Guimet Museum - Asian Art National Museum, Paris
June 16 - September 13, 2004
After the great war, Paris decided to live to the full : « After the stress, strain and anger…men lift up their heads once more, open their eyes and enjoy life. A frenetic desire to dance, to buy, to be able finally to walk heads held high, to cream, to howl, to throw money out of the windows. A furia of vital forces takes over the world », according to Fernand Léger. Artists from five continents meet in Montparnasse and a new generation of painters mingle on the terraces of the Dome and the Rotonde creating « the first colony of truly international artists in the history of the world, said Marcel Duchamp. Sanyu arrived in Paris when he was twenty years old. He belonged to a group of young Chinese painters who had been given scholarships to study in France organised by Cai Yuanpei, then President of Peking University, in tandem with the French authorities.
The years of Apprenticeship : 1920-1930
The Self-Portrait in the Atelier by Foujita shows that other painters from Asia had come to live in Paris. Sanyu decided not to enter the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts, but opted for the less academic studio of the Grande Chaumière. From this period, he has left us humourous pencil drawings and watercolours of his fellow students. The strokes are assured and often heightened with gentle colours. A group of watercolours from these formative years is hung in the second gallery facing the early still-lives painted on canvas in clear, luminous colours. Yet his major focus of interest was still centred on the nude, a genre wich allowed him to express his talent. Hence, he produced a great number of preliminary drawings, delineating with maestria his models as if they were preparatory studies. These fill an entire gallery.
From 1929 onwards, Sanyu really began to paint nudes on canvas. These works can be seen in the two following galeries. Like Foujita, he depicts women horizontally placed against blocks of colour without giving any impression of depth. The Japanese painter fad devised his own technique for his nudes. First, he prepared the canvas to obtain a smooth milky surface on which he then drew with a very fine brush. It is likely that Sanyu drew inspiration from this, but used a thicker preparation, re-enforcing the outline of the drawing with a dark contour as he sought the perfect outline.
Occasionally, he engraved in that juicy paint surface ornamented patterns exactly like Chinese potters who incise them into the wet clay. Sparing with colour, his palette comprised black, white and pink. Nevertheless, at that time, he was influenced by the artistic curnets in Paris. His faces, framed by black hair cut like a boy with one gigantic jet-black eye call to mind the portraits of Kiki. As a reminder of that legendary model of Montparnasse, Le violon d’Ingres (The violin of Ingres) -a later print after the original by Man Ray in 1924- showing Kiki’s back, is hung next to her profile in bronze cast by Pablo Gargallo in 1928, obvious links between the surrealists and the artists of the Ecole de Paris.
Maturity : 1930-1940
In the1930’s, a man appeared out of the blue and provided him with an income at the very moment when his family in China could no longer do so. Henri-Pierre Roché (1879-1959) one of the most active art dealers between the wars immediatly grasped Sanyu’s potential and bought around 111 paintings and 600 drawings. Sanyu, free for some time from material concerns, went enthusiastically back to painting again. Moreover it is during this very productive period that he succeeded in arriving at an invisible marriage between the western realist perception of nature and the implicit tranquility of Chinese aesthetics. His calm, harmonious and figurative works are enchanting.
Even though he chose more often than not apparently banal ordinary subjects, he managed to put a distance between them and everyday reality. To give an idea of this work, two rooms are dedicated to group animals and flowers paintings. What is important is not the subject in itself but Sanyu’s ability to transpose it into a poetic visual universe. Horses or cats are shown in natural poses which emphasise their sensuality, flowers in pots or vases climb upwards the light with their calligraphic stems and transparent petals –autonomous works created by the artists imagination.
Sporting interlude and the Post-war : 1940-1966
During ten years, sanyu trained hard at sport. By this time, he had invented a new game called the ping-tennis, which he hoped would become fashionable and resolve all his financial problems. He went as far as Berlin to show this new sport to the Olympic committee in 1936. Later in 1948, while he was staying at New York, he intended to promote his ping-tennis. He painted less and we have had to wait until the Post-war period to see him working again in his studio of the rue de la Sablière in Montparnasse. His forms took an unexpected modernism : his nudes became both more linears and monumentals (fig.4). He succeeded in detaching them from any context. His drawing became more muscular. At the end of his life, he painted enormous, bizarre and wild landscapes. The vast perspective without limits is staffed with tiny animals directly reminding us of the tragic loneliness of the master landscape artists of the Northern Song era (960-1127). Both lyrical and grandiose, their « language » has already become abstract. Sanyu, as a final metamorphosis of Chinese artist, brought the pictorial tradition of his native country to the doors of modernity. The majority of these late landscapes are today in the National Museum of History of Taipei, where Sanyu should have exhibited them. Fate decided otherwise. He died in an accident in 1966. We have had to wait for the XXIst century to see them again in the west during the first retrospective exhibition devoted to him.
Curator : Jean-Paul Desroches with Catherine Pekovits and Rita Wong, ghest curator.
Guimet Museum - Asian Art National Museum, Paris
Website : www.guimet.fr