Author: SAN YU 常玉
Signed and dated: Circa in 1950s
Estimate: No Reserve
Final Price: RMB 67,000,000
Collection of San Yu / P267 / Great Future Art Publishing House
2007 World Famous Artist Collection - San Yu / P99 / Hebei Education Publishing House
2010 San Yu / P141 / Hebei Education Press
2011 Oil Painting Collection - San Yu / P133 / Liqing Cultural Foundation Publish House
2013 Pioneers of Chinese Avant Garde Modern Art / P223 / Tina Keng Gallery
signed in Chinese and English
2011 In search of Homeland - The Art of San Yu， National Museum of History， Taipei
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Abundant Fragrance of Auspiciousness
“Sanyu’s Style” and Its Modern Significance
As part of the “May 4th” New Culture Movement， thoughts on the modernity of Chinese art were widely discussed during this period. Among them， there were three general views： one was “to Westernize”， advocating the transformation of Chinese painting in Western painting styles by intellectuals such as Chen Duxiu， Xu Beihong， etc.； two was to “orientalize” which insisted on traditional Chinese culture， defended by Chen Shizeng， Jin Shaocheng， etc.； and three was to “find a middle ground”， where artists such as Liu Haisu and Lin Fengmian advocated the integration of Chinese artistic traditions with those of the West. All three put forward their ideas for the development of Chinese art. However， the modern implications artist Sanyu and a group of avant-garde artists have pioneered have been overlooked in the history of art.
“Life is about transcendence， and art is about discovering a path.” The artistic aesthetics that Sanyu adhered to throughout his life may be outlined by this perfect phrase. As a monumental icon in the history of modern Chinese art， Sanyu bridged together various modern and traditional aesthetic concepts across systems of knowledge of China and the West. Unlike the reforms put forward by Lin Fengmian， Xu Beihong， and Chen Shizeng， Sanyu embarked on the “pioneering” artistic practice that circumvented the other two contemporaries， hence providing a case study worthy of contemplation for the transformation of Chinese modern art.
Born in the late Qing Dynasty， Sanyu studied under the guidance of the famous modern writer and calligrapher Zhao Xi. Zhao Xi’s all-encompassing aptitudes in poetry， verses， calligraphy， paintings， and plays shaped Sanyu’s knowledge structure of traditional Chinese culture. Sanyu’s hard work and dedicated practice allowed him to exhibit outstanding artistic skills in his youth. With the help of his family， Sanyu traveled to Shanghai and Tokyo to study. These two international metropolises had not only brought Sanyu specific experience of modern urban life， but also the impact from the conceptual shift drawn from the westernization movement in Japanese art. The various artistic styles such as Impressionism， Fauvism， and Cubism broaden Sanyu’s vision， and at the same time made Sanyu resolute to study in France.
In 1921， Sanyu finally realized his dream and arrived in Paris. Unlike Xu Beihong’s background in the academic school， Sanyu did not receive any academic education. During this period， Sanyu made three efforts： First， he chose to stay in the “Académie de la Grande-Chaumiére” - a place that had a modern and liberal atmosphere - to create art； secondly， was the exposure to German expressionism and photography， whose experimentation and adoption of the latter played an important role in the formation of Sanyu’s early artistic style； and thirdly， the appropriation of decorative art， particularly under the influence of Cubism and Abstraction， Sanyu began to experiment with various types of media on painting. He combined the use of pencils， ink brushes， charcoals， etc.， with the canvas， in particular， the experimentation on traditional Chinese brush with Western watercolor was Sanyu’s greatest achievement integration of Chinese and Western art from this period.
As a new intellectual who received both private teachings from feudal Chinese society and Western training， Sanyu had a unique and keen sense of art. The dualities of his cultural identity and complex knowledge structure have been perfectly embodied in Sanyu’s works. Throughout his life， having lived from the late Qing Dynasty to the Republic of China， from China to Japan， and then from Europe to the United States， Sanyu collided with Western modern knowledge structures as a traditional Chinese intellectual， and this trend to “integrate China with the West” has shaped Sanyu’s unique artistic style.
As a pioneer of Chinese art， Sanyu’s artistic style can be divided into the “Pink period” （1921-1941） and the “Black Period” （1942-1966）. During the former， Sanyu built a beautiful dream for the Parisian art world from the East， be it the naked woman， flowers， still-life or animals， his composition， visual elements， and colors were immersed in the shades of light pink. As much as Sanyu was influenced by many artists from the “Parisian School” such as Picasso， Matisse， and Modigliani， he continued to seek out his breakthrough for his own artistic practice.
As it has been made historically evident， Sanyu returned to the nurtures of Chinese tradition once having adopted modern art forms from Paris. In the “black period”， he further integrated and translated the use of brush and ink techniques. In particular， he applied a more simplified and thick black line for his drawing， the contrast of red and black， and a tiling of golden and festive colors， to create more supple and hefty compositions. Sanyu’s unique artistic temperament had fully erupted from the artworks of this period.
Other than nude female figures， “Flower” has always been an important subject matter throughout Sanyu’s practice. Sanyu’s infatuation with flowers was largely inspired by the aesthetics of traditional Chinese culture. The four literatus of the “Plum， orchid， bamboo and chrysanthemum” have always been the objects of appreciation for the cultural elites in ancient times. Flowers from different seasons are accorded with different temperaments. The 5，000-year-old Chinese civilization reflects the literati concept of harmony between man and nature， mutual symbiosis， and the unity of man to the universe. Sanyu’s flower paintings are the elegant “Plum， orchid， bamboo and chrysanthemum” that ancient Chinese literatus appreciated， who rarely portrayed Western plants such as roses and lilies. In terms of the painting techniques， although Sanyu’s medium was primarily oil painting， yet he applied Chinese calligraphic brush works for the branches of his flowers， with vigor and force. It is apparent that by this point， Sanyu had truly discovered a path that was uniquely his own.
