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signed in pinyin and Chinese; signed in pinyin and dated 1931 on the reverse
executed in 1931.
IMPORTANT PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION — RECLINING NUDE BY SANYU
Although he lived most of his years in Paris, the work of modern master Sanyu, imbued with Chinese cultural sentiment and aesthetics of the East, has long found great resonance among Chinese collectors worldwide. Despite fleeting fame from his collaboration with the Paris collector and agent Henri-Pierre Roché (who later severed their working relationship) Sanyu's name was lost in the French artistic milieu for several decades. Eventually, thirty-eight years after his death, the Musée Guimet—one of the richest collections of Asian art in the world—gathered together prized possessions of international collectors and organized the 2004 exhibition "Sanyu: Language of the Body," sponsored and supported by Taiwan's Yageo Foundation. Nearly 100 pieces in this comprehensive solo exhibition—comprising sketches, oil paintings and sculptures—introduced Sanyu's brilliant and affective art to wider circles beyond the Chinese community. This was the largest retrospective of the artist's work in any major art museum. Being presented, albeit belatedly, in such a distinguished international venue was indisputable recognition of Sanyu's achievements. The current Reclining Nude (Lot 778) was one of the twenty-one representative classic "nude" oil canvasses featured in the 2004 exhibition. It is not only an important painting but also one highly representative of the artist.
Sanyu, a young man arriving in France at age 21, did not enrol in conventional art academies as the rest of the Chinese students but instead elected to paint freely in the open atmosphere of the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Just as the other students in the studio, Sanyu set up his easel and drew sketch after sketch of human figures. During this process, he fused Asian aesthetics with European modernism, formulating his own distinct artistic language and creating a unique, carefree perspective. From that point on, the human form became Sanyu's most beloved subject.
In Reclining Nude, Sanyu applied smooth but controlled brushstrokes to outline a pink human figure. We can detect from the continuous, innate power of his lines a strong grounding in Chinese calligraphy. As if in peaceful slumber, with her back to the viewer, the nude lies atop a yellow blanket bearing auspicious Chinese symbols: characters such as wan (meaning "ten thousand," therefore signifying prosperity) and shou (longevity), as well as ancient coins. Although this nude might appear alone, she has the aura to entice the viewer to enter her tranquil dreamscape. Sanyu presents to us an embodiment of reserved beauty, fully in line with Chinese sensibilities.1 Yet the simple colours and the composition—seemingly empty but fraught with significance—further accentuated his unique Asian appeal and daring assurance. Just as his friend John Franco claimed, "He knows how to depict the essence and often the humour of things with astonishingly little means." 2
In 1928, Sanyu married Marcelle Charlotte Guyot de la Hardrouyère, whom he had met at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. The joy of this marriage ushered in his noted "Pink Phase", and the pink woman in Reclining Nude bears testament to the romance and charm surrounding the artist's life at that time.
The depiction of nudes in Western art history can be traced from the ancient Greeks all the way to modern masters Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Artists have continuously forged new paths in drawing nudes because of their distinctively natural appeal. A lonely Chinese struggling in Paris, Sanyu created nudes that were epoch-making. Looking back at the beginning of the 20th century, at a time when China was just beginning to modernize, no Chinese painter could rival Sanyu in transcending the subject of nudes with such natural flair. In fact, Sanyu was truly exceptional in his artistic vision. Instead of drawing the front of a nude, which is immediately arresting to any viewer, he only offered us her back, striking at our hearts with simple, curvaceous lines.
Sanyu's output of back-facing nudes began with the 1929 Nude Lying and continued throughout the 1940s and 1960s. Such works as Nude Lying and Nude under the Moon attest to the artist's preference for and attempts to perfect this viewpoint. Fauvist Henri Matisse's Reclining Nude (1927) deftly employed the master's trademark bright colours and complex decorative backgrounds, creating a female figure that is distinctly exotic. Parisian artists of the time—Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Kees van Dongen, Moise Kisling—also created nude paintings, where alluring bodily curves became part of the composition, inventing new idioms that closely matched the Zeitgeist. Let us reexamine how Sanyu explored the body in Reclining Nude: his minimalistic composition and inherent Eastern sensibilities imbued the figure with a sense of mystery; the bright yellow background catches the eye, generating a rush of energy that fills the senses. As a member of the École de Paris, Sanyu was not only nurtured by Paris and its artistic atmosphere but also left an indelible mark on the group. He injected new possibilities into a subject that had become run of the mill in the West. Through these, he established his own artistic imprint.
Sanyu's nude paintings have garnered praise from many corners. Zao Wou-Ki once said, "These large brush strokes, these broad black contours enhance his desire for voluptuous forms. He shows everything with the brushstrokes and the contrast of colours; his most beautiful works are the barest ones." 3 According to the research of Antonie Chen, there are no more than ten of Sanyu's nudes from the 1930s extant.4 Because of the limited number of Sanyu paintings in the market, his works have set record after record in art auctions in Chinese markets. Sotheby's is fortunate to have procured Reclining Nude, which has resided in an important European private collection for many years. This is a rare opportunity for collectors and art lovers in Asia and beyond to appreciate a representative sample of Sanyu's nudes. Reclining Nude allows us to empathize with the artist's lifelong pursuit of this subject, and to experience Sanyu's determination and conviction in face of challenge.
 Rita Wong, ed., Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonne Oil Paintings, Yageo Foundation/Lin & Ken Art Publications, 2001, p. 56.
 Ibid., p. 48
 Philippe Koutouzis, ed., Sanyu: Language of the Body, Skira, Milan, 2004, p. 105
 Antoine Chen, ed., Overseas Chinese Fine Arts Series-SANYU, Artist Publishing Co., Taipei, 1995, p. 47
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