Mon, Oct 15, 2001 - Page 11 News List

Sanyu comes into his own

After being ignored by the art community during his lifetime, the work of Chinese artist Sanyu is now winning high prices at international art auctions

By Vico Lee  /  STAFF REPORTER

Women and cats are both favorite subjects in Sanyu's paintings, as in Nude with Cat.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF NMH

It has been slow in coming, but now that the work of painter Sanyu (常玉) is gaining critical attention his works are fetching high prices at international art auctions. Earlier this year at Christie's Spring auction in the US, a Sanyu oil painting made during the last few years of his life was sold for NT$15 million, a record price for a work by an artist of Chinese decent, according to Christie's.

Yesterday, Christie's featured another of Sanyu's works, Water Buffalo, in its 20th century Chinese Art auction. The work sold for NT$6.5 million.

Interest in Sanyu's work has been growing over the years, but the artist himself did little to build up his reputation. A Chinese expatriate in France, Sanyu became part of the scene in the Paris of the late 1920s, and would be found sketching at the Academie de la Grande-Chaumiere in Montparnasse.

While his attention was rarely focused on the models posing, often fixing on some hunch-backed old woman or maybe a stocky young man, the result was usually a female nude.

Most of the Chinese students studying art in Paris, such as Xu Bei-hong (徐悲鴻), who Sanyu befriended in Paris, enrolled in established art schools and adopted the pictorial verisimilitude that defined European painting at the time. They often sought to emulate all things Western. After their studies, the government would arrange for them a teaching career where they would carry on the serious mission of modernizing Chinese art.

With financial support from his wealthy brother, Sanyu hardly bothered himself with artistic movements. He rejected academia and decided not to return to his homeland, throwing himself into the revelry of Parisian highlife.

Sanyu's dandyism was combined with a disdain for the commercialism of art that was characteristic of traditional Chinese literati. In his memoirs, Sanyu's friend Pang Xunqin (龐薰琴) wrote that he often saw people ask to buy paintings from Sanyu and art dealers approaching him, but Sanyu preferred to give away paintings and often turned away dealers.

His distrust of art dealers was at odds with the French milieu, where successful artists often had to know how to collaborate with these people, who were the driving force behind the art market.

With the death of his brother in 1931, Sanyu got his first taste of impoverishment and had to engage in more serious artistic endeavors. Though still disdainful of dealers, he didn't seem to mind associating with collectors.

The French writer and collector Henri-Pierre Roche and Dutch composer Johan Franco were important friends and patrons, who helped promote his paintings through exhibitions.

But his work never became popular during his lifetime.

Sanyu mainly painted female nudes, a common subject in Western paintings, but he used Chinese calligraphy techniques which were not appreciated by his European audience and his work was regarded as exotic at best. Sanyu approached the subject, which is completely foreign to Chinese artists, at first with Confucian prudery and then playful inventiveness.

"Sanyu's nudes are always seen from the back, drawn in several flowing lines with little anatomical detail given to the female body. This might have resulted from the traditional Chinese idea of the naked body as too obscene to be the subject in art," said Rita Wong (衣淑凡), the author of the Chronology of Sanyu, a biography of the painter.

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