As a rule, when we think of a beautiful still life painting, we might expect a realistic presentation, full of detail, with a strong visual resemblance to the subject as we see it. But Sanyu broke through these conventions: in his paintings, we typically don't see busy, complicated brushwork, profuse colors, or conventional compositions. In the Sanyu still life offered here, Roses in a White Vase (Bouquet de roses dans un vase blanc) (Lot 11), the artist has dispensed with trying to present all possible detail. In terms of decorative qualities, the porcelain vase filled with beautiful roses ought to be symmetrical; and in painterly terms, we might expect to see fresh, dewy stems and leaves. Further, it's likely that such a composition would include some sense of perspective, and that the colors would include the red of the roses and their green leaves. But Sanyu, as innately steeped in Eastern tradition as he was, did more than just break through the time-honored, classical aesthetics of the West with his unusual lines, colors, and composition. Even though his work reflects an Eastern, Daoist view of the still life, he also broke through Eastern conventions. Those conventions give utmost importance to the conception of a work and its atmosphere, while largely ignoring the sense of physical space. In this painting Sanyu transcended both Eastern and Western painting conventions, and it was this ability, among others, that has made him such an enduring figure in the world of international art.
Roses with Black Leaves; An Ink-Wash Vase
Sanyu completed Roses in a White Vase in 1931, a period during which he made broad use of the color pink throughout his works. Currently available records and published information allow us to trace Sanyu's earliest recorded oil work to 1929, by which time pink already figured prominently in his canvases and in all the different subjects he painted. A look at works from this period shows he composed them primarily in three or four colors, among which creamy white, ink-black, pink, and deep blue frequently appeared. Often, areas of a particular color with high value or brightness are contrasted with areas of lower value or brightness, and we can clearly see the artist's intent during this period to reduce colors to their lowest limits. Sanyu's palette, in Roses in a White Vase, is comprised only of creamy white, pink, and ink-black-colors that normally might serve instead as a foil to red roses and green leaves. Here, though, Sanyu reverses their roles: the red roses, freely painted in simple lines, seem secondary, almost a decorative accompaniment to the black leaves. Sanyu's style here, philosophically, seems to take traditional Eastern landscapes as its point of reference. However, it should be noted that Sanyu's use of these very low-value tones in the subtle areas of pink, actually runs contrary to the ink-wash conceptions of the ancient literati painters of the East, since he does not employ their flat compositional style. Taken as a whole, Sanyu's accomplishment in Roses in a White Vase constitutes nothing less than a sensational work of Western oil painting.
A Classical Literati Scene; Symbolic Images
If we remove the title of this work from consideration as we view it, the concrete images that meet the viewer's eye are circles, ovals, and other geometric motifs. Paul Cézanne, the father of modern painting, held the view that Line does not exist; light and shadow do not exist; the only thing that exists is the contrasts between colors. The mass and volume of objects is expressed by the correct mutual relationships between tones.' This thinking was illustrated in his use of geometric forms to convey the masses of objects, at the expense of correct depiction of their textures or shapes, and it was from this thinking that modern movements such as Cubism and Fauvism were developed and influenced. This scene with roses, as shaped by Sanyu, dispenses with correct textures and shapes, but further ignores volume and weight, and abandons accurate color. He does, however, make use of the color harmony between black ink and vermillion, as used in the signatures and inscriptions common to traditional Eastern ink-wash paintings. Those two colors, reflected in his pink shades and inky black tones, constitute the only symbolic imagery to be found in this canvas. These elements indicate how Sanyu went beyond both Eastern and Western painting traditions to create a new mode of expression, a modern blend of Eastern and Western painting. Borrowing from the Eastern literati painting tradition, the result conveys symbolic meaning in Western terms. Further, in Roses in a White Vase, things become allegories for feelings, and Sanyu projects through his painting the learned outlook of the literati of the past, in which 'a mountain is no longer just a mountain.'
In traditional Eastern culture, appreciation of still life paintings comes close to the notion, in Daoist philosophy, that 'the mind is the source of all things, and enlightenment the principle.' That is, the feelings we sense in our hearts should take precedence over detailed study and examination of the painting. Sanyu's roots were in Eastern culture, and his sensibility deeply cultivated by its influence; therefore he based the expressive techniques of his art on his inner reactions while observing all things around him. The primary uniqueness of Sanyu's use of pink, in Roses in a White Vase, lies in the way it breaks through any standardized style or pattern of Eastern painting. Further, by deliberately choosing to make pink central to his creative work, Sanyu created new styles and patterns. In the decade and more that followed, pink continued to be the basis for his explorations of space and the modeling of forms, and would help lead him towards the first great summit of his artistic career. That, as it turns out, was also the first step towards becoming a great master in the first generation of Chinese painters in the oil medium.
Roses in a White Vase (Bouquet de roses dans un vase blanc)
Oil on canvas
Signed in Chinese; signed 'SANYU' (upper right); signed and dated 'SANYU 10.4.1931' (on the reverse)
Sanyu , 20th Century, Paintings, canvas, oil, China, flowers & plants
ASIAN 20TH CENTURY & CONTEMPORARY ART
81 x 50 cm. (31 7/8 x 19 5/8 in.)
Antoine Chen, Overseas Chinese Fine Arts Series - Sanyu, Artist Publishing Company, Taipei, Taiwan, 1995 (illustrated, plate 50, p. 106).
Rita Wong, Yageo Foundation, and Lin & Keng Art Publications, Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, Taipei, Taiwan
Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris, France
Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris, France
Private Collection, Asia