A legend in Asian art history and a luminary in Western art history, Sanyu spent much of his life as a drifter in Paris amid the golden age of modern art. In the 1920s, he went to the city along with fellow Chinese art students—among them Lin Fengmian, Wu Dayu, and Xu Beihong. Together they would write a glorious chapter for Chinese émigré artists in France. By the 1930s, Sanyu had already achieved prominence on par with the Japanese artist Leonard Foujita’s, thanks in part to recognition by French writer Henri-Pierre Roché and Dutch composer Johan Franco. Sanyu’s personality and fate, however, would keep him from both the fame and fortune that he deserved during his lifetime. Even so, he never wavered from his personal artistic vision, which earned him the respect of both his contemporaries and later artists. Sanyu remained a purist through to old age in the 1960s, disregarding external judgment as he focused on the final chapter of his creative career.
Sanyu’s painting began with floral subjects and ended with female nudes. His oeuvre accords with the mainstream of the 20th-century Parisian art world, but was in fact also an extension of his Asian literati sensibilities. On Dec. 17, 1965, Sanyu mounted his last solo exhibition, hosted by close friends Mr. and Mrs. Levy at their family residence on Rue du Moulin Vert. The opening was attended by a group that included Pan Yuliang, who had lived in Paris for several decades. Also in attendance was Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun, who both arrived in Paris after the war, as well as Shiy De-Jinn, who happened to be in the city on a study trip. From photographs of the exhibition, it is clear that Sanyu showed his largest and best works. And he remained as ambitious and passionate as ever. Not long before the opening, Sanyu sent 42 oil paintings to Taipei for a solo exhibition at the National Museum of History. The Paris exhibition was thus a kind of graduation, marking his impending return home to Asia, as well as a summary of his artistic accomplishments for the next generation of Chinese émigré artists in France.
Unfortunately, Sanyu died from an accident in his Paris apartment only a few months after the Levy Residence exhibition. His death represented the close of the chapter telling the story of prewar Chinese émigré artists in France. The works Sanyu left behind have remained fascinating riddles for those to come, each shedding unique light on his remarkable art and life. Created in April of 1965, Nu (Lot 1029) is Sanyu’s final masterpiece and the ultimate expression of his artistic vision. It was the cover image of the invitation to the Levy Residence exhibition and the poster image for Hommage à Sanyu, an exhibition organised by the legendary dealer and collector Jean-Claude Riedel in his gallery in 1977. From the 1990s to the present, Nu has been illustrated in every catalogue of Sanyu’s oil paintings. As the largest extant painting of a female nude by Sanyu, Nu is much more ambitious than any of the works in the National Museum of History collection, which also houses the eponymous oil sketch of the work. Due to its singular importance, Nu was the highlight of the major 2004 exhibition Sanyu: l’ecriture du corps at the Musée guimet, which saw Sanyu’s final return to Paris, his second home and the global capital of modern art. Having dazzled and captivated viewers for half a century, Nu will be on offer at this year’s Modern Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, presenting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to appreciate and collect this exceedingly important work.
Although Sanyu’s earliest extant painting is an ink-and-color rendition of a peony from 1921, the female nude was the artist’s enduring subject. He painted nudes consistently from the 1920s onward, first sketching in charcoal and ink, and then later painting in oil on canvas. Nudes and flowers may be considered the two sides of traditional Asian aesthetics. An avid reader of Dream of the Red Chamber as a child, Sanyu symbolized each of the story’s major female characters with a different flower. His later direct depiction of the female nude and appreciation for its beauty reflect the liberation of Chinese and Asian art from the constraints of traditional decorum. From the perspective of Western painting, however, the nude had been a traditional subject for over two millennia. So what kinds of innovation could be achieved painting the female body? If in the West the human body was regarded as a manifestation of divinity, then in the East such a concept was found in natural landscapes. By combining the aesthetics of both traditions, Sanyu saw a path forward for each. His nudes from the 1950s and 1960s began to show a radical new style, painting at a monumental scale and depicting the female body in unconventional ways. For example, Nu presents a surprising vision of a nude prostrate against a white, abstract background, her legs bent and folded in an L shape. Sanyu adopts a highly unusual a bottom-up perspective that exaggerates the nude’s lower body and genitals. More than simply presenting the beauty of a woman’s body, he exaggerates and transforms it into something akin to a traditional Asian landscape painting.
