73 x 50 cm. (28 3/4 x 19 3/4 in.)
signed in Chinese; signed and dated ‘SANYU 1929’ (lower right)
In Search of a Homeland - The Art of San Yu, National Museum of History, Taipei , Taiwan, 2001 (illustrated, plate 41, p. 88).
Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonné, Oil Paintings, Lin & Keng Art Publications, Taipei, Taiwan, 2001 (illustrated, plate 81, p. 188).
Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonné Oil Paintings Volume Two, The Li Ching Cultural Education Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan, 2011 (illustrated, plate 81, p. 125).
Sanyu: A Pioneering Avant-Garde in Chinese Modernist Art, Tina Keng Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan, 2013 (illustrated, p. 88).
The more Sanyu painted and delved more deeply into things, the more he rediscovered the peculiarities of his race as new truths…. He knows how to depict the essence and often the humor of things with astonishingly little means.
A Key Creative Period
An overview of Sanyu's career shows that the still life genre occupied him for nearly 40 years, providing us with a complete record of his stylistic evolution. Sanyu's early period is undoubtedly best represented by the very few paintings he created on the subject of the rose. While the Chinese categorize the species of the rose into the rose, the Chinese rose, and the wild prickly rose, in the West, "rose" refers to all such similar varieties. Sanyu only painted five rose-themed works throughout his entire career; amongst them, three that bear dates are from the years 1929 and 1931, two of the most critical years in the life of the artist. In comparison, while there are over 50 chrysanthemum themed works painted by Sanyu, these rose-themed paintings become by far more exceptionally rare and valuable. Through a closer study of these rose-themed works, we can glimpse the depth of feeling Sanyu invested in these early works and the creative concepts behind them. The earliest, and the most unusual in its manner of presentation, is the 1929 Roses in a White Pitcher (Lot 133).
Based on the available records and present publications, the earliest extant Sanyu painting that bears a date is from 1929. Later in his career, even as late as 1965, we still find occasional works with dates, but the number of works bearing dates from 1929 and 1931 far exceed those of any other years, from which 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 began acting as Sanyu's agent and promoting his work. Their cooperation ended in 1932, but by 1931 Sanyu had already met the composer Johan Franco, who became not just a good friend but also a patron as well, supporting Sanyu in many different ways. It was at this time that Sanyu was invited to mount a solo gallery show, but unfortunately this was also the period in which he divorced his wife, Marcelle Charlotte Guyot de la Hardrouyére. Sanyu never married again, an indication of the impact and importance that this sentimental relationship held for him. It was perhaps also for this reason that, after the 1930s, he never again made roses the subject of his paintings.
So long I've been away from the East Range,
How many times have the roses there bloomed?
Do the white clouds still drift apart,
And behind whose home does the bright moon set?
—Li Bai, Two Verses Recalling the East Range
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die...
—Shakespeare, Sonnet 1
Beyond symbolizing love, and extolling it, roses, in both Eastern and Western literary traditions, have also symbolized the good things in life. Sanyu's Roses in a White Pitcher was created in the year following his marriage. It symbolizes the love between himself and Marcelle at a time when Sanyu was optimistic, self-assured, and hopeful; the roses in full bloom embody the artist's hopes and aspirations for his life. Perhaps the special nature of his subject encouraged Sanyu's choice of a rarely seen approach, in which lines and gradations of color served to outline his pink roses and their stems and leaves. Through his hollowed-out outlines, Sanyu let the inky black background sink through. Against that blackness, a light seems to emanate from the roses themselves; they show forth their own rich blooms as they shine against the darkness of the background. The white vase underneath is unadorned by any addition of detail, its flattened, blocked-out shape emphasizing its weight and volume, while the shift to pink in the lower foreground brings the white tabletop closer to the viewer. Combined with the background, it completes the depiction of an integral three-dimensional space. Sanyu, in Roses in a White Pitcher, strives to expand the expressive forms of the traditional floral still-life painting, while elements borrowed from traditional Chinese art, including its use of line, provide added creative inspiration. Sanyu's manner of presentation, somewhere between pure outlines and solid forms, is no longer framed by realism or representation; he has transcended the traditional formulas and standards of both Eastern and Western aesthetics. Roses, stems and leaves, in Sanyu's geometric treatment, become flowing lines and newly arranged geometric elements. Eight years after the lyrical brushwork that marked his 1921 Peonies, Sanyu, in Roses in a White Pitcher, has clearly united the art of East and West. Through these roses, Sanyu communicates the aesthetics of the Eastern literati artists, and further, finds new creative directions for the genre of the still life, raising it to new heights. He completely transcends age-old forms and limitations imposed by Western concepts of the still-life genre, reinterpreting and extending Western modernism from a traditional Chinese aesthetic standpoint.
