SANYU | Léopard rose
- Léopard rose
- signed in Chinese and French
- oil on masonite
- 65 by 80 cm; 25 ⅝ by 31 ½ in.
Collection of Yves Bideau (Jean François Bideau)
Collection of Jean-Claude Riedel
Sotheby's, Taipei, 10 April 1994, Lot 50
Private Asian Collection
Christie's, Hong Kong, 29 May 2010, Lot 1017
Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector
Antoine Chen, Overseas Chinese Fine Arts Series I: San Yu, Artist Publishing Company, Taipei, 1995, plate 84, p. 143
Leslie Jones, "Sanyu: Chinese Painter of Montparness," Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 35, 1999, p. 238
Rita Wong, ed. Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, Yegeo Foundation and Lin & Keng Art Publications, Taipei, 2001, plate 218, p. 341
Rita Wong, ed., Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings Volume II, The Li Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation, Taipei, 2011, plate 213, p. 141
Animals, nudes, flowers: these were the three main subjects of Sanyu’s artistic career. If Sanyu’s depiction of nude women conveys his fondness and desire for the feminine, and his paintings of flowers contain his ruminations on Eastern and Western culture, then the artist’s animal series allow for the richest insight into the artist’s life. These paintings featuring animal subjects only grew increasingly thought-provoking and more haunting in their charm as Sanyu grew older in age and accumulated more edifying life experience. On the international auction market, Sanyu’s paintings have been scarce in circulation. Since the 1990s, no more than 190 pieces have been available, with those featuring animal subjects representing only twenty of those pieces. That is to say, in the past thirty years, even with auctions being held regularly around the world, of Sanyu’s oil paintings featuring animal subjects, there have been on average fewer than one per year. These pieces are also rare in private collections, and often highly coveted. Every time one appears on the market, a flurry of excited competition is quickly generated. In Sotheby’s 2017 Autumn Evening Sale, Sanyu’s Léopard, created in 1931, sold at the considerable price of 79.41 million HKD, setting a top record for Sanyu’s animal series. The event also served as a testament to the maturity of Sanyu collectors, their appreciation for his work and appetite for art collection reaching new heights. The lot on offer at this evening sale, Léopard rose (Lot 1012), not only shares a subject with Léopard, it was created in the 1940s, serving as an important bridge, connecting the earlier work with Sanyu’s masterpiece created in the 1950s, also featuring an animal subject, housed at the Taipei National Museum of History. Léopard rose reveals the evolution in style of the artist’s animal series, and among Sanyu’s pieces, it is nearly impossible to find a similar piece belonging to a private collection. For these reasons, then, it possesses singular academic and collection value.
Speaking about his own painting, Sanyu once said that he was in constant pursuit of “simplification, and then more simplification.” Yet the artist’s manner of simplification did not reduce his subject matter to flimsiness; rather, it was a simplicity that harnessed complexity. Using the purist language, it expresses profound emotional depth, thereby echoing an enduring tenant in Chinese art. Léopard rose depicts a pink leopard, content and rolled over onto its back in insouciant slumber, the vibrant pink of the animal’s undulating silhouette capturing one’s attention. The panther is placed in an abstract plane of vast boundlessness, a horizontal line across the centre of the canvas dividing the sky from the land, the yin and the yang, the real from the false. Exuberant calligraphic lines are rendered vigorously and powerfully, symbolizing the formless yet forceful air and wind, as well as the ceaseless circulation of the universe’s energy, thus invoking the image of Zhuangzi’s “realm of the dreamland” from the philosopher’s essay Free and Easy Wandering. Sanyu’s painting also conjures abstractionist master Mark Rothko’s iconic compositions. Compared to Léopard, offered at last year’s autumn auction, Léopard rose was created at a time when Sanyu had experienced more of life’s vicissitudes, including two bombing raids in Paris during WWII and two years in New York, between 1948 – 1950, when the artist witnessed the exhilarating rise of Abstract Expressionism. By the time Sanyu was painting Léopard rose, his Eastern homeland was now a place he could dream of but no longer touch; and the West, while familiar to him, was no substitute for his motherland. As Su Shi’s “Ode to the Red Cliff” describes, the artist began to see our lives