S anyu’s rise to prominence in recent years as one of the most sought-after painters has been underscored by the ever-increasing demand at auction for his works – in particular, taking the spotlight in autumn 2019 when Nu w ent under the hammer for 198 million HKD at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, setting the new auction record. To understand the allure of Sanyu’s nude paintings or even get a sense of the artist's unique place in modern art history, one would only need to gaze at Quatre nus. Offered this season at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, the work was painted from the same period as Nu and may be the most seductive of Sanyu’s nudes. This masterpiece will be presented alongside Femme nue étendue and Panier de poires, the artist’s spectacular and rare oil paintings on mirrors.
A Tradition of Daring. The female nude may be a classic subject in Western art, but it has long flirted on the edges of controversy. Public nudity, including sunbathing or swimming nude at the beach, was still considered taboo in nineteenth-century Europe, and it wasn’t until around the First World War that European social rules began to relax. Gradually, it became more common to adopt a kind of naturalism, which advocated the salutary practice of having the body come in direct contact with nature. Then in the 1950s and 1960s, film stars, including Brigitte Bardot, appeared in films in various state of undress, at first causing quite the stir, which soon eased into a more liberated mindset. Quatre nus reflects this cultural shift toward an open appreciation of the nude female form.
Sanyu’s Innovations. How Sanyu came to innovate on the tradition of nude painting was a confluence of external movements interacting with specific developments in the artist’s career. World War II had devastated Europe, and in the aftermath, from the ashes of warfare emerged modern art. During the 1950s and 1960s, Sanyu’s life and art would also enter an entirely different stage. In these changing times, he seized the opportunity to experiment in his work. While the female nude was not a new creative subject for Sanyu, it was only after World War II that he made a breakthrough with a new approach.
The depiction of the nude body in Western art had, for several thousand years, relied on observation with the naked eye, following an objective approach to modeling the human body. However, Sanyu outlined the nude female form in simple, freehand lines. He had little interest in representing the physical body in a realistic fashion. Instead, he went beyond the limitations of eyesight and expressed the spirit of Chinese landscape painting as well as his admiration and appreciation for the female figure. The artist didn’t just bring the body in direct contact with nature, but expressed the nude body as nature itself, melding the two into one. The unity of man and nature reflects Sanyu’s incisive concept of the universe. The nudes in Sanyu’s paintings bear the impressions of Chinese landscapes, expressing his appreciation of female beauty – timeless and eternal.
An Extraordinarily Rigorous Process. The four figures in Quatre nus are in repose – their postures and faces are all different, and they seem to be comfortably sunbathing on a verdant lawn in summer. The expansive ease of the vibrant image belies the extraordinarily rigorous process Sanyu underwent to create his masterpiece. In this respect, Quatre nus stands out among his paintings of female nudes. Quatre nus sur un tapis d’or, a work by the artist created for a solo exhibition at the National Museum of History in Taipei, also featured four nude women. The number is used often in Chinese tradition because of its symbolism and significance.
From early in his career, Sanyu was wont to make a second version of compositions he particularly valued, usually soon after he made the first, in order to achieve the highest expression of that composition. This version of Quatre nus reflects this tendency. A comparison of these works reveals the development in the artist’s approach. Around the time he painted Quatre nus, Sanyu also created Trois nus, which was a slightly smaller painting with a similar composition of three nude women, and a later Quatre nus (95.5 x 125 cm). The composition of Trois nus employed more realist methods, so we can surmise that this was the earliest of the three. The background in the smaller Quatre nus (95.5 x 125 cm) is blank, focusing attention on the contours of the women’s limbs. Quatre nus, presented in this season’s auction, is a grand synthesis of Trois nus and the smaller Quatre nus (95.5 x 125 cm). It is the largest among the three paintings, striking a balance in the treatment of the setting between a concrete space and a void. The setting brings out the figures, and then leaves the viewer with a rich imaginative space. From this, we can surmise that, of all the works Sanyu created over the course of his life, Quatre nus stands as the only masterwork that was part of a set of three completed oil paintings, which shows how much the artist valued Quatre nus.
Reflection of the Heart. Sanyu’s innovations were not limited to painting nudes. Earlier in his career in the late 1920s to the 1930s, Sanyu painted in oil on mirrors instead of canvases. His choice of such an unconventional medium was deliberate, a literary allusion to the mirrors from Dream of the Red Chamber. In the novel, a magic mirror can peer into someone’s heart and distinguish good from bad. When viewed from the front, the reflected image reveals the desire deep within the heart. The reverse shows a truth that one is reluctant to confront. The frontal reflection is sweet as nectar, and those who become enamored of it can make the vision a reality. Sanyu’s oil paintings on mirrors express this idea, as the image shown in the mirror is emblematic of the artist’s desires and pursuits.
Femme nue étendue is one of Sanyu’s earliest extant oil paintings featuring a nude. Sanyu painted the nude woman in pink against a white background. Looking at the oil paintings that Sanyu created after this work, most of the nudes are viewed from the rear or side, conveying the artist’s sense of reservation. Very few of them are like Femme nue étendue, in which the reclining woman faces the viewer directly, revealing her chest, and the work reflects the artist’s frank desire. The background in Femme nue étendue is a thinly-applied cream color, emphasizing the permeability of the mirrored reflection. This is not the case with Panier de poires, which possesses a thickly painted background with a rectangle in the center of a mirror. Careful, neat planes are accompanied by precise colors with all the charms of geometric abstraction. If the printed cloth in Femme nue étendue reflects Sanyu’s feelings of affection, then Panier de poires obviously reveals his longing for a Chinese aesthetic.
The provenance of the two works on mirrors is very clear. They were originally collected by Sanyu’s longtime friend and dealer Henri-Pierre Roché, and the pieces were noted in the record of his collection. Later, in the 1960s, the pieces were purchased by Jean-Claude Riedel, a Parisian art dealer and another important Sanyu collector. The pieces came into the current collector’s hands in the 1980s. This is the first time that these two works have been offered at auction in about 90 years. Now the world will have the chance to get a closer look and explore the spiritual realm of Sanyu’s oil paintings on mirrors.