In Nu, Sanyu at once liberates the female nude from romanticism and eroticism, and creates a modernist interpretation of Asian landscape aesthetics. By exaggerating the nude’s lower body, he toys with discomfort in the viewer’s gaze, much like the realist master Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde of 1866, which shocked contemporary audiences with its close-up depiction of female genitals. By the 1950s and 1960s, Sanyu no longer painted nudes in smooth, elegant lines as he did in the 1930s. Instead he employed stark contrasts and saturated tones to create contour lines that verge on the angular, manifesting the expressiveness of the human body to the fullest. Sanyu makes for an intriguing comparison with his near-contemporaries Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore, and Pablo Picasso, who despite their different circumstances underwent artistic evolutions. Having lived through the Parisian golden age of the 1920s and 1930s, the four masters did not embrace abstraction unlike the younger generation of artists who did so after the war. Instead they all forged their own paths of innovation and achieved breakthroughs by deforming and transforming their already-mature languages of figuration. Before Nu, Sanyu had painted a similar composition at a smaller scale (46.5 x 49.5 cm) which he sent to Taipei in 1964 for his solo exhibition at the Taipei National Museum of History, where it remains today. Enlarged to a scale seven times the earlier work, Nu is more expressive, more mature in conception, and more visually impactful. Interestingly, the painting’s reverse side bears a rare handwritten note by Sanyu. It reads,
“Had I not been in poverty and diligently painting at the time, I would have completed the painting and reached my maturity earlier. Alas! As I finish and regard this work, it is April 1965.”
Here Sanyu laments having wasted his youth but cherishes the opportunities of the present. From the rest of the inscription, we learn that he completed Nu precisely in the intervening period after he sent his works to Taipei in 1964 and before his solo exhibition at the Levy villa at the end of that year. The monumental and self-assured Nu is thus a celebration of his impending rise to global prominence.
Two aspects of Sanyu’s unusual depictions of female nudes deserve further discussion. First, they were related to his love of photography. When he was newly arrived in Paris in the 1920s, Sanyu already owned the latest and most expensive photographic equipment. At the time, photography was just gaining acceptance as a legitimate medium of artistic creation. Man Ray, André Kertész, and Bill Brandt were just a few of the artists who explored otherwise impossible visual effects with the lens and created a celebrated body of surrealist imagery. Sanyu’s deformation of the human body was inspired in part by photography, according to scholarly consensus. In the 1940s, Sanyu worked for a time in New York and became a close friend of Robert Frank, who would become a renowned America photographer. The two men’s discussions about art and photography doubtlessly prompted Sanyu’s pictorial experimentations—in particular, his series of monumental nudes represented by Nu. In Nu, Sanyu places the foreground elements at the lower left edge of the frame and exaggerates the nude’s lower body through radical foreshortening. This effect becomes even more evident when the painting is viewed from the bottom or from the top left, which reveals new peaks and layers like a Asian landscape painting.
The twisting female body in Nu is also notable. Sanyu’s nudes from the 1930s tend to luxuriate freely in their frames. In the 1950s and 1960s, his nudes adopted more complex poses, often crossing and bending their limbs. This may be understood as a distillation of Sanyu’s inner world, which became increasingly tumultuous as he lived through the vicissitudes of several decades. Yet, in his art Sanyu always maintained a certain purity. The blank background of Nu evokes both the unpainted space in ink painting and minimalist abstraction, as well as the white backgrounds of Lin Fengmian’s contemporaneous depictions of Beijing opera characters. In philosophical terms, Sanyu’s placement of the nude against blankness suggests the Daoist concept ‘land of nowhere,’ a utopia in which one is utterly free from constraints and desires.
A MASTERPIECE BY SANYU
From the 17th to the 21st of December 1965, Sanyu held an exhibition of his paintings at the home of his friends, Natacha and Etienne Levy. Many people, including Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chuj, Pan Yuliang and Shiy De-Jinn, attended the opening. According to Natacha, it was a joyful occasion, and Sanyu was very happy Less than a year later, Sanyu passed away at the age of 71.
The significance of this final exhibition cannot be underestimated. Having sent 42 paintings to Taiwan the year before for a proposed solo exhibition that, due to complications, never took place, Sanyu was at this time quite distraught both that he could not make the trip to Taiwan, and that he was having some difficulty recovering his paintings. He therefore agreed wholeheartedly to the kind suggestion of his friends and neighbours, Natacha and Etienne Levy, to hold an exhibition at their home to compensate, as it were, for the planned exhibition in Taiwan. With all his recently-completed paintings having been shipped to Taiwan, he exhibited mostly paintings he had kept from earlier periods. There were, however, a few paintings that he had painted especially for this exhibition, and the present work was the most significant of those.
