Peony is the most popular flower in China – it symbolises elegance, wealth, prosperity as well as a noble presence. Since the prosperous times of Tang and Song dynasties, peonies have been widely praised by the literati, and assigned a range of different evocations. In the eyes of Li Bai, peonies were glamorous and lusciously beautiful like the imperial consort Yang Yuhuan; in the writing by late Tang poet Wu Rong, one could see the enlightened Zen insights through peonies; whilst for Northern Song dynasty poet Ouyang Xiu, peonies were the spirit of the moon falling from the night sky, the soul of jade blossoming at a branch. Since ancient times, flowers and birds have been the most common subject of paintings; Sanyu’s early flower paintings frequently depicted roses filled with the sense of romantic love, or chrysanthemums which were light, graceful and elegant, showing the artist’s untamed free spirit of a talented and passionate young gentleman; in the 1940s and 50s, peonies suddenly became an important subject in his flower paintings, reflecting the artist’s own development - although Sanyu still displayed the same elegant extravagance, his temperament had become less nomadic and more mature. Gold and silver-white are the main colours in Pot de pivoines, with a dark, jade-like green and amber as two supplementary colours, depicting a blossoming pot of peonies. There are eight flowers in the plant, half already blossomed and half are flower buds yet to open, symbolising a thriving state of being in which life energy emanates from the plant. The pot of plant is placed on a white rug against a yellow wall, the background is divided in a minimalistic geometric fashion. The branches of the plant are in the shape of a Chinese fan. It may appear to be random, when in fact the golden-yellow wall is evenly divided into four sections, demonstrating the artist’s ingenious use of the essence in Western composition and geometric abstraction. In the meanwhile, a translucent white pigment was applied liberally onto the golden-coloured wall, creating a fluid spirit of life, imbuing a painting depicting an inanimate subject matter a vivid, dynamic sense of movements characteristic of abstract expressionism. Such a technique is rarely seen in Sanyu’s other flower paintings, but quite commonly seen in his animal paintings, demonstrating the artist’s intention to highlight the sense of movements and vitality in this piece.
Pot de pivoines is more than a still life painting – it is richly autobiographical. After WWII, the new generation of Chinese artists began arriving into Paris. They saw Sanyu as a legend and a role model of a previous generation, and they were keen to visit him. Among them was Wu Guanzhong who was one of the first to have arrived in this new wave of artists. He often visited Sanyu and later recalled in his essay On Sanyu that the artist was “sensitive, untamed and free spirited, elegant in his taste”. He also said that “Sanyu himself is a bonsai plant, an Eastern bonsai plant in the Parisian garden.” Indeed, Sanyu seemed to be enthused by the wave of Chinese artists arriving at France, and his enlivened spirit in his artistic pursuits as well as personal development could be seen in his paintings, as demonstrated in the thriving sense of vitality in Pot de pivoines, which hinted at the magnificent large-format plant paintings that were to come, as famously represented by the pieces exhibited at the National Museum of History in Taipei. As the present piece was completed, Sanyu met Wu Guanzhong, who travelled to France to further his students after becoming first in China. He also met Zao Wou-Ki and Lalan, who also came from well-to-do families like Sanyu, as well as Chu Teh-Chun who was a protégé of his old friends Lin Fengmian and Wu Dayu, and Hsiao Chin, who lived in Milan and ventured into the Parisian art scene. Sanyu also met Zhang Daqian who also hailed from Szechuan and designed the catalogue for Zhang’s exhibition in Paris. The encouragement from his peers as well as the younger generation was reflected in his works, which were evolving into a new style more luscious and elegant than before. Around the time when Sanyu created Pot de pivoines, three more paintings on similar subjects, also entitled Pot de pivoines, were also made, forming a series of paintings that connected with one another. Their appearances follow a similar pattern, all depicting a pot of peonies, whilst showing the flowers in different time periods. Two of them are currently in the collection of Musée Cernuschi in Paris and National Museum of History in Taipei. Only two are still in private collection. Out of the four paintings, only the present piece employs a bright golden-yellow colour in the background, as opposed to darker shades of yellow in the three paintings. Such a choice reflects the artist’s intention to motivate and encourage himself.
From the perspective of colour philosophy, there was another aspect worth discussing in depth, that is the use of white. In Chinese painting, white is an extremely important colour, expressed using the “leaving white” (liubai) technique. In oil painting, white is a pigment that is applied freely to create the desired effect. In a way, Sanyu has even more thoroughly expressed the importance of white in Eastern art through his unique interpretation which even offers some new development to the tradition. Its first use of the silvery-white colour is to depict the objective colours of the flowers, plant pot and the rug. Moreover, the white colour of the rug is soft and lustrous, while the plant pot is hard and its clay quality delicately refined. The peonies, on the other hand, are moist and full of vitality. The artist expressed all these subtleties with a minimalistic approach, whilst using black, brown and silver as the colours of the outlines. This highlights his minimalist artistic philosophy. In addition, as a subject of the painting, peony carries a special poetic significance in the Eastern artistic context. It represents the pure, clean light of the moon, the delicateness of the snow, the warm lustre of fine jade, and the charm of beautiful women, all represented with the white colour, evoking many different associations. The translucent white in the background, as discussed in earlier paragraphs, is a variation of the Chinese ‘leaving white’ technique, as well as a demonstration of inspirations from post-war abstract expressionism, presenting the concept of “chi”, which cannot be seen with the naked eyes yet is extremely important in Eastern philosophies. With one silver-white colour, objects, phenomena, poetry and philosophy are closely integrated, demonstrating the artist’s mastery over the use of colours as well as a creative philosophy that is thoughtful and profound.
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