Rose – Representation of Fullness, Fortune and Rank
However, unlike Sanyu's more typical floral still lifes that present his subjects in a more realistic manner, the blooms in Roses in a White Pitcher have clearly undergone a degree of subjective conceptualization by the artist. The unfolding rose petals, stems, and leaves display a vocabulary for shaping form, based principally on line that is characteristic of the Chinese painting tradition. Sanyu had practiced calligraphy from an early age, and in Roses, he extends these mostly linear principles for creating forms and expressive effects. The star of the show in this respect is the rose in full bloom in the upper left. The heart of the rose has been geometrically shaped into an almost perfect circle, surrounded by enfolding layers of petals that have been simplified into linear structures. Treating his subjects geometrically, as motifs, reminds us of the numerous times in which, during the 1940-50 period, auspicious tracings would appear in Sanyu's works. In Roses, his auspicious symbols originate from markings molded onto ancient coins in China, symbolically shaped brass coins which were round with square holes in their centers, as they were "modeled on the outside on the heavens, and on the inside on the Earth [the sky was considered round, the Earth, square]." These ancient coins were also called "quan," and symbolically took on the meaning of another character also pronounced "quan," which meant "full" and "complete". They therefore became common auspicious symbols representing the natural desire for completeness and perfection. Sanyu's allusion to the patterns of these ancient coins, in the heart of his rose, is both a personal deconstruction of an objective object, and at the same time, it borrows the traditional Chinese vocabulary of forms to project deep meaning into that object. So Sanyu's depiction of the rose is more than the mere presentation of a floral subject; it represents the artist's intense desires for completion and satisfaction as well as for affluence and social position. This first example, in Roses in a White Pitcher, of Sanyu appropriating the traditional symbols of his culture, makes clear that Sanyu early on had established ambitions about the pursuit of his own culture. The symbolic patterns appearing in Sanyu's Roses reveal Sanyu's insights and emotions as he regarded his own life, and they presage the major course of development that his later work would follow.
Light Source, Forms and Empty Spaces
Sanyu rarely indicated his light source or used much chiaroscuro, but relied mostly on layered gradations of color to create the sense of space. Roses in a White Pitcher reveals a bold concept, a great creative leap in his use of a black background to set off the pink roses and white stems. The result not only explores more deeply the relationship between outline and solid form; by means of the contrasts in colors, Sanyu also acknowledges for the first time the connection between image and illumination. By hollowing-out the roses and the outlines of stem and leaf, Sanyu also formally establishes his independence from considerations of form and empty space, an aspect that became central to this artist's creative thought. If we say that in the still life, the elements of light, shadow, and color are emphasized in Western works, then shaping forms through outlines clearly derives from Eastern traditions of painting and calligraphy. Here, in Roses in a White Pitcher, Sanyu fuses light source, color, and outlines; the result is a genuine achievement in blending the aesthetics and formal elements of East and West to create an altogether different kind of aesthetic framework. Roses in a White Pitcher represents the meaning of a very special period and stands as a symbol of its spirit.
Based on current published literature, while Sanyu never again employed these same methods in any other work, they did serve as a basis for much of his later inspiration. From the 1930s on, in such works as Wedding Bouquet and White Lotuses in a Jardiniere, he would move even further in the direction of using scraped-out lines as outlines, or for etching fine lines in background colors, as a means of presenting the contrasts between space and solid forms. It may have been this initial use of pink, as his primary palette in Roses, that inspired him to later explore pink as a foundation for modeling forms and creating spaces. Thus began his famous pink period, in which human subjects, still lifes, animals, and landscapes all appear in pink tones. We can see that Roses in a White Pitcher signaled an important milestone in Sanyu's creative career, in terms of outer, physical painting forms as well as their inner meaning and spirit. Roses in a White Pitcher is an unrivalled representative of the success Sanyu was achieving, and helped guide his art toward the later summits it would achieve.
