Sanyu’s Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus
A heartfelt, enduring message between the lines
Since moving to Paris in late 1920s, Sanyu had remained in the vanguard of the international art scene, always driven by his own artistic visions. He was considered to be an important member in the modern “School of Paris”. Distinguished French poet and art critic Max Jacob had praised Sanyu as a “formidable force with precision and purity, possessing intelligence and technique at the same time”. The comment reflects a real understanding of Sanyu’s ingenuity. Completed in the 1930s, Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus is Sanyu’s only known work that directly addresses the theme of religion. By then, the artist had completed his studies at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and his artistic sensitivity and techniques had matured significantly. Sanyu also drew upon the emotional and cultural experiences from years of living overseas, to give a profound complexity to this painting, which at the same time appears almost radiant in its honesty, like a sincere confession.
Part portrait, part still life: a humanistic spirit exemplified
In Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus, the imagery is devoid of any extravagant pomposity. The artist has chosen instead to portray his subjects in a common home, with a stillness which is literally, “statuesque”, part portrait-part still life, symbolizing a transcendental religiosity as well as the mortal existence. Without undermining the religious supremacy of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin to their devotees, Sanyu presents the mother and child in an approachable light. Perhaps, it also reflects the artist’s own sense of isolation as a young traveler in a foreign land and his yearnings for home and family. Memories of home were awakened by the image, liberating religion from its historical orthodoxy of authority and returning it to the modern era. It responds to the human needs and desires for a deeper spiritual love and demonstrates a modern spirit in its simplicity. Russian artist Marc Chagall lived in Paris in the same period as Sanyu, and his work The Madonna of the Village was completed between 1938-42, several years after Virgin Mary. Chagall placed the image of Madonna in a rural village to show her constant presence with the people. There is a certain resemblance in their creative visions: religions have no national boundaries, and its beauty and goodness transcend all barriers. The symbol of Christianity had always been equated with the West itself, yet in this painting, it emanates a uniquely Eastern appeal and reflects a humanistic spirit through the artist’s unique treatment.
An integration of painting, sculpture and engraving
Not only has the painting transcended the boundary between portraits and still lifes, but also it made a conscious effort to enrich the inner-world of painting. In addition to oil painting, Sanyu’s repertoire also included sculpture and engraving. The diversity manifests itself in the artist’s proficiency in both two- and three-dimensional works, as well as his command over his brushes and sculpture knives. In here, the artist attempted to integrate different elements: in addition to using a figurine as the painting’s subject, he also applied a light, spontaneous scraping technique to create a textural finish, in delineating the contour of the figurine and the engravings on the mirror frame. This method lends an authenticity and immediacy to the painting and with his signature placed deliberately at the corner of the frame, instead of the ample white space at the bottom right hand corner of the painting; Sanyu clearly declares his intentions.
Similarly, Dutch Realist master Rembrandt van Rijn also used a type of scraping technique to create the patterns on the shirt collar in the portrait of his mother; the technique was interpreted as a stroke of genius improvised during the creative process. On Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, the artist’s signature was featured prominently on the vase and an integral part of the painting, binding the work with the artist himself whilst giving the work its highly original three-dimensional effect. As a major genre of Western art, oil painting has a history of development that spans across the past six to seven centuries, during which every master painter strived to innovate and introduce new elements into the genre. With various technological inventions, artists have been experimenting with modern media as well as exploring new forms of expression in oil paintings. This technique employed by Sanyu introduces an element of unpredictability, giving his work a unique, characteristic that cannot be reproduced.
Judicious application of “Leaving White”:
enhancing the sense of space through the study of light
The subject of this painting is Virgin Mary and Jesus, but the mirror behind the figurine is also a particular point of interest – an inventive method the artist employed. Photographic technology was quickly maturing in the 20s and 30s in Paris, and as a result, more and more artists – painters in particular – became interested in photography as a new creative medium. Sanyu was among a small group of Chinese artists who could afford the equipment. This added a rare, modern dimension to his paintings compared to the works by his peers.
Photography is a product of the maturing development in the study of light. Gifted photographers are invariably expert at understanding and manipulating different lighting effects, and the relationship between mirror and lens was a popular topic of studies. In Sanyu’s nude women drawings, the “thighs of the universe” (in the words of renowned Chinese poet Xu Zhimo) had a mesmerising effect on the writer. Its source of inspiration came from the images of female figures reflected in distorting mirrors. The mirror in Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus is yet another unusual attempt by the artist. By placing the figurine in front of an empty mirror, the viewer is not only treated to an unusual perspective of the reflected image of the back of the figurine, but the space on the canvas is also dramatically increased. Quentin Massys’ The Moneylender and His Wife during the Northern renaissance in the 16th century was the earliest example of the usage of such optical phenomenon to augment the visual perspective. Nevertheless, by placing a mirror almost as large as the canvas itself, to reflect an empty void as a major part of his image, Sanyu had shown an imaginative application of the Chinese artistic concept of “leaving white” (or “liu bai”, leaving white space) to his oil painting, a rare and highly successive invention by the artist.
