5 minutes with… Sanyu’s Five Nudes

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In 1921, the artist Sanyu set sail from Shanghai for Paris, aged 19. He rented a small apartment in the quarter of Montparnasse and was soon a fixture of its bohemian, café society. Giacometti and Modigliani counted among his friends

Over the course of the 40-year career that followed, Sanyu became synonymous with paintings of female nudes — something particularly notable because, in his native China, there was zero tradition of depicting naked women. Human figures, in fact, were hardly ever a painting’s principle subject.

‘Sanyu was a radical artist, who fused the traditions of East and West like no one else really before him’, says Eric Chang, Deputy Chairman of Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art at Christie’s in Hong Kong.

On 23 November, Five Nudes — a painting that Chang describes as ‘one of the artist’s finest’ — is being offered in the 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong.

Sanyu was born in 1901 into a family of silk manufacturers in Sichuan. As a boy, he was encouraged to indulge his love of art and given private tuition in calligraphy.

A few years later he was part of the first wave of students to take advantage of a major, new cultural agreement between China and France. This granted scholarships to those from the former country to study in the latter. The likes of Lin Fengmian and Zao Wou-Ki would follow in his footsteps.

Sanyu (Chang Yu, 1895-1966), Five Nudes, 1950s. Estimate: HK$250,000,000-550,000,000. Offered on 23 November in 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong
Sanyu (Chang Yu, 1895-1966), Five Nudes, 1950sEstimate: HK$250,000,000-550,000,000. Offered on 23 November in 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong

Most students returned to China, but Sanyu ended up staying in France his whole life. He studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and it was here that he first came across the custom of sketching and painting nudes.

In the West, that tradition had existed for centuries, with perhaps the most celebrated examples (by the likes of Titian) appearing in the Renaissance. It’s a later work, 1910’s The Dance by Sanyu’s peer, Matisse, which is more pertinent here, however — and not just because, like the painting coming to auction, it features five nude figures.

The Parisian journalist, Albert Dahan, dubbed Sanyu ‘the Chinese Matisse’, a nickname that has stuck. Though there’s no evidence the pair met, a clear stylistic affinity exists between the Frenchman and Sanyu. Broadly speaking, it entailed a love of saturated colour and a highly animated line.

‘The rich red background in Five Nudes, like the rich yellow carpet the women stand on, calls Matisse to mind,’ Chang says. ‘As does Sanyu’s use of lines to suggest movement. Though each of the figures’ upper bodies seems at rest, their lower halves seem to perhaps be dancing or somehow on the move.’ Hence comparison to The Dance.

It must be pointed out, however, that Sanyu’s art owed a lot to his training back in China, too. He didn’t so much wield a brush as caress it — his sure but sinuous black lines might most accurately be described as calligraphic.

He’d found success pretty quickly after settling in Paris. His name appears on the list of exhibitors at the Salon d’Automne of 1925, four years before Henri-Pierre Roché (an early champion of Picasso and Braque) agreed to be his dealer.

Alongside still lifes with flowers, female nudes were the subject Sanyu returned to most throughout his career. According to the artist’s catalogue raisonné, he produced 56 oil paintings of nudes in total. Dating to the 1950s, Five Nudes is a relatively late example. (Sanyu died in 1966, aged 64.)

The work stands out for a host of reasons: firstly, as the largest painting he ever did of female nudes; secondly, for boasting a greater number of figures than any other painting he produced.

‘With Five Nudes, we see a mastery of colour that took him a while to develop,’ Chang adds. ‘Chinese artists, traditionally, are more comfortable in black-and-white.

‘As for the five figures, they have a kind of classical simplicity, in contrast to the more exaggerated proportions of the nudes Sanyu had painted before.

‘In other words, this painting should be considered the full realisation of Sanyu’s talents. It marks a true peak of his career.’

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