Sanyu’s Horse Grazing
Innermost Thoughts Alone in the Desert
The world’s most prominent painters of the 20th century gathered in Paris’s Montparnasse. They happily lived a simple life and only cared for pursuing the heights of artistic creativity. After experiencing the ravages of World War II and exploring the art world of New York for a short time, Sanyu once again returned to Paris in the 1950s. As he was entering the prime of life, his wisdom and skills matured. Horse Grazing is one of the wonderful works of his “Animal Series.” It has the same self-narrative nature as his flower paintings, and it shows much more development and intuition than his earlier works. Through the combination of lines, colors, and space, he created a profound representation of his personal realm of thoughts.
Time Washes Away the Hero, a Self Portrait
Sanyu personally felt that horses are imbued with profound emotional elements. The artist’s inspiration and teacher was his father Chang Shufang, who was well-known in their hometown of Nanchong for his paintings of horses. Also, Sanyu’s pet name for his wife Ma Su (Marcelle Charlotte Guyot de la Hardrouyere) was “Ma” (“horse” in Chinese). Even though they divorced after three short years of marriage, they always kept in close touch with each other afterwards. Therefore, the horse became the theme most commonly seen in the “Animal” Series of paintings by Sanyu. He painted horses in all their various poses, perhaps taking a drink, perhaps neighing, perhaps galloping, or perhaps pacing, but always drawing out their true nature. The painter may also have been reminiscing about old friends and portraying feelings of sorrow using a broad palette of artistic emotions. That is why Horse Grazing can be seen as the projection of the artist’s own feelings for those that have left him.
The Tempering of Time, Cultivating an Image
In addition to the allusion, Horse Grazing also displays all the creative gifts that Sanyu had built up over more than 30 years. His most famous artworks, the “Animal Series” of paintings started out in the 1930s and makes use of the colors of Fauvism, the lines of calligraphy, and the empty spaces of Chinese painting. Due to his relationship with Xu Beihong and his wife, Sanyu stayed in Berlin for two years starting in 1921. At that time, the German expressionist painter Franz Marc had completed many paintings of wild horses, fierce tigers, and reindeers in wild landscapes with intense colors. Xu Beihong also painted many lions in the zoo, which indirectly influenced the “Animal Series” of Sanyu.
Sanyu and Xu Beihong were in the first generation of Chinese artists to live in France, and they were both members of the “Heavenly Dog Society”. Though the two artists quit their association with other later, they still reflected each other in the use of horses as the subjects of their paintings. The horses of Xu Beihong’s ink paintings were magnificent steeds that galloped in all directions but that were under control in a certain sense. In contrast, the horses of Sanyu were unbridled and proud, thriving in nature and roaming the deserts, untamable by any hand as they traveled between heaven and earth. Therefore, there were vast differences in the horses painted by Xu and Sanyu, just like how they had different ambitions for their careers. The small white horse in Horse Grazing makes the viewer feel like they are looking at a real-life picture taken by Sanyu in the 1950s.
Sanyu maintains the use of stark brush strokes full of integrity in his paintings of horses, placing emphasis on capturing the natural state of the animal. This also carries on from the essential forms in his nudes, using the techniques of deformation and exaggeration, giving prominence to the exploration of the true form, the pursuit of texture, and the artistic vocabulary. As World War II erupted, Parisentered an unusual period after Francefell. In a time of scarce resources, painting supplies became very hard to come by, so Sanyu switched over to working with stone sculpture in the 1940s. These sculptures were mainly in the form of animals with sleek and smooth bodies somewhere between plump and thin. This allowed Sanyu’s animals to jump from the canvas to now become three-dimensional. It also gave his later paintings of animals a more sculpture-like spirit. The small white horse in Horse Grazing strikes the eye of the viewer as being all white, but it actually has some brown spots. Compared to the horse sculptures created by Sanyu in the 1940s, the places where the spots are located are very similar, and the sense of dynamism is basically the same. In Sanyu’s later period in Paris, he often visited the zoo and made detailed observations over long periods of time as the basis for creating art featuring his favorite theme, alternating between sculpture and oil painting.