Regarding the Self in Floral Paintings
Floral still life has always been the principal genre for Sanyu from the late 1920s through the 1950s. He repeatedly produced paintings of roses, chrysanthemums, orchids, plum blossoms, and lotuses, paintings that easily evoke associations with the rich symbolic meanings of flowers in traditional Chinese literature. In fact, symbolic meanings in flowers and plants have always been present in every facet of the Chinese culture. Beginning over 2,000 years ago, with the Book of Odes and Li Sao (Encountering Sorrow), “herb” served as a symbol that embodied notions of a person’s mental and emotional makeup. Plants evolved as representative motifs, symbols through which the literate scholar class conveyed their ideas about character, and they gradually became means for externalizing personal traits. In his paintings, Sanyu preserved their spirit of “presenting the form of things and expressing the inner self.” In his many and varied depictions of flowers, vases, and plants, he explores both physical images and symbolic meanings. Yet Sanyu neither continues the Western traditions of still life subjects, nor exactly mimics the Eastern manner of introducing nature into interior living spaces. Instead, in these works, he is portraying himself, while seeking refuge for his feelings. His floral-themed works give an account of his passage through life, and his choice of roses contrasts with other subjects that would appear during more difficult periods— chrysanthemums, aloof and unsullied, plums which can endure frost, and lotuses emerging from murky water in pure white. Roses clearly expressed the attitude Sanyu felt towards life during his early maturity, as a newly married man, and they testify to the verve and spirit of this particular creative period. It was a foundational period, the period in which his manner of depicting images deeply laden with subjective personal feeling and significance came into being. And roses, in particular, are of essential importance in attempting to understand the changing expressive modes of Sanyu's work.
The Aesthetics of Life, in an Unbroken Chain
While Roses in a White Pitcher may be a still life, if we look closely at the blooms it depicts, we discover four different stages: unopened buds, calyces ready to open, early blooms, and finally roses in full bloom, almost like a film clip of rose petals opening and spreading. Sanyu, it seems, is alluding to the entire process of life: roses, sitting tranquilly in the pitcher, are nevertheless playing out the internal rhythms of their lives. The horizontal tabletop and the dark background highlight the stillness of the blooms, yet there is the dynamic of movement as they open. Sanyu makes use of these two levels, movement and stillness, to project his still life image. This provides not just contrast, but an interplay of antithetical opposites as flowers bloom, then fade and fall, the process projecting Sanyu's awareness of the passage of time and suggesting a deeper proof of the artist's being. The blooming of the roses becomes an intense expression of subjective time, the state of the universe, and the self. No longer are the four blooms of the painting only part of a simple still life, as the opening of the blooms highlights the essence of life, and hints at its temporal nature. In a glance we take in the process of roses in bloom. Sanyu's concern lies not in the temporal sequence itself, of roses blooming in the warmth of spring or fading with the coolness of autumn, but in finding all of those changes within an instant of time. Even within this still, unchanging image we see those changes, and in its one moment, we see never-ending time. Though in the outer world there may be unending birth and death, the changing face of nature also includes life without limit and a multitude of inner meanings.
If Roses in a White Pitcher reveals symbolic meanings connected with roses, Sanyu also actively engages with the deeper significance of life itself, in the way the roses are poised between movement and stillness, and in their process of growth. If Roses in a White Pitcher emphasized Sanyu's appreciation for life and his enthusiasm during a particular period, then we can see how, 20 years later in the 1950s, his outlook had changed. On another work, Fuiting and Flowering Plant with Frog, he inscribed lines from a poem: “There is reward in quiet contemplation of natural things / I enjoy the four seasons, with all men...” Fuiting and Flowering Plant with Frog observes the world from a more objective perspective. It conveys the natural composure and contentment of animals and plants, and it reveals less of the artist's subjective side or the desire to project personal feelings onto his subject. Perhaps with the passage of time, realizations about the course of life, as found in Roses in a White Pitcher, had evolved into the quieter contemplation of self and object found in Fuiting and Flowering Plant with Frog. But Roses in a White Pitcher is a deep and genuine reflection of Sanyu's state of mind, and his feelings and insights toward the things of the outer world.
Sanyu observed the outer world through the lens of subjective thought. His work communicates a direct and intuitive spiritual feeling, transformed into the exceptional aesthetic awareness that informs his art. A timeless stillness lies within the motion of all things, yet the stillness overflows with the abundant energy of life. Sanyu's ability to unite Eastern and Western art in new ways derived from the way he linked nature's constant change with its inner tranquility, conveying its living vitality while capturing its inner design. Roses in a White Pitcher, depicting a subject unusual for Sanyu, has become a key early work, providing many revelations about the artist's creative concepts. The painting perfectly joins the ease and fulfillment of his life at the time with its quintessential central image, an image symbolizing both his personal circumstances and his aesthetics of life. Here Sanyu has found the elements on which much of his later development would be based; Roses in a White Pitcher ideally combines Sanyu's explorations into inner and outer perspectives, solid forms and empty space, and movement and stillness in the still life genre.