Modern art was born from the devastating fires of warfare. Sanyu’s life in Europe bookended the Second World War, as the artist first arrived in France in the 1920’s and experienced the intoxicating elegance of Paris in the two decades leading up to the great conflict. The tides of war would have a decisive impact on culture and in the aftermath, during the 1950s and 1960s, Sanyu’s life and art would also enter an entirely different stage. He recognized in these changing times the valuable opportunity to innovate in his work, turning the focus of his artistic explorations to the female nude. While it was a creative subject that he had already established earlier, it was at this time after World War II that he truly made a breakthrough, discovering a new and refreshed approach. Sanyu’s nudes and the artist’s place in modern art history have in recent years arisen as the subject of broad global discussion, especially after Sotheby’s Hong Kong set the new auction record when Nu went under the hammer for 198 million HKD in Autumn 2019. This season, Sotheby’s Hong Kong is delighted to offer Quatre nus (Lot 1024), a painting from the same period, which may be the most seductive of Sanyu’s nudes and a work that would surely perpetuate his mythos.
Four Beauties: A Trilogy of Epic Paintings
Sanyu was a member of the Parisian School, thriving in an extremely diverse post-war avant-garde scene. He created several group portraits of nude, including paintings that were unprecedented in size and landmarks in the art of his later years. Sanyu’s early paintings of nudes typically depicted single figures, while the paintings of nudes he made from the 1950s onward often featured groups, representing a departure in his style. Quatre nus sur un tapis d’or, a work Sanyu created around the same time for a solo exhibition at the National Museum of History in Taipei, featured four nude women. The number is used often in Chinese tradition because of its symbolism and significance. In addition to the seasons and cardinal directions, the number four also relates to the well-known stories of the Four Great Beauties.
Within Sanyu’s paintings of female nudes, Quatre nus stands out for its wonderfully vibrant image and the extraordinarily rigorous process through which this masterpiece was created. Quatre nus features four nude women in repose. Their postures and faces are all different, and they seem to be comfortably sunbathing on a verdant lawn in summer. The postures of the figures are better modelled than the four nude women lying horizontally in Quatre nus sur un tapis d’or. From early in his career, Sanyu was wont to make a second version of a composition he particularly valued, usually soon after he made the first, in order to achieve the highest expression of that composition. This version of Quatre nus reflects this tendency.
Around the time he painted Quatre nus, Sanyu also created Trois nus, which was a slightly smaller painting with a similar composition of three nude women, and a later Quatre nus (95.5 x 125 cm). Comparing Quatre nus to these two works shows that the composition of Trois nus employed more realist methods, so we can surmise that this was the earliest of the three. The background in Quatre nus (95.5 x 125 cm) is blank, focusing attention on the contours of the women’s limbs. This iteration of Quatre nus is a grand synthesis of Trois nus and Quatre nus (95.5 x 125 cm), striking a balance in the treatment of the setting between a concrete space and a void. The setting brings out the figures, and then leaves the viewer with a rich imaginative space. From this, we can surmise that, of all of the works Sanyu created over the course of his life, Quatre nus stands as the only masterwork that was part of a set of three completed oil paintings, which shows how much the artist valued Quatre nus.
Gorgeous Landscape: Subverting the Western Vision of the Nude
The female nude is a classic subject in Western art, but nudity was still a controversial subject in nineteenth-century Europe. It wasn’t until around the First World War that European society accepted public nudity, including sunbathing or swimming nude at the beach. Gradually, it became more common to adopt a kind of naturalism, which advocated allowing the body to come in direct contact with nature. A number of alluring film stars, like Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman (1956), appeared in films in various state of undress. Their daring performances caused a big stir and marked a new moment in society’s appreciation of the nude female form. The models’ postures in Sanyu’s Quatre nus reflect the shifting attitude as well as the influence of European and American women on presenting the human body more openly.
The nude women in Sanyu’s paintings are exaggerated and distorted. In the 1920s, the poet Xu Zhimo wrote in a letter that they had ‘the thighs of the universe,’ humorously conveying the full-bodied beauty of Sanyu’s nudes. A closer look at Quatre nus, however, would reveal that the models in the painting are tall, slender, and delicately curved, showing that the artist wanted to depict the health and sensuality of a woman’s body when stretched out. The magnificent emerald background allows the viewer to focus on the contented, overlapping bodies of these women, which are reminiscent of the sweeping mountain ranges of Chinese landscape paintings. Here, Sanyu presents the stunning qualities of both the female body and nature in equal measure. The picture is bursting with vitality and decidedly different from Sanyu’s early nudes in pastel colours.
The depiction of the nude body in Western art had, for several thousand years, relied on observation with the naked eye, following a scientific approach to modelling the human body. However, Sanyu outlined the nude female form in simple, freehand lines. He had little interest in representing the physical body in a realistic fashion. Instead, he went beyond the limitations of eyesight and expressed the spirit of Chinese landscape painting as well as his admiration and appreciation for the female figure. Depicting landscape has always been the highest pursuit of Eastern literati painting, and paintings of nude women were exceptionally rare in traditional Chinese art. This piece is surprising because Sanyu combined the two cultural sources, fusing Eastern and Western concepts of natural beauty in order to innovate a new stage in modern paintings of the female nude.
Sanyu viewed the female nude from an Eastern perspective. He did not simply present what he saw, but expressed what he felt. Beginning from a restrained perspective, the artist brought the nude body back to nature, melding the two into one. The unity of man and nature reflects Sanyu’s penetrating and unique view of the universe. The nudes in Sanyu’s paintings bear the impressions of Chinese landscapes, expressing his appreciation of female beauty, which in the artist’s view was eternal.
Magnificent Jade: Seeking Out the Eastern Abstract Spirit
Sanyu’s early works often give the impression of being enveloped in a gentle layer of pink. The colours of his later works became more intense. The reason for this change may have something to do with Sanyu’s work as a painter of imitation antiques in a Parisian furniture workshop in the 1950s. He was inspired by the Eastern craft aesthetic, so that the contours of the figures in his paintings reflect the simple lines and background compositions of traditional carved lacquer and the splendour of lacquer painting. Paris had many collections of art from Asia, and we can imagine that Sanyu, living so far from home, might have lingered in these exhibitions finding some nostalgic delight in these cultural treasures.
Sanyu added vigorous, beautiful dark green and brown to the painting with large brushstrokes. Such a simplified narrative space naturally reflects an Eastern freehand sensibility, and the layered arrangement of the colours is reminiscent of Mark Rothko and Abstract Expressionism. Although he depicted figures, Sanyu’s art was underpinned by a philosophy very similar to that of abstraction, stressing the expression of spirit and striving to touch the soul with colour. In Chinese traditional culture, green is emblematic of life. The colour conveys powerful concepts in traditional thought: a yearning for eternal spring, the incarnation of hope, the essence of life, and the pinnacle of beauty. The painting conjures life as the artist envisioned—boundless, vital, and spiritual. Sanyu reached a peak of aesthetic perfection during this period, following the image from his mind’s eye with brushwork that was natural and grounded in reality. Quatre nus is a top-tier masterpiece that manifests the transcendent life and beauty within Sanyu’s elevated spiritual world.
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