Blue Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase and Pink Lotus (Lot 2010) display two very different artistic visions of the same artist, like two peaks of a mountain looking over each other - if the former represents Sanyu's Western-modernist line of thoughts, the latter characterizes his inheritance of the Chinese traditional way of expression and Zen aesthetics. In Blue Chrysanthemums the knotty lattice structure shaped by the intertwining lines is analogous to with Piet Mondrain's abstract structuralism and anticipates the aritst's intricate, vibrant style in the 1950s, while in Pink Lotus we observe a minimalist charm, a kind of aesthetics that rests on "simplicity", which evokes the spiritual aura of Chinese culture by virtue of the plain, pithy lines, configuration and composition. With its Zen aesthetical connections, Pink Lotus embraces the more pristine and introverted temperament of the East.
The Spare Style and its Undertones of Zen Philosophy
In Pink Lotus the centerpiece is depicted by lines in the simplest form, and the picture as a whole communicates to us a "sedate, solitary, simple and spare" experience. Its expression alludes strongly to the Zen philosophy, which is ascribed to the idea that the truth and the Buddha-nature are beyond articulation. With this notion the Chinese Zen develops a unique approach of representation: "to convey without words, to transmit outside of scriptures, to point towards the human mind, and to achieve Buddhahood by seeing into one's nature" - that is, a mode of expression unhampered by doctrines, and one that seeks to translate the substance of spirits in the most succinct way possible. The same belief is found in the theory of poetry, notably Sikong Tu's "conceiving the aureole of immanent truth by transporting out of physical phenomena" . Such an ethos is neatly illustrated by Sanyu in Pink Lotus. In a thoroughly economical and concise visual language, the work employs only lines to define its subjects and establish in them a stable, balanced structure. The flowers in blossom are simplified into six refined strokes, which render not the realistic shape of the lotus but its graceful and reticent posture contained in a quiet and poised ambience. The very tender colors of milk white and pink seem taciturn and cultured, transposing our mind into a state of tranquility and detachment, and the mood so conceived is very oriental in nature, both elegant and noble, sophisticated and ethereal. Such way of expression smacks of the Zen principle of simplicity, which urges us to go beyond the outward form and explore the inward nature of things, through which we can root out the regularity and variation of our spiritual world.
Like traditional freehand flower-and-bird painting, a "boneless" style is used on the petals. Pigments on the lotus leaves disperse like ink wash, and the liberal brushstroke, though spare, manifests a wide variation of colors. Its coloring effect is comparable with the technique of "Mo Fen Wu Se", literally "one ink renders five colors", a method of coloring unique to the Chinese ink-wash art. It conveys a nimble, liberal and individualistic impression, which looks unremarkable in a glance but contains subliminal meanings deep down. It is, in this regard, subtly different form Blue Chrysanthemums, which features a virbrant and dense coloring effect akin to Western art. By depositing diverse shades into the flowing, twisting lines, Pink Lotus envisions the aesthetic ideal of Chinese painting and calligraphy. It is the visualization of beauty, as well as the artist's sentiment, mood, strength and vigour, with the pure use of lines and ink-like viscosity.
The large patch of blank space and the consistent application of pastel colors also demonstrate the Zen notions of "emptiness" and "ethereality". Blank space is by nature the reduction of redundancy, a mininalist element that captures the essence, the "backbone". Sanyu had described to his friend, Dahan, that his artistic quest is a kind of "simplification upon simplification", and it is the sedimentation of the pith and the filtration of the shape that leave the most refined element on the canvas, which expresses the richest of inner being through the sparest of outer form. Sanyu's purification surmounts the objective reproduction or imitation of subjects; instead, it lays stress on the expressiveness of colors and emanates a powerful but unutterable emotion, mentality, atmosphere, savor and wisdom, which echo with the Zen ideal that "one is many", and that "scant materiality means abundant spirituality".
The Air of Oils and the Aura of Ink-wash
Eastern lines are the primary constituents of the work's motif, but the gist of Western structuralism is still to be found beneath the extreme purification of forms. The simplest components of still-lives are point, line and plane; in Pink Lotus, the stems are represented by vertical, supple lines, which seem to be growing from below, holding sway over the whole canvas and coordinating the focus of the work, whereas the flowerpot and the lotus seedpods are in geometric round shapes, depicted by smooth, flowing lines. Here the connotations of vertical lines are shrewdly manipulated as the shaping force of the sentimental, concrete and perceptible still lives. Likewise, the artist puts to use the pink desktop, a quotidian object, to reveal the weight of horizontal lines. In the background we observe the contrast between pastel white and pink, which embodies both the notions of the Chinese "blank space" and the Western expressionistic colors of, say, Mark Rothko. While Sanyu, like his Western counterparts, takes up abstraction and expressionism, his exploration is compounded with the still life theme, hence distinctly steered. AlexanderCalder, for example, is in like manner extremely pure in expression, and his exclusive use of color and line extricates his works from any description, story, modeling and narrative; the expression of Sanyu, on the other hand, is carried through by flowers, a material medium, which illustrate the abstract beauty of lines and colors without being dull, tedious or overtly theoretical. It brings us back to the narrative framework and the cultural context of Chinese literati painting. Sanyu's representation, in other words, travels freely between the two disparate systems of art - the Western art of colors and the Eastern art of calligraphy and painting. His simplistic lines and composition exude not only the whiff of abstract beauty but also the Zen vision of ethereality and harmony. The creations of Sanyu, in precis, embodies "the air of oils and the aura of ink wash", assimilating the logic and intent of Western modern art into Eastern aesthetic elements, which bathes the work with the idiosyncratic tenor of Chinese art.
