Excerpt from Charles Baudelaire, Le Spleen de Paris
In early twentieth-century Paris, a group of artists from different countries came together to form the École de Paris. One of the artists from China was Sanyu. The members of the École de Paris sought to expand beyond the boundaries of their own cultures, and embraced an innate appreciation of other cultures. In this context, Sanyu delved into his home culture in order to explore his own personal style. The École de Paris was like a mirror, often inspiring introspection in Sanyu and causing him to re-examine the unique traits of the Chinese aesthetic. The vases, the fruit, the lines, the spaces, and all manner of elements in his work were all tinged with nostalgia for his homeland.
When friends from Paris would share their recollections of Sanyu, they loved talking about this artist from Sichuan sitting alone in a cafe, who might be making a few sketches or who might be engrossed in his copy of Dream of the Red Chamber. Although he never said it explicitly, Sanyu knew that classic novel so well that he would sometimes include oblique references to text in his work, revealing its meaning only to like-minded literati.
In the late 1920s to the 1930s, Sanyu painted in oil on mirrors instead of canvases, and in choosing this unusual medium, he intentionally alluded to the mirrors in Dream of the Red Chamber. The magic mirror can peer into someone’s heart and distinguish good from bad. The front reflects the desire deep within the holder’s heart, sweet as nectar, and the reverse shows the truth that one is reluctant to confront. Those who become enamored of the image shown in the front of the mirror can make the vision a reality. Sanyu’s oil paintings on mirrors express this idea, as the image shown in the mirror is emblematic of the artist’s desires and pursuits. This season, Sotheby’s is offering two works from this series: Femme nue étendue (Lot 1022) and Panier de poires (Lot 1023).
The provenance of the two works is very clear. They were originally collected by Sanyu’s longtime friend and dealer Henri-Pierre Roché, and the pieces were noted in the record of his collection. Later, in the 1960s, the pieces were purchased by Jean-Claude Riedel, a Parisian art dealer and another important Sanyu collector. The pieces came into the current collector’s hands in the 1980s. This is the first time that these two works have been offered at auction in about 90 years, and now the world will have the chance to get a closer look, and explore the spiritual realm of Sanyu’s oil paintings on mirrors.
Femme nue étendue: A Beauty in the Mirror
Sanyu’s earliest nudes were sketches on paper from the 1920s and 1930s, but it was only after nearly a decade of experimentation that he began exploring the same themes in oil painting. Femme nue étendue is one of Sanyu’s earliest extant oil paintings featuring a nude. Sanyu had a well-known fascination of nudes, but he only painted one nude on a mirror, which makes this work particularly special.
Sanyu painted the nude woman in pink against a white background. The colors are sweet and romantic, creating an impression distinct from his later work Quatre nus (Lot 1024). Looking at the oil paintings that Sanyu created after this work, most of the nudes are viewed from the rear or side, conveying the artist’s sense of reservation. Very few of them are like Femme nue étendue, in which the reclining woman faces the viewer directly, revealing her chest, and the work reflects the artist’s frank desire. Unlike Sanyu’s more typical “one-eyed” nudes, this rare work faces the viewer directly, showing both eyes. The unique qualities of the medium may offer some explanation. The woman painted on the mirror symbolizes an unattainable fantasy, beguiling the viewer with her unreality. As a result, the freedom that Sanyu enjoyed in expressing the nude figure allowed him to set aside the psychological constraints of the Eastern literati and to construct a bolder and more direct scene.
The freehand, casual way of depicting the nude contrasts with the representational qualities of the patterned cloth behind the woman. Textiles were a classic element in Sanyu’s early oil paintings of nudes. In Femme nue étendue, Sanyu replaced ink lines with incised marks, delineating plump pomegranates and lifelike plants on the mirror. These Chinese elements have faintly sensual undertones, which form a surprising cultural collision with the Western subject of the nude. The pattern on the woven blanket creates a decorative visual effect and conveys Sanyu’s nostalgia.
Panier de poires: Pears Laden with Emotion
Sanyu left behind a dozen oil paintings on mirror, most of which are still-life works. Panier de poires is one of the more richly symbolic of these works. The background in Femme nue étendue is a thinly-applied cream color, emphasizing the permeability of the mirrored reflection. This is not the case with Panier de poires, which possesses a thickly painted background with a rectangle in the center of a mirror. Careful, neat planes are accompanied by precise colors with all the charms of geometric abstraction. A similar composition is also seen in Fruits, painted in the same year and offered by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2013, which evinces a Chinese lyrical spontaneity. The contours of the imagery are carefully etched in this densely-painted space, creating a solid texture. If the printed cloth in Femme nue étendue reflects Sanyu’s feelings of affection, then Panier de poires obviously reveals his longing for a Chinese aesthetic.
Sanyu’s painting depicts a basket of sweet, golden pears on a side table. There is plenty of interest to be found in this ordinary subject, which is part of the same lineage as the “ordinary and innocent” aesthetic spirit inherent in Chinese literati paintings. Ancient bronze mirrors are often carved with auspicious symbols, and Sanyu’s oil paintings on mirrors come from this tradition. Pears have auspicious meaning, symbolizing profit and internal sweetness. The coins that often appear in Sanyu’s work represent wealth and position, which works in concert with the wallet next to the basket. There is also a butterfly next to the fruit basket, which is a metaphor for a dream world. Sanyu enters the mirror as a dancing butterfly, blurring the boundaries between reality and fantasy. This may be a reference to Zhuangzi’s dream of the butterfly from “The Adjustment of Controversies.” It’s easy to imagine that Sanyu immersed himself in the role of the butterfly, inserting himself into an ancient literati mood.
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