In the late 1920s, when Sanyu was invited to produce some copper-plate etchings, he found their extreme simplicity of line beautiful and intriguing; the lines and the empty spaces of the etchings, their opposing yin-yang relationships, helped produce surprising breakthroughs in his work in oil. For the Chinese, white represents simplicity and purity, the complete transformation of consciousness. When the blackness of ink is combined with white, then it represents the original, natural source of that purity. And, in the Chinese ink painting tradition, what is known as "the five hues within black" refers to the way that black, on a pure white field, can create almost unlimited imaginary space. Sanyu had learned about the qualities of ink early in life, as he studied calligraphy. And he gained such familiarity with line that the calligraphic lines he 'wrote' became lyrical expressions of feeling, and naturally evolved into a 'method' that governed his painting technique. Thus lines were the very soul of Sanyu's work. The Tang Dynasty's Ouyang Xun, in his Treatise on the Brush, wrote that 'The movements of the brush back and forth, up and down, should produce beauty and elegance; strong, vigorous flourishes should be balanced by fine, soft touches.' In Sanyu's Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase, each stroke of the brush in each line is strong and virile, yet soft and beautiful, forming the stems and setting out the blooms that lean down from them. Finely shaped silvery lines outline the fresh and delicate white chrysanthemums, helping to produce the reversals of colour and positive and negative space. Sanyu's creation of forms and empty spaces reflects the concept of 'the five hues within black,' and the way he presents these beautiful, brocade-like blooms deliberately uses their gently swaying forms to guide the viewer's eye. They become the heart and soul of the painting, its visual center. Sanyu's brushwork is also distinctive. The solid lines of his stems are painted in layers. With the first layer he creates a base colour, after which the second layer strengthens the visual effect, so that his leaves and stems, extending through the depths of his inky background, take on a subtle sense of movement. In the lines that define the chrysanthemum petals, almost all the oil pigment has been rubbed out from the tip of his brush, and the resulting lines come to resemble the streaky white sometimes seen in calligraphy strokes. They further heighten the figure-ground reversal and make the blooms appear more three-dimensional.
Sanyu's handling of light and shadow often intrigues, contrasting as it does with the more direct means of presentation used in the West. Sanyu mimics the spreading haloes of ink in Chinese ink painting, making it seem as if the chrysanthemums themselves, set off against the dark background, are a source of light, recalling the Qing Dynasty artist Bada Shanren, who spoke of "light emitted from the primal darkness." Sanyu employs oils in tones of blue, the natural colour of an atmosphere laden with water vapor. Adhering to the principles of ink-wash painting, he turns these liquid tones around the chrysanthemum stems into dark mists. Enfolded within the mists are points of light, the very light sources of the canvas. Bada Shanren excelled at painting birds in motion with black ink; they seemed to emerge from out of his dense black tones, their features and their poses expressed with one stroke of the brush. Sanyu, similarly, makes deliberate use of his blue background to produce this saturated, liquid atmosphere, where light can be emitted from within the deep layers of its blue tones. In the West, artists since the Renaissance had used dramatic stage lighting to illuminate their subjects, while at the beginning of the 20th century, Impressionists expressed different stages of light and shade depending on the changing illumination of the sun. Sanyu, living in the West, used his blue to carefully create a kind of deep night-time setting, wrapping the chrysanthemum stems and leaves in indigo, where they glow in the dimness. A more overt light source directed at Sanyu's subjects would not reveal the details that Sanyu sought; here instead we search within the deep tranquillity of his painting to find the source of the light it seems to exude. Sanyu's unique style here had never previously been seen in the West, where science, logic, and the rules of perspective were dominant - and among Chinese artists, he was the first to create effects like dense washes of ink in the oil medium. Sanyu's mature ability to employ creative techniques deriving from both East and West was unmatched by any artist from either of those regions.
Sanyu's rich and varied life and his broad artistic experience helped bring about the unique style of presentation in his paintings. Travelling to France early in the 20th century, he witnessed the flowering of various schools of painting, including Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, and Surrealism. Yet his own works surpass many beautiful modern works in their ingenious handling of space and modelling of form, making Sanyu a stylistically unique Eastern humanist painter. In Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase, leaves and stems overlap throughout, though we cannot distinguish which are in front and which behind. Sanyu weaves them together in a kind of toroidal space, and while the usual arrangement would show stems growing upward and blooms standing straight above them, in Sanyu's looser arrangement the stems lean downward again, heightening all the more the tension and energy in their silver blooms. Several other points add variety to the painting's visual vocabulary: the flower stems do not touch the bottom of the vase, but seem to leap up and float above it, then weave and spread through his unusual space and burst into bloom. Vitality, tension, and movement fill this painting, and in them there is a kind of quietly surreal quality unique to Sanyu. The gracefully tilting stems that spread toward each side of the painting are echoed and reflected in the curvature of the wide-mouthed vase echo. The two shapes form a triangular toroid and a triangular cone, their implied geometrical shapes adding an even further kind of abstract beauty to Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase.
Sanyu was one of the Chinese painters of the early 20th century who achieved a place on the world stage. The exceptionally clean, pure feel of much of his work leaves viewers with a lasting impression of meaning and harmony. Like the coloured designs on porcelain ware, or the pared-down simplicity of woodcut prints, Sanyu limits his colours, lines, and forms to the greatest extent possible. Nevertheless, his works still offer surprising visual richness and emotional satisfaction. They remain true to Eastern thinking, in which less is often more, and in which forms are set against empty space for greatest effect. What viewers find valuable, beyond immersing themselves in appreciation of his oil technique, is this embodiment of Eastern thought, the sense of unity of self and other, or of correspondence between man and the larger cosmos. 'Forms set against empty space' is the guiding principle of Sanyu's Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase, a work in which the correspondence between light, space, and line finds a natural harmony and balance. This work is also one of the few 'blue' paintings by Sanyu, almost all of which date from the 1950s, and is made all the more valuable by its rarity. In the painting, one chrysanthemum bloom faces the viewer directly - a kind of bridge for dialogue, placed there deliberately by Sanyu, inviting the viewer to enter the painting and linger within its spaces, where light emerges from depths of colour. Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase glows like the deep blue of a lake under moonlight, or a dark evening sky filled with stars, their glittering light breaking through the stillness of the night sky.
Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase
Oil on masonite
Signed in Chinese, signed 'SANYU' (lower right)
Sanyu , 20th Century, Paintings, oil, China, flowers & plants
Taipei, Taiwan, Lin & Keng Gallery Inc., An Exhibition of San Yu and Yun Gee, 6-23 November 1993.
Taipei, Taiwan, Lin & