Painted in 1931 oil on canvas 100 x 70.6 cm. (39 1/4 x 27 3/4 in.) signed in Chinese; signed and dated 'SANYU 1931' (lower right)
Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris, France (inventory number 100)
Yvonne Vierne, Paris, France
Christie's Hong Kong, 31 October 2004, Lot 659
Christie's Hong Kong, 26 November 2011, Lot 1007
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner
Sanyu Catalogue Raisonne Oil Paintings (II), The Li-Ching Cultural and Educational Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan, 2011 (illustrated, plate 271, p. 78).
HKD 40,000,000 - 60,000,000 USD 0 - 0
HKD 55,460,000 USD 0
Chrysanthemums in Full Bloom—A Key Work from Sanyu's “Pink Period”
The still-life genre was one that occupied Sanyu for at least four decades of his creative career. He loved most painting chrysanthemums in a vase, returning often to this theme in his many painted odes to that flower. He also wrote a poem, “The poet admires the autumn chrysanthemum's beauty; the scholar toasts it with his glass of wine,” reflecting the deep meanings it had acquired for him in the creative process. In the majority of such works Sanyu depicted just a single chrysanthemum, or a small number of blooms together. Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase, (Lot 133) however, is notable not only for its dimensions, the largest of any of his early chrysanthemum paintings, but also for its depiction of a dozen or more chrysanthemums in full bloom, among the most to appear in any of this artist's works. Pointing to a determination to push beyond his limits, Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase represents a summation, in a fully mature achievement, of Sanyu's work in the still-life genre during the 1930s.
Adding the year of creation to a painting, as he did when signing Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase, was rare for Sanyu. Based on currently available records and publications, the earliest extant Sanyu painting bearing a date is from 1929. Later in his career, even as late as 1965, we still find occasional dated paintings, but the number of works bearing dates from 1929 and 1931 far exceed those of any other years. From this we can infer the importance of those years in Sanyu's career. It was in 1929 that Sanyu made the acquaintance of French author and collector Henri-Pierre Roché, who then acted as Sanyu's agent in promoting his work. Their cooperation ended in 1932, but by 1931 Sanyu had already met the composer Johan Franco, who became not only a good friend but a patron as well, and supported Sanyu in many different ways. It was also at this time that Sanyu was invited to mount a solo gallery show. Elated with his early successes and feeling optimistic, a great many of Sanyu's paintings from this period featured palettes of mostly pink tones, into which he projected his aspirations and his hopefulness about life.
A Testament to Friendships in the Parisian Literary World
Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase resided in the collection of Mrs. Yvonne Vierne for over 70 years. This came about, first, as a result of Roché making her acquaintance at the end of 1921. At that time Vierne managed a bookstore with the name La Porte Étroite with a friend on rue Bonaparte in Paris, which, because it specialized in artistic publications and commentary, quickly became a favourite haunt of numerous well-known art critics and collectors. Those included André Gide, Maurice Sachs, and Roché, who during the 1925-28 period, had their writings independently published through the bookstore. Because of his relationship with the bookstore, Roché became a good friend of Mrs. Vierne, and in the prefaces of his published works often expressed his gratitude to her. His enthusiasm for and understanding of Sanyu's art influenced his friends too, and for Roché, the representative subject of Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase and its unusual scale made it suitable as an expression of gratitude and friendship, and he gave it to Vierne as a keepsake. Once she received it, it remained in the family collection and only appeared on the market for the first time in 2004. Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase is a symbol of rich relationships and friendships in 1930s Paris, and is also the finest example of how much appreciation Western collectors felt for important representative works by Sanyu early in his career.
Breakthroughs in Visual Experience and Multi-layered Spaces
The flower and vase subject of Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase appears in the center of Sanyu's pictorial space, where he breaks with realistic three-dimensional presentations by reconfiguring and reorganizing the spatial presentation. While the background appears to be pure white, subtle shades of blue emerge from its thick layers of pigment, which together with the bands of light pink at the sides, echo the hues of the chrysanthemums at the center. Sanyu brings together traditional Chinese aesthetics and the spatial presentation of Western still-lifes, creating a new twist in the concept of “empty space.” Following the development of modernist painting in the 20th century, the Post-Impressionists and Cubists broke with the long-standing pursuit of three-dimensional spatial depth, never hesitating to warp or flatten space in their effort to reduce the illusory depth within their paintings. In Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase, Sanyu's complex and unique painting techniques express depth along the vertical dimension of this perpendicular canvas. Sanyu first applied an underpainting in blue on the canvas ground and allowed it to dry, after which he painted the chrysanthemums in pink. Then, in the still-wet pink pigments, he scraped out the lines of their overlapping petals. These robust lines reveal both pink and indigo blue, and the resulting textures standing out from the flat canvas, bringing a revolutionary new kind of breakthrough in visual experience.
The curtains of pink at each side were a compositional element Sanyu often employed. Here, they serve as spatial partition and screen, and define the relationship between front and back layers. As Ji Cheng, a landscape gardener of the Ming dynasty said in his The Cultivation of Gardens, “It is appropriate to borrow an excellent view from another, when you have a line of sight with no barrier. Even the sight of a few flowers in a neighbouring garden creates a touching scene that adds great freshness.” The blocking curtains here indicate that we are not seeing the entire scene, yet because they are not clearly outlined against the background, both their presence and the degree to which they shield our view are somewhat vague. With the fall of these curtains from the top, however, solid form mixes and mingles with empty space; we cannot distinguish the distances between tabletop, background, flowers and vase, and curtains, or which is in front or behind the other. The flowers and the surrounding space thus interweave to create lines of motion for our eyes to follow at different levels. The painting's subject and its spaces flow into each other, interweaving to produce a visual pull between different layers. This resonates with Sanyu's linear depiction of the white vase, which gives the impression of having been outlined with just one brushstroke. The varying density of its outlines suggests the contrasts of darker and brighter areas due to the lighting, but this once again suggests a three-dimensional space rather than flatness. The vase's empty form is poised in front of the background, while the linear depiction of the blooms and their stems emerging from the vase create an unusual depth through the texture formation from the oil paints. The blending of these lines and patches of colour redefine the formal structure and space of the painting, producing a multi-dimensional feeling within the limited space of the canvas and communicating a Chinese view of life and the universe.
Chrysanthemum and Vase—The Traditional Awareness that Informed Sanyu's Career
According to the ancient Festivals and Seasonal Customs of the Jing-Chu Region, “To wear cornel, eat lotus, and drink chrysanthemum wine on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month will bring forth longevity.” The custom of drinking chrysanthemum wine on the Double Ninth holiday is clearly a time-honoured one; in Chinese folk belief, the chrysanthemum is an auspicious symbol of happiness and longevity. In addition, in a poem by Tao Yuanming called Drinking Wine, he writes, “Picking chrysanthemums by the eastern fence, you gaze leisurely at the southern mountains.” As praise for the chrysanthemum continued to be passed down through the years, it became symbolic of the character of the cultured person and a noble and virtuous simplicity, and the traditional scholars of China often wrote of it. For Sanyu it was not only an inspiration for his poetry but the subject of many paintings as well, and may have been connected with his long sojourn abroad in France. For Tao Yuanming, the chrysanthemum symbolized coming home to the countryside, and was a vehicle through which he expressed his inner feelings about the home he missed. If the chrysanthemums in his works expressed his moods, they also became a kind of personal emotional vehicle that helped him find, amid the circumstances of his life at the time, a frame of mind transcending the realities of ordinary life. Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase presents its subject in alternating cool and warm tones, though unlike Sanyu's late-period potted chrysanthemum paintings, which so artfully present the angles of their stems and leaves, here Sanyu employs his pink tonalities to depict their tall, erect posture and their lively blossoms. This work too reflects the circumstances of the artist's life and his outlook at the time, conveying his sense of confidence and affirmation toward the value of his own life and the world at large.
The vase and its chrysanthemums are the sole subject of Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase. In a painting that includes no other depictions of scene or setting, the artist intended not only to eliminate any indications of the particular moment, but also to reduce colour intensity and formal elements to an absolute minimum, expressing an inner spirit in a manner quite divergent from Western modernism. Sanyu thus returns to the viewpoint of the traditional Chinese scholar-painters, in which he conveys his thought by managing space in a manner apart from the world of everyday life. The very abstractness of the space makes it even more concretely a place apart, a retreat from the world; the artist's handling reinterprets and restructures normal time and space to produce a different space, one removed from our more common world. Because Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase lacks the normal markers of time and space, Sanyu's use of a formal vocabulary borrowed from traditional Chinese painting, along with the quietness of the flattened space in the painting, seem to make time stand still. The blooms become timeless, and the life essence and flourishing energy of the painting communicate the artist's own vitality and enthusiasm for life, his will and feeling. Engaging in his creativity for Sanyu meant continually engaging in dialogue with his recreated environments, out of which grew the happiness he enjoyed.
Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase captures the special aesthetics associated with the Eastern painting tradition; the structure of its formal elements, and Sanyu's redefinition of space, hide within them deeper hints of traditional Chinese culture and its aesthetic outlook. In his frequent depictions of chrysanthemums, Sanyu took their lofty and unsullied image as a kind of portrait of his own life in foreign lands. In Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase, however, he also injects abstract concepts that help structure its setting and subject, making it much more than a mere straightforward presentation of a still-life painted directly from life. The traditional awareness of the scholar-painter he inherited deepens the intrinsic forms of his canvas; he uses the painting to shape for the viewer a new sense of space and a new world view, reflecting his own unique life experience and his responses to the world around him. In Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase, Sanyu elevated his core concepts to a new and even higher level, revealing glimpses of the essential spirit that informed his entire creative career.
Property from the Collection of Wang Shiu-Kung