For a young artist in the 1920s, Paris was the centre of the world. Reeling from the folly of World War One, the city was shaken up – defiantly trumpeting its masterpieces from the past but disillusioned by years of nationalistic conflict. Cafe terrasses teemed with painters and poets from all over the globe, drawn by the city’s mix of old and new. In the middle of this scene was Sanyu, a young painter from China befriended by Picasso and Giacometti but practically unknown to wider audiences during his lifetime. Since his rediscovery in 1988, he has been hailed as the “Chinese Matisse”, a master of Modernism who fused Eastern techniques with Western ideas.
Born in Sichuan in 1895, Sanyu was the youngest of 12 children in a wealthy family that owned a silk factory. He was doted on by his father, himself an artist, who spotted Sanyu’s interest in art and taught him to paint, as well as arranging for him to study traditional Chinese calligraphy. By the time he was a teenager, China had transformed – the last imperial dynasty had collapsed and the Republic had sprung up – and Sanyu looked beyond its borders for inspiration.
Sanyu arrived in Paris in 1921 after a two-year stint in Japan, alongside a wave of Chinese students who travelled to France as part of a government-sponsored work-study programme. He quickly established himself on the Parisian social circuit, mixing with both Chinese and international artists and marrying a French aristocrat. But it wasn’t until he enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, an experimental art school in Montparnasse, that he began to integrate the techniques he had learned from his father with the Western artistic traditions he discovered in Paris.
Nu rose sur tissus chinois, painted in the 1930s, is one of the clearest examples of Sanyu’s approach. At the Grande Chaumière he had delighted in the nude figure, still taboo in China, and over the next decade he used charcoal, pencil and ink to create hundreds of drawings. His lines were smooth and his forms voluptuous. He revelled in the lines of the body – arms and legs were exaggerated and heads shrunk or hidden – and soon he turned to oil paint to render the surfaces of his figures.
This painting bears a striking resemblance to the Rokeby Venus by Velázquez, the greatest painter of the Spanish Golden Age, which depicted the Roman goddess of love lying in a sensual pose, gazing into a mirror help by her son Cupid. Though the painting belonged to the National Gallery in London, it was well known in Paris. Reproductions were widely available across the continent, and the work had inspired early French Modernist works such as Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting Olympia.
Sanyu’s reinterpretation flips the original, the model now reclining with her head to the left. Sanyu strips away the background – gone is the mirror and the young Cupid – and in its place is a pared-down, near-abstract white space. In the bottom half of the painting, a surface is outlined with a single black curve and decorated with calligraphic illustrations of plants and animals in what appears to be a traditional Chinese brocade.
In this painting, the Chinese and Western elements are not blended together seamlessly. They sit separately, in two halves of the painting. Sanyu’s art is not in harmonising the two worlds so that they become one, but in putting them side by side, teasing out their differences. Although Paris left him penniless and alone, divorced by his wife amid accusations of infidelity and without a reliable source of income after his eldest brother died, he never lost his fascination with it. In the 1930s, on the verge of giving up, he wrote:
“I could abandon all that I have now. But there is a chance: My love has not died yet.”