Sanyu, like many artists, often made study pieces for his oil paintings. In Sanyu's case, however, he did this only with nude paintings. Most often, we find pencil or ink sketches that were later translated into more formal oil. There are only a few known instances where he actually made a smaller oil painting study before executing the same subject in a larger, more elaborate, one. Of the paintings he sent to Taiwan for exhibition, there is a nude painting measuring 46.5 by 49.5 cm. Sanyu was evidently very fond of his painting. Using it as a model, he painted the present work, Nu, in a much larger format – 122.5 x 135 cm - and it was this painting that he chose for the cover of his invitation (see Figs. 8a and 86). Sanyu's selection of this work as the principal image of the Levy exhibition is testament to his high regard for the painting, and demonstrates its importance in the artist's oeuvre.
Unlike in Western culture, whose tradition of nude representation stretches back to antiquity, there exists no such genre in the long history of Chinese art. In 20th Century China, drawing from nude models was regarded as an act of rebellion. In 1917 Liu Haisu's use of nude models in his classes at the Shanghai Art School was lambasted by the conservatives, whilst an exhibition of nude drawings held in Nanchang by students of the Shanghai Art School in 1924 was banned by the military governor of Jiangxi.1 In China, depicting the naked body as aesthetic expression was strictly modern and completely borrowed. One can imagine that to the young Sanyu, who was not a traditionalist or conformist in his artistic endeavors, experiencing the vibrant, avant-garde Paris art scene firsthand must have been stimulating and liberating, particularly working with live models at La Grande Chaumiere.
Established in 1902, La Grande Chaumiere provided a counterpoint to the formal and rigid teaching of the Academic tradition by prioritizing the freedom of creative expression, including more avant-garde approaches to nude drawing. La Grande Chaumiere cultivated a number of famous Western artists such as Amedeo Modigliani and Alberto Giacometti, and it was in this environment that Sanyu developed a series of uniquely personal nude works. Whilst at La Grande Chaumiere, Sanyu lost no time capitalizing on the opportunity to expand his skills, evidenced in the proliferation of nude sketches made during his early years in Paris. He often turned to pencil to sketch the outline of the human form and then would use charcoal to fill in the skin texture and appearance of the figure. Sanyu also used brush , pen and ink for his work. From the graceful lines of these sketches his own unique observations of the body, expression and posture of the figure would emerge from the paper. The fundamental groundwork and exploration that Sanyu developed whilst at La Grande Chaumiere anticipated his commitment to a genre that would extend throughout his entire artistic career.
During the early years of the 20th century, many reformers of Chinese painting, Xu Beihong for one, advocated the mastery of pictorial verisimilitude as the only path to modernization. Xu's sketches demonstrate his staunch adherence to the centuries-old European tradition of academic realism. Ironically, in the early part of the twentieth century, European artists themselves were renouncing that tradition in favor of modern interpretations. Sanyu's conceptual and more abstract renditions, frowned upon by so-called reformers like Xu, were, in fact, more aligned with the European modernists. As such, Sanyu was the first Chinese artist who successfully forged his own unique language and style in the nude genre, asserting his position as an avant-garde pioneer in the canons of Chinese modern art during the first half of the last century.
Nu is a culmination of Sanyu's exploration and development of the nude genre. His earlier nudes of the 1920/30s typically show the subject in a position of peaceful, dreamlike repose. In these paintings, the use of tapestries or sheets help to create a spatial definition, incorporating a softer palette and texture to introduce decorative elements. As Sanyu' s style of nude painting matured, he focused instead on bold black lines to delineate the nude, the lines becoming as much the subject of his painting as the nudes themselves and conjuring both a Chinese seal character and a sculptural landscape. The pose in Nu is ingeniously constructed: the figure's raised right knee offers a vertical counterpoint to the horizontal layering that begins in the frontal plane with her splayed left leg, followed by the hilly curvatures of her two breasts, between which emerges her head, which is in turn supported by her left arm, which vertically counterbalances her raised right leg. His Nu is irrefutably the most important consummation of the development of Sanyu's depiction of the nude from literal and figurative to a sophisticated abstraction of form attained through structural and proportional balance and his signature curvilinear movement.
As Sanyu's last nude painting, Nu is a fitting conclusion to the innovative and creative spirit of Sanyu, who never lost sight of his Chinese sensibilities whilst navigating the highly charged and demanding energies of the European modernists into whose realm he was thrust.
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