感性部分則以《睡美人》和本次晚拍之《裸女與北京狗》為代表,欲蓋彌彰、若隱若現地描繪裸女身姿,體現身為男性對於女性的無盡憐愛,更顯露出常玉這位曾經的花都浪子,晚年對於愛情的嚮往與守護之心。



楊·凡·艾克《喬凡尼•阿爾諾芬尼夫婦像》油畫木板,一四三四年作,82 x 59.5 cm。倫敦國家美術館典藏。 The National Gallery Photographi




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1950-60年代,常玉與勒維家族一眾成員關係密切,藝術家最早與攝影師丹尼爾·勒維(Daniel Lévy)結識,隨後與丹尼爾妻子、作曲家彭美拉·芙羅斯(Pamela Forrest)建立起了深厚的情誼,《裸女與北京狗》最早便源自彭美拉之珍藏。據彭美拉回憶,當時常玉熱衷於教彭美拉烹飪亞洲美食、與她一起分享交流對音樂和植物的喜愛;每逢六月的週末,她都會跟常玉、丹尼爾、法國雕塑家菲勒·伊格里(Philippe Hiquily)、美籍抽像畫家唐·芬克(Don Fink)一起到野外摘採草莓、觀看網球比賽;1965年,丹尼爾哥哥艾田及其妻子娜塔莎在二人寓所中舉辦藝術家生平最後一次重要個展,展品包括前文提及之《曲腿裸女》與《翹腿的裸女》;常玉逝世同年的夏天,丹尼爾及彭美拉準備離開巴黎去度假前還不忘將足踝受傷、行動不便的常玉送進聖文森保羅醫院治療,並將家中珍愛的綠植託付予其照料……可見彭美拉與勒維家族其他成員在常玉人生的最後數年中扮演了極為重要的角色,不難推測彭美拉之所以珍藏此幅《裸女與北京狗》,在常玉獨特的藝術造詣外,更因本畫筆裡行間守護的摯友之間相互欣賞與信任的珍貴情誼。

左:常玉《曲腿裸女》油畫纖維板,一九六五年作,122.5 x 135 cm。2019年10月5日香港蘇富比現代藝術晚拍,成交價197,974,000港幣。 © Sotheby’s
右:常玉《綠色背景四裸女》油畫纖維板,一九五〇年代作,100 x 122 cm。2020年7月8日香港蘇富比現代藝術晚拍,成交價258,341,000港幣。 © Sotheby’s

近年來,常玉的裸女主題作品屢創市場佳績,例如香港蘇富比2019-2020年呈獻的《綠色背景四裸女》以258,341,000港幣成交,《曲腿裸女》以197,974,000港幣成交,《翹腿的裸女》以168,671,000港幣成交;動物主題亦趨強勁走勢, 2017年《花豹》在香港蘇富比以79,412,496港幣成交,2020年《八尾金魚》在香港以170,170,000港幣成交,刷新動物作品新紀錄;而結合裸女與動物之兩大主題的作品,無論藝術造詣或學術價值均屬珍罕絕倫,無疑是樹立常玉市場標杆之最強組合,據全集記載,前文提及之僅存的3幅結合裸女與小狗的油畫作品中,一幅是四〇年代的《裸女與小狗》(Nu au petit chien, 54.5 x 30.3 cm),源自羅伯特·法蘭克(Robert Frank)珍藏;第二幅《五裸女》於2019年刷新常玉作品全球拍賣記錄;《裸女與北京狗》是第三幅,將經典裸女主題再次突破,如今首度釋出拍場,勢必榮續常玉市場領軍地位,亦是收藏常玉孤品千載難逢之機遇。