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

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents -

One of the mas­ters of Chi­nese mod­ern art re­mained ob­scure for decades af­ter his death, but now his work is pur­sued by col­lec­tors world­wide. 204 E-com­merce en­tre­pre­neur Tale­nia Phua Ga­jardo is rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing the way peo­ple col­lect con­tem­po­rary art with The Artling. 206 Bri­tish con­cep­tual artist Michael Craig­martin, known for trans­form­ing ev­ery­day ob­jects into chal­leng­ing mas­ter­pieces, dis­cusses his in­stal­la­tion at The Penin­sula. 208 A ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion pro­vides in­sight into the late Zaha Ha­did’s cre­ative process. 212 Klaus Biesen­bach, of New York’s MOMA PS1, on the dig­i­tal art show he and the K11 Art Foun­da­tion are bring­ing to Art Basel. 214 The go-to gallery for Rus­sian avant-garde art, Ga­lerie Gmurzyn­ska adds Christo to the mix for Art Basel

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.”


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.

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