One of the masters of Chinese modern art remained obscure for decades after his death, but now his work is pursued by collectors worldwide and he’s the subject of a major retrospective. Marianna Cerini discovers the work of Sanyu
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When he died in his Paris apartment in 1966, the victim of a gas leak, the Sichuanborn painter Sanyu was virtually unknown and, as with so many creative wunderkinds before him, poor and alone. He could have been just a footnote in art history, but today he is hailed as the Chinese Matisse and considered one of the most relevant early leaders of Chinese modern art. His works are keenly sought by collectors around the world and command prices that run well into the millions of dollars.
At a May 2015 sale at Christie’s Hong Kong, Chrysanthemum in a Glass Vase, one of his rare “blue” oil paintings from the 1950s, sold for HK$81.9 million, making him one of the most expensive Chinese artists of the year. At a Christie’s sale a few months later, his Vase of Chrysanthemums on a Yellow Table fetched HK$46 million.
These are remarkable figures for an artist who lay forgotten until the late 1980s, when Taiwanese art dealers rediscovered his work. But they’re “not surprising,” says Pauline Kao, deputy director general of Taipei’s National Museum of History. “Sanyu’s work is truly distinctive. There’s nothing quite like it.” The institution is staging a retrospective of his work—parisian Nostalgia: The National Museum of History’s Sanyu Collection— which opens this month.
Born in Sichuan in 1901, Sanyu was among the first generation of Chinese artists to study in France, moving to Paris at the height of its artistically prolific 1920s. The painter was captivated by the French capital, and the style of his work reflects this. All his still lifes, figure paintings and landscapes show a fluidity of draughtsmanship and use of colour typical of European post-impressionism, as well as influences from the art nouveau movement and the different artistic communities defining Parisian life of the time.
“Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Xu Beihong or Lin Fengmian, Sanyu fully embraced his French life,” Kao says. “He used to spend his days in cafes and brasseries, drawing and fully absorbing his surroundings. While other Chinese artists returned to China to establish art schools, he stayed in Paris. His work was fully part of the city’s avantgarde.” But Sanyu’s aesthetic also remained intrinsically Chinese.
Having studied calligraphy as a child, the artist often employed the dry brushstrokes of traditional Chinese landscape painting to add texture and impact to his nudes and human forms. Although they depict Western subjects, his works are enriched with elements of Eastern style, such as auspicious symbols and folk motifs, expressive calligraphic lines and oriental details.
It is this fusion of European modernism and Chinese flair that underlies much of his work’s unique appeal. “Sanyu escapes categorisations,” says Kao. “He’s neither East nor West—or perhaps, more aptly, he’s both. His aesthetic has made him stand out, yet it has also challenged any attempt to define his technique and intent as one thing or the other.”
“SANYU WAS IN A LEAGUE OF HIS OWN ... A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD”
The Taipei exhibition presents 52 pieces that have never appeared together in public. It is the first solo retrospective of the artist since an exhibition at the Guimet Museum in Paris in 2004. In staging the exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of Sanyu’s death, Kao says the museum aims to make his art more widely known to the general public. “Sanyu was in a league of his own,” she says. “He was a Chinese bohemian, a citizen of the world. Legacies like his are hard to come by.”
‘Two Nudes on a red Tapestry’ Sanyu had a predilection for portraying nudes from behind. “He wished to demonstrate the beauty of the unspoken and the alluring eroticism of the unexposed,” says Pauline Kao, deputy director general of the National Museum of History in Taipei.
In employing traditional Chinese motifs like the lotus, Sanyu maintained a connection with his distant homeland.
‘Nude’ The sweeping lines employed by Sanyu in drawing and painting the female form embue the works with a simple, seductively beauty.
In most of Sanyu’s paintings of flowers and plants, the foliage and blooms form exquisite shapes and are brimming with life.