Modern Art | Asia

Ravishing Beauty in Green: Sanyu’s 'Quatre nus'

By Sotheby's
Sanyu, Quatre Nus
Sanyu as a young artist lived in Paris during the ’20s and ’30s, and quickly fell in with the bohemian life. He also saw the decadence and glamour of those decades crumble away with the approach of the 1940s and the inexorable march to World War II. In the aftermath, Paris was forever changed. Peacetime offered Sanyu precious opportunity to reinvent his approach on a well-established, important subject in his early career: the female nude.

In the wake of World War II, the emerging avant-garde movement must have stirred a new creative passion within Sanyu, as the artist proceeded to create a series of large-format female nudes never before seen. He completed 56 nude oil paintings in his lifetime, of which only six works depict nudes in groups of three or more figures, according to SANYU Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings. These six works are all important masterpieces and were completed in the 1950s. Among them Quatre nus is perhaps the most alluring and vivid, depicting four reclining female nude figures. They appear to be enjoying a warm summer day on the grass, each showing off a variety of postures, hair colour, and facial expressions.

Along with Quatre nus, Sanyu was concurrently working on two smaller paintings similar in composition: Trois nus and Quatre nus (95.5 x 125 cm). Comparing the three together, Quatre nus is more representational showing more detail in its portrayal of the environment than Trois nus. In Quatre nus (95.5 x 125 cm), the background is left white or liubai, and focuses attention on the graceful lines of the female body, with a composition that is closer to that of his later style. Quatre nus achieves the best balance between the abstract and the figurative in its treatment of space, setting the scene with optimal restraint, which allows the viewer space for imagination. The artist may have regarded the two smaller pieces as drafts of Quatre nus, which was likely the earliest completed of these three paintings. Sanyu perfected Quatre nus with painstaking effort, and it certainly had an important place in the artist’s heart.

Sanyu, Quatre Nus

Female nudes in Sanyu’s paintings are often distorted and exaggerated. In the 1920s, the renowned poet Xu Zhimo humorously referred to Sanyu’s nudes as the ‘thighs of the universe.’ The lithe figures in Quatre nus highlight the healthy allure of the female body as each stretches and relaxes in a variety of positions. Against a luminous green semi-abstract background, the viewer is invited to gaze upon the feminine curves, evocative of Chinese landscapes with their boundless, rolling mountain peaks. Sanyu’s awe of the female body and its association with nature are evident.

Joyful colours portray a boisterous scene, filled with vitality and a contemporary sense entirely distinct from the pastel whites of his earlier paintings from the 1930s. Sanyu’s work during the 1950s in a furniture workshop may have something to do with this change. The lacquer furniture and Eastern art influenced the artist’s own creative output. Ink and wash techniques clearly influenced the way he outlined his figure silhouettes, and the painting’s background composition has all of the same glowing brilliance of lacquer or ceramic glaze. In equal measure, the work also reflects liberal attitudes toward the female body and its portrayal in France, as well as the rest of Europe and the United States, during the 1950s.

Sanyu, Quatre Nus (Detail)
Brigitte Bardot relaxing with magazines. Circa 1962 (photo by Ghislain Dussart/ Gamma-Rapho)

Although the female nude has long been a classic subject in Western art, exposing a woman’s naked body was still socially taboo in Europe. It wasn’t until after World War I, when naturalism came into vogue, that a movement sought to bring the physical body in direct contact with nature. Public nudity, such as sunbathing and skinny dipping, began to gain slow acceptance as it was promoted by artists, trendsetters and scientists. Coco Chanel caused shock waves during the 1920s when she exposed her tanned skin on a boat trip. After World War II, cinema saw the emergence of sex icons and with them the open appreciation of the naked female body. In the film And God Created Woman (1956), images of French actress Brigitte Bardot lounging in bed or on a beach, in partial or full undress, had been seared into the public imagination in the '50s. Sanyu was an artist of his time, and in Quatre nus the figures in their languorous postures have something of that alluring Bardot quality. In his nude paintings, the postures of Sanyu’s women was a departure from Western classical painting standard, and even exceeded the so-called morphing approach he himself developed in the '20s and '30s.

In Sotheby’s 2019 autumn sales, Sanyu's Nu sold for a record HK$198 million, setting a new benchmark for the artist. Success at auctions and growing interest in Sanyu’s female nude oil paintings, particularly those of such grand proportions, have spurred much discussion for their aesthetic value and place in modern art history. Quatre nus is undeniably a grand masterpiece, and arguably the most alluring within female nude group paintings by Sanyu.

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