The Eastern Art of Lines
The way Sanyu uses lines is similar to that of L?onard Tsuguharu Foujita, an eminent Japanese artist also based in Paris. While both of them are inhabitants of Western art circles, they happen to have hinged their creative endeavors on the use of lines, an element that corresponds to core Eastern aesthetic notions. It would become a distinctive attribute of modern Asian art that gives rise to a new wave of artistic development. Pang Xunqin, for example, was considerably influenced and inspired by Sanyu; upon his return from France in the 1940s, Pang created the "People of Guizhou" series and the "Ribbon Dance" series, in which tenuous, supple lines are employed to outline the Guizhou ethnic costumes and their embroidery. Lines are always taken to be the principal constituent of beauty in the Chinese artistic tradition. In painting, the many portraits of courtly ladies appeared after the Han and Tang dynasties invariably feature delicate, flowing lines, a style that was later dubbed the "spring silkworm spinning silk" or the "elegant flowing silk" style. In calligraphy, the variety of scripts - seal character, regular script and cursive script - stand in fact as the variety of lines and brushstroke, so that each of these style, when applied to write the same character, appeal to the eyes in different ways. Fine and plain line drawing is also fundamental to the Japanese Ukiyoe. All these have to do with the expressive power of lines. Sanyu, like Foujita and Pang, draws breath from such an oriental style, his adaptation has attained a level of sophistication and diversity not to be matched elsewhere, as reflected in his works. Paris in the 1930s saw the latest development of Western modern art, with Picasso and Matisse being the premiers. For them, the portrayal of an object means the visualization of volume and texture, and to depict the different facets of the object they bring in dense geometric color blocks and flat layering technique, infusing their cubist spirits into the processes of deconstruction and reconstruction. In Pink Lotus, too, Sanyu enshrouds the canvas with color blocks, but he shapes his subject with lines and lines only, in particular those that are refined and remarkably rich in variation and rhythm. Here lines are used as the elements of abstract expression, spatial composition and sentimental revelation, and it is in this way that the artist highlights their creative power. What Sanyu represents is an Eastern aesthetical perspective, a possibility of depiction and composition over and above mainstream Western art.
The Spirit of Chinese Poetry in View
Sanyu does not create his flowers to correspond to the external, objective world; instead, he uses the theme to reproduce the ethos of Chinese literati and the aura of Chinese poetry. The lotus has always been a symbolic imagery in the Chinese literature. It is the most virtuous of flowers, representative of the ideal human disposition: "comes out of the mire earth, yet not defiled; cleansed by the pure ripples, but never flirty" (Zhou Dunyi of the Song dynasty, Ode to Lotus). In the Aristocracy of Beauty, too, lotus is singled out as the "jun zi" (a gentleman of noble character) of the flower world: "everything blossoms before it fruits, but lotus, unique as it is, blossoms and fruits at one and the same time. Its parts are bound by cavities, and its lithe complexity betokens elegance. It grows in mud, yet remains unstained. It is the flower of the noble character." The analogy is not limited to men; Cao Xueqin, for instance, compared lotus to Lin Daiyu, his most dignified and poised heroine. For hundreds of years Chinese poets have accorded all these observations and imaginations to lotus, making it the ideal symbol of men and women of honor. Sanyu, following this lineage, reproduces the charm of lotus, but with the medium of oils. The lines he roughs out are embedded with the cultivated, elegant and aloof temperament of the lotus, and the various tinges of pastel white and pink mirror the flower's suppleness and tenderness, as well as the poetic effect traditionally associated with it in Chinese literature.
Flower painting is a paradigm of the Chinese "fine brushwork", as distinct from the "freehand brushwork". Sanyu draws on this tradition, though he is never regulated: he "modernized" its form, affording it a Western expressionistic style. Such an endeavor induces an unprecedented transformation of the traditional praxis - colors are purified, lines extended, and the work is given a more refined quality. It is a reformation, and in fact recreation, of the traditional flower paintings, so much so that the wonton flamboyance and intricacy of decorative art give way to the elegant and reticent character typical of literati painting. The six lotus flowers rise stately from the pot without interlacing. The buds are distantly placed, and as they scatter over the canvas we are directed to change focus all the time, moving our eyes, and so our mind, in rhythm. It inclines towards the cavalier perspective common to traditional art, in particular landscapes. The lines and brushwork, moreover, are reminiscent of the calligraphic aesthetics. Being a student of Zhao Xi (1877-1938), a Confucian scholar, Sanyu is well versed in calligraphy and literature; his understanding of the traditional culture has found a place in his creation of Western painting. Pink Lotus, in essence, is a synthesis of different forms of art: it embraces the theme of flower painting, the composition of landscapes, the delicate brushwork of calligraphic art, the aura of Chinese poetry, and, what is more, the minimalist, simplistic undertone of Chinese Zen. In every way it represents the integration of almost all the distinctions of Chinese culture.
Oil on masonite
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT ASIAN COLLECTION
Sanyu , 20th Century, Paintings, board/panel, oil, China, Modern, flowers & plants
ASIAN 20TH CENTURY & CONTEMPORARY ART
128 x 80 cm. (50 1/3 x 31 1/2 in.)
Rita Wong (ed.), Yageo Foundation, and Lin & Keng Art Publications, Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, Taipei, Taiwan, 2001 (illustrated, plate 173, p. 290).
Rita Wong (ed.), The Li Ching Cultural and Education Foundation, Sanyu - Catalogue Raisonné Oil Paintings - Volume Two, Taipei, Taiwan, 2011 (illustrated, plate 173, p. 136).
Chang Yi-An, New York, USA
Sotheby's Taipei, 20 October 1995, Lot 32
Yageo Collection, Taiwan
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8 April 2006, Lot 612
Acquired from the above by the present owner