Han Gan of the Tang Dynasty was famed for his horse paintings. Emperor Xuanzong of Tang once said, “Of all the horses in my palace, this painter’s horses are the finest” (On Famous Paintings of the Tang Period). Giuseppe Castiglione of the Qing Dynasty was famous for his Hundred Horses, and he similarly enjoyed observing the war horses raised at Emperor Yongzheng’s Minister of Horse Breeding. The horse is a subject that Chinese painters have always enjoyed depicting, but the horse itself is not an animal that a painter ordinarily has contact with in daily life. Therefore, the phenomenon of horses in paintings usually either being in action or rigidly still is especially noticeable, especially in view of the overall series of works. If we compare the horses of Sanyu and the horses of Lang Shining, although the two artists have diametrically opposite styles, they have very much in common in terms of representing the lively essence of the horse. This shows that Sanyu’s achievements in painting the horse are benefited by profound real-life observation. In terms of the development of the overall series, the animal images definitely passed through the process of “real life observation, oil painting, sculpture, and then oil painting again.” Only through the repeated tempering of the skills of observation and painting could such a complete and life-filled image of a horse as in Horse Grazing be created.
Boundless Vastness, Feelings of a Wanderer in the Desert
Horse Grazing places the horse in the middle of a vast sea of grass, as if composing the personal landscape in the artist’s heart. The horse is an animal that grazes in groups, so in real life it is rare to see a solitary horse in the wilderness. This boundless space in the painting is the spiritual home of the artist, and it is his lost home that he longs for, allowing him to interpret his true feeling through the wild horse. Therefore, the wild horse in the painting is full of the artist’s subjective feelings. If we look at the rest of the painting without regarding the horse, it truly is a purely abstract work. In Sanyu’s early period, he made many friends in the art world, with artists such as China’s Xu Zhimo and Xu Beihong or France’s Henri-Pierre Roché and Max Jacob, who all showered him with praises. When creating Horse Grazing, he left the presence of these comrades in art and spent time with up and coming Chinese artists such as Wu Guanzhong, Zao Wou-Ki, Lalan, and Chu Teh-Chun. The emotional lessons of his life began to show up more clearly in his artworks, and the grassland where the little white horse grazes contains all the upheavals he had experienced through the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the rise of the Republic, the tumultuous times of the May Fourth Movement, the two wars, and the upheavals of artistic trends. Only those of Sanyu’s generation have truly lived through such historic times. At that time in Paris, there was probably only one Chinese artist there who had been through so much, and that was Sanyu. That explains why his artworks display a world expressing, “Before me, where have all the sages of yore gone? Behind me, where are their successors? O Heaven and Earth, how boundless and without end!” (Chen Zi’ang of the Tang Dynasty: Song on Ascending the Youzhou Terrace).
Fan Kuan of the Northern Song Dynasty pointed out, “It’s better to learn from Nature than from ancient masters; it’s even better to learn from the source of the heart than from Nature.” If we say that Horse Grazing portrays the lively spirit of a small white horse, then it comes from real-life observation of “Nature”, while the abstract wilderness of the paintings is a projection of the “source of the heart.” The fusion of the colors of the sky, land, water, and grass display a symbolic landscape, which is none other than the landscape of the artist’s heart that has been formed over time. The painting’s composition clearly displays the simplicity of Chinese printmaking art, and it also has the powerful outlines of paper collages. The artist did work in a lacquerware studio for a time, and we can see that he absorbed some of the nutrients of folk art. His bold use of color does contain rich elements of Chinese folk culture. In clear contrast to his early works, the basics of Chinese painting and the color separation of ink painting that he had long been cultivating finally received full development here: The large swath of green color for the grassland reveals minutely layered changes of thickness like grass blowing in the wind, creating a floating spatial effect. This accentuates the surrealism. Meanwhile, the horizontal swaths of white lines and segments not only seem to originate from the “empty spaces” concept of Chinese painting that he strived to incorporate into oil painting earlier in his career, but in a clear change from his “Flowers” series, the antler-shaped branches have a very Oriental essence, resembling mists and clouds, flowing streams, sand bars, or the horizon. This approach expands the breadth of the painting and also uses the highly symbolic background composition to make the artwork roam between being representational and being abstract in a kind of expressionist or surrealist style.