The work Abundant Fragrance of Auspiciousness is undoubtedly the masterpiece of the still life flower series from the “black period”， as well as his most representative work that “integrated Chinese painting traditions with those of the West”. Sanyu adopted the framework and tools of Western art to express the spirit and temperament of Chinese culture. The combination of various oriental elements and western colors has been made apparent in the Abundant Fragrance of Auspiciousness.
Unlike the orderly compositions from the “Pink period”， Sanyu chose a more symmetrical structure for Abundant Fragrance of Auspiciousness， hence the period became featured by harmonious and equilibrium. The pure and intense dark red in the background and the deep and solemn yellow is synonymous with the imperial architecture of the ancient East， furthermore， Sanyu has added long lines， longevity lines， and currency lines to the surface of the yellow earth. In addition， the vase for safety， jixiang， and peace from Chinese folk culture have entered the image， as much as they served decorative purposes， they conveyed Sanyu’s nostalgia and cultural affinity to his homeland.
The center of the image is occupied by a large and colorful marigold， where the indifferent elegant of the flower has been entirely transformed. Sanyu rendered it with impressive bright and heavy colors： silvery lead white， lustrous cobalt blue， sweet cherry red， glistening yellow， and bright green incorporating into one， that is as contentious as they form into a harmonious image of fortune and celebration. Sanyu has always been passionate about depicting the chrysanthemums. A flower that embodies special meaning in Chinese traditional culture， Tao Yuanming once lamented， “The chrysanthemums in the fall display beautiful colors， covered in dew， I pick up the blossom. This is when I forget to worry about things， as I am removed from my legacy.” In other words， the lofty and arrogant characteristics of the chrysanthemum are fully expressed here.
The brushwork for the branches and the leaves exhibited the artistic expression of “adopting calligraphy into painting”. The use of the brush in calligraphic techniques rendered an image of the marigold that is complex without being messy， abundant without being chaotic. The orderly application of colors not only shows the variety of flowers of the bouquet but also rendered the shades under the light. This bunch of colorful marigolds is planted in a shallow blue and white square pot. The colorful chrysanthemums in the pots and the dark monotonous background， the softness of the chrysanthemums and the hard lines of the stems form a strong contrast， one that created an indomitable mood for the overall image.
Interestingly， Sanyu’s faint strokes on the flowerpot seem to have taken us back to the world of ancient Chinese landscapes. The mixture of indigo and dark green rubbed into the Chinese traditional literati’s respect for natural landscapes. Coincidentally， the green mountains and rivers have always been an important iconography for Chinese landscape painting since ancient times. As early as the Wei and Jin dynasties， the green mountains and rivers have been rooted in the literati painting tradition. Despite its decline， Zhao Mengfu advocated the “restoration of the ancient concepts”， for green and blue to revive once again in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Sanyu’s choice of green and blue here was not unintentional. Whether in depicting the decorative flower pot or the main colors of the bouquet， the combination of blue and green seems to suggest that， under the warm sun of autumn， in the western oil paint， this pot of marigolds may be swinging in the wind in the study of a Chinese intellectual elite.
Under the influence of Western art on Chinese culture in the first half of the twentieth century， many artists have broken away from the impact of foreign cultures and tried to find their own positions and solutions. As a sojourn artist， Sanyu never returned to his home country. His art practice has never engaged in rigid reproductions and representations. Instead， he has incorporated rich and passionate thoughts and emotions from his life into his works. Sanyu insisted on his artistic pursuits， who considered painting as his interest rather than the mean of making a living. He only paid attention to express his feelings， make analogies from experiences， who followed his instinct and pursued freedom and longed for a realm of Chinese literati paintings where the lyricism and imagery came together. Hence， it is apparent that the characteristics and thoughts of the ancient literati have been deeply imprinted in Sanyu’s heart and soul. It was precisely this kind of indoctrination that prompted Sanyu to continuously ponder and explore the artistic approach to integrate Chinese art traditions with those of the West.
Unlike Xu Beihong’s realism， Sanyu’s paintings are grounded in the Chinese calligraphic expression who applied traditional approaches to ink painting to achieve a state of conscious integration of China and the West. Sanyu’s life in Paris provided the condition to create freely. He chose to learn and understand French modern art from life， where discovered art in life， sought out artistic inspiration from lived experiences and refined his painting skills. Eventually， Sanyu incorporated the education he had received from Chinese traditional culture and his affinity to Chinese traditional culture from his childhood to embarked on a unique path of integration between China and the West.
Being part of a complex social environment， Sanyu has never drifted with the mainstream. He had never forgotten his cultural identity throughout his life and never gave up learning new things. In the current narrative of the art history of the 20th century， Sanyu’s integration of his life experiences from the West into Chinese and Western art forms would inevitably become a new focus. For the art of the future， Sanyu and “Sanyu’s style” will not only set the direction for the development modern Chinese art but also become the ideological theme of an era and the nation， urging us to ask the question， “How should we conceive modernity for Chinese art?” Perhaps Sanyu would provide us with a more open-ended answer.
San Yu is a nostalgic artist. I can see his dream in his potted flowers. I feel that I can trace down from his works to his childhood and hometown. The deep nostalgia was captured in his paintings. It is not about “homesickness”， nor it is about “sadness”. There is no heartbreaking， but a long， lingering feeling.