as but “the mayfly on a sojourn to the world, like a single grain in the vast ocean.” These experiences had shaped Sanyu such that he calmly set aside his ego, and began viewing the world from a broader perspective. One can see this shift in the artist’s philosophy by comparing the artist’s depiction of the panther in the 1930s, situated within a more richly decorated tableau, into the version he created in the 1940s, whose sparseness possesses an aura of equanimity toward the heavens and the earth. In both the East and the West, the panther is a beast, symbolizing aggression. Yet under Sanyu’s brush, the animal exudes a sense of ease, and even a playfulness and air of relaxation. In this way, it reflects the artist’s own sense of contentment, his turning away from the need to grasp at the things of the world. It also serves as a mediation of the encounters and anxieties that occur between the world and the individual. Viewing Léopard rose, the initial experience is a sense of blooming tranquillity that transcends the material world. Only later does one discover that one has stepped into the artist’s inner world, metamorphosed into the spirit contained in the painting. It is a world at once mischievous, and also inviting. As one of the few Asian artists active in the Western art world before WWII, Sanyu’s life and paintings have received much attention from contemporary art scholars. In 1999, the scholar Leslie Jones published a piece in Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, titled Sanyu: A Chinese Painter of Montparnasse, in which he engages in a deep analysis of Sanyu’s life and art. In the latter half of the essay, Jones discusses the characteristics of Sanyu’s middle and later stage works, and in particular discusses Léopard rose as an example:
“(Sanyu’s) landscapes are painterly and lyrical. Depicting vast, wide-open spaces, they are generally inhabited by animals, including horses but also, more exotically, giraffes, zebras, leopards, panthers, elephants, and water buffaloes－depicted singly or in pairs. Viewed from a distance and thus shown relatively small in scale, the animals play or graze, apparently at ease in expansive nature. A panther in one example (Note: Léopard rose) lies in a supine position, belly exposed, as if begging for physical attention ……what may be perceived as an expression of the artist's lived experience may also be interpreted as an escapist fantasy, a projection of his own desire for companionship and/or a life of freedom from material constraints. In either case, Sanyu's landscapes evoke emotional extremes of isolated despair and conjugal/shared bliss, demonstrating an expressionist tendency distinct from his earlier work. The expressive use of color and broad painterly strokes, as well as the emotional content, suggests an affinity with the subjective art forms of post-war Euro-American art like Abstract Expressionism. At the same time, Sanyu can be said to be developing and placing a highly personal twist on the metaphoric self-imagery of the Chinese tradition of animal painting.”
The provenance of Léopard rose is clear. In August of 1966, Sanyu passed away unexpectedly in his home. With no surviving relatives, the works in his studio were handled in accordance with French law, and arranged to be sold in auction. In September of that year, the Hôtel Drouot Auction held a special sale for Sanyu, which became one of the earliest sources of large volumes of Sanyu’s works. Many important collectors attended the sale, including Drouot Auction auctioneer Yves Bideau (who later renamed himself Jean-François Bideau). Bideau had grown familiar with Sanyu’s work through his position at the auction house, and was deeply charmed by them. At the auction, then, he decisively purchased a group of works, including Léopard rose. After holding onto Léopard rose for a number of years, the piece was brought into the hands of another important collector, Jean-Claude Riedel. In 1994, the painting appeared on the international market for the first time with Sotheby’s, while also participating in the Tamsui Centre of Art and Culture’s Sanyu exhibit that same year. The painting was also featured in a publication of the artist’s complete works, Sanyu: Catalogue Raissone Oil Paintings, Vol. I and Vol. II, published in 2001 and 2011, respectively. In comparing Léopard rose with Léopard au bord de la rivière, which was created even later in the artist’s career and belongs to the collection at the Taipei National Museum of History, one can see that the panther featured in both pieces are one and the same, thus testifying to the importance of Léopard rose in its role as a bridge for the artist’s works over time, imbuing it with special academic value.