Precise composition: space as a mean to convey the painting’s message
The subject of this painting is Virgin Mary and Jesus. Even though the figurine takes up a relatively large proportion of the painting, because of the space reflected by the mirror, there is still an open sense of empty space in this painting. When viewed side by side with Sanyu’s later works such as Horse Grazing (Lot 15), one would notice that the technique used in this painting in creating space follow the same pattern. By including the mirror, the artist enlarged the limited indoor space to subtly exaggerate the contrast between the figurine and the physical space; standing alone, the figurine radiates with kindness and warmth. Chinese scholar Wang Guowei once wrote, “all descriptions of scenery are descriptions of emotions”. In this painting, visual representations and emotional expressions are tightly knitted together, delivering the messages Sanyu wished to convey with great clarity.
Meanwhile, the artist deliberately moved the mirror and the figurine away from the centre of the painting, giving it a distinct compositional bias towards the left, so as to distance the work from the more solemn, reverential approach to traditional religious painting, and to introduce an air of modernity to the work. It is as if the viewer and the artist are invited to share a fleeting moment together, to give an impression that the work originated from everyday living. The left hand side edge for the mirror frame disappears from the image, extending the space beyond the canvas through the viewers’ imagination. In L’Absinthe by French Impressionist master Edgar Degas, the artist placed the subject of the painting, a couple in the café, to the top right hand corner of the painting. The man had a pipe in his mouth, yet his hand holding the pipe was cropped from the right side of the painting. In contrast, the classically more important foreground was reserved for the tables and chairs around the couple to give a drunken, out-of-focus vision, hinting at the potency of the absinth. The treatment of space in Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus was closely linked to the theme of the piece, and successfully highlighted the painting’s message. This shows the same thoughtfulness and careful consideration as Degas.
Aesthetics of the East – a minimalistic palette
Evidence of Sanyu’s assimilation of Eastern painting elements can be found in the light and graceful color palette in Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus. Born into a highly-educated family of great scholars, Sanyu began learning Chinese paintings from his father Chang Shu Fang from the age of 12, in addition to studying with renowned Sichuan calligrapher Zhao Xi. Although he later turned to oil painting, and his style became influenced by Fauvism and Expressionism in Europe, Chinese aesthetics traditions still formed a fundamental part of his artistic foundation.
In line with Chinese scholastic traditions, Sanyu pursued a kind of concise purity in his art, which is often imbued with elegance and sophistication. The use of colours in Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus shows evidence of Eastern painting elements incorporated into the oil painting genre. The artist deliberately left marks of brushstrokes in the painting, so that viewers can trace the direction and sequence the colours were applied. Instead of using a large brush, or short “pointillist” brush strokes in Impressionist paintings, Sanyu used straight lines of medium width and length, applying each stroke methodically and steadily. This technique acknowledges the way paint is applied on a wall (e.g. of a dwelling) in reality and the pattern created, whilst at the same time creating a tranquil, serene indoor atmosphere.
The white colours used in Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus is not a pure white, but an ivory-white with a greyish tint and light yellow. Not only does it create a softer picture, it is also a nod towards the soft but tough texture of calligraphy paper used in Eastern paintings, whilst accentuating the fine linear patterns left by each brush stroke; the table in this painting is embellished with touches of pink – a colours often featured in Sanyu’s early works. The figurine is accented by blue and yellow, in order to highlight the theme of the painting. Among Asian painters active in the same period in Paris, Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita, who emerged from the art scene before Sanyu, was celebrated for his portrait of women with milky white skin tones. Sanyu’s ivory-white is slightly different from the lead-white and titanium-white more commonly used in other works and forms a distinct contrast with Foujita’s paintings.
Sentiments of a travelling artist
Although originated from Christianity, the image of Virgin Mary and Jesus is also a symbolic representation of the bond between mother and son. Such imagery resonated with the Chinese culture, where the principles of human relations and filial piety are of prime importance. Christianity went to China during the Tang dynasty, with the earliest image of Virgin Mary and Jesus found on Yuan dynasty missionary Katerina Vilionis’s tombstone in Yangzhou. During the Ming dynasty, Spanish and Portuguese merchants sailed to China’s Fujian province, where arts and crafts with a biblical theme were made there under the merchants’ commission. In addition, missionaries such as Matteo Ricci went to China to preach. Although these missionary activities had gone through its share of trials and tribulations in the years that followed, by late Qing dynasty and early Republic of China, Western ideas had become highly fashionable and the image of Saint Mary already established among the educated as well as the wider society. Such imagery was in fact combined with existing concepts of filial duty in Chinese traditions, and an extension to the Confucius concepts of filial piety and a family‘s natural bond. In this painting, Sanyu’s own sentiments are expressed as the travelling artist thinking of his family and home.
In Western art, religious paintings were once regarded as one of the most important genres. Paintings of Virgin Mary and Jesus were studied by almost every European painter since the Renaissance period and the time of Giotto in the 13th century, leaving a countless number of masterpieces. These works mainly focused on themes of divinity, mercy and reverence, up until the Modernist movement. For these reasons, Sanyu’s Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus was radical in its ambition: as a Chinese who painted the image of a sacred symbol, in Paris where Catholicism was the mainstream religion, the work had represented the East in face of the West, traditions in face of modern ideas, an outsider in face of its host. Consequently, Sanyu had many responsibilities on his shoulder. Using his Chinese identity to re-shape the theme in this painting, Sanyu had relieved Western painters of their cultural burden, whilst instilling an Eastern spirit into his art, making this a seminal work of exceptional value.