A Blooming Spring in the Twilight of Life: Sanyu’s Autobiographical Masterpiece

Hong Kong | 7 October 2022

The flowers, nudes, and animals in Sanyu’s work all have strong autobiographical undertones, and in his later pieces, these subjects became more intensely emotional for him. Painted in March 1963, Branches is one of the few works by Sanyu with a clear date and one of his largest flower paintings. He had been immersed in the Parisian art world for many years, but it was around this time that his direction in life seemed to be shifting. In 1961, Sanyu was invited to design the exhibition catalogue for Zhang Daqian, who visited Paris for holding an exhibition; later in 1963, Guo Youshou, the Republic of China cultural attaché to France, invited Sanyu to attend a symposium for those who were studying abroad in France. At the invitation of Republic of China Minister of Education Huang Chi-lu, Sanyu was planning to travel to National Taiwan Normal University the following year, showing how much he was respected by later artists, including Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun and Lalan, and in Chinese artistic circles in France. After being abroad for so many years, he began to feel compelled to return to his roots, and this period laid the groundwork for his final artistic achievements, including remarkable pieces like Branches.

Considering the seasonal background and visual form of the flowers, Branches easily reminds of plum or peach blossoms that bloom between winter and spring. Because the flowers bud despite the frost and bloom in the snow, they have come to symbolise resolution and elegance in the Chinese tradition. The branches in Branches have buds waiting to open, and against this bright red background, the inky branches appear particularly noble and refined. In this painting, Sanyu articulated the resoluteness of his vision despite the turbulence and change in his life and the world around him, as well as his hope for an early spring after a long, dark winter.

Branches is fully documented in significant archival materials of the artist. The Andrea Frank Foundation has kept a crucial documentary filmed by Robert Frank, showing Rita Wong, editor of Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, in conversation with Yves Rapilly, the original owner of Sanyu’s Branches. Branches was exhibited at Taipei National Museum of History in 2001 and illustrated in two editions of Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings.

More from Sotheby's

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.