Modern Art | Asia

'Nu': A Distillation of Sanyu’s Creative Vision in the Artist’s Final Masterpiece

By Sotheby's
Sanyu, NU, 1965, Estimate Upon Request.
For the first time since the Sanyu’s ultimate masterpiece was created more than half a century ago, 'Nu' will appear at auction, leading Sotheby’s Hong Kong Modern Art Evening Sale. One of Sanyu’s largest paintings of the female nude, 'Nu' is the pinnacle of the artist’s creative vision and a work of singular importance in his oeuvre.

A t the height of his artistic maturity, Sanyu painted Nu, the artist’s last nude, final masterpiece and the definitive expression of his singular vision. Extensively illustrated in every catalogue of Sanyu’s oil paintings, Nu was the cover image of the invitation to the artist’s final solo exhibition in 1965. Now appearing on the market for the first time in more than half a century, this exceedingly rare work is set to cause tremendous excitement among collectors in Asia and beyond. Sotheby’s Hong Kong is proud to present Sanyu’s Nu, the ultimate masterpiece created by the Chinese émigré artist in France in the 1960s, at the Modern Art Evening Sale on 5 October.

“Sanyu’s paintings began with floral motifs and culminated with female nudes. Throughout his life, the artist strove to distil his creative vision, a process that reached its zenith with 'Nu,' his final masterpiece.”
- Vinci Chang, Sotheby’s Head of Modern Asian Art


A legend in Asian art and a luminary in Western art history, Sanyu spent much of his life as a drifter in Paris. In the 1920s, he went to the city with fellow Chinese art students – among them Lin Fengmian, Wu Dayu and Xu Beihong. Together they wrote a glorious chapter for Chinese émigré artists in France. By the 1940s and 1950s, Sanyu had achieved renown in Paris, revered by Wu Guanzhong, Zhang Daqian, Zao Wou-Ki, and Chu Teh-Chun, among others. He remained a purist through to old age in the 1960s, never wavering from his personal artistic vision, which earned him the respect of his contemporaries and later artists.

The poster ofSANYU Exhibitionheld by Galerie Jean-Claude Riedel in Paris in 1977. Image courtesy of The Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation.

On 17 December 1965, Sanyu mounted his last solo exhibition, hosted by close friends Mr. and Mrs. Levy at their family residence on Rue du Moulin Vert. The opening was attended by a group that included Pan Yuliang, Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun and Shiy De-Jinn. Sadly, Sanyu died only a few months after the exhibition, closing final chapter of his creative career. Created in April 1965, Nu would become Sanyu’s final masterpiece.

The importance of Nu in Sanyu’s artistic career is undisputed. It was the cover image of the invitation to the Levy Residence exhibition and the poster image for Hommage à Sanyu, an exhibition organised by the legendary dealer and collector Jean-Claude Riedel in his gallery in 1977. From the 1990s to the present, Nu has been illustrated in every catalogue of Sanyu’s oil paintings. As one of the largest paintings of a female nude by Sanyu, Nu is much more ambitious than any of the works in the National Museum of History collection in Taipei, which also houses the eponymous oil sketch for the work. Due to its singular importance, Nu was the highlight of the major 2005 exhibition Sanyu: l’ecriture du corps at the Musée guimet in Paris.

Sanyu, NU, 1965, Estimate Upon Request.

Before Nu, Sanyu had painted a similar composition on a smaller scale (46.5 x 49.5 cm) which he sent to Taipei in 1964 for his solo exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, where it remains today. Enlarged to a scale seven times the earlier work, Nu is more expressive, more mature in conception, and more visually impactful.

“Sanyu’s last nude painting has dazzled and captivated viewers for half a century. We are honoured to present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire a work that stands at the pinnacle of the artist’s career.”
- Vinci Chang, Sotheby’s Head of Modern Asian Art


Sanyu’s exploration of the female nude as a subject for his art seemed to accord with the 20th-century Parisian art world, but was in fact also an extension of his Asian literati sensibilities. If in the West the human body was regarded as a manifestation of divinity, then in the East such a concept was found in natural landscapes. By combining the aesthetics of both traditions, Sanyu saw a path forward for each.

The artist’s nudes from the 1950s and 1960s approached a radical new style, with painting on a monumental scale and the depiction of the female body in unconventional ways. Nu presents a surprising vision of a nude prostrate against a white, abstract background, her legs bent and folded in an L shape. Sanyu adopts a highly unusual angled perspective that exaggerates the nude’s lower body and genitals. More than simply presenting the beauty of a woman’s body, he exaggerates and transforms it into something akin to a traditional Asian landscape painting.

Sanyu, NU, 1965, Estimate Upon Request.

In Nu, Sanyu at once liberates the female nude from romanticism and eroticism, and creates a modernist interpretation of Asian landscape aesthetics. By exaggerating the nude’s lower body, he toys with discomfort in the viewer’s gaze, openly presenting this area of the body which for thousands of years would have been considered taboo. By the 1950s and 1960s, Sanyu no longer painted nudes in smooth, elegant lines as he did in the 1930s. Instead he employed stark contrasts and saturated tones to create contour lines that verge on the angular, manifesting the expressiveness of the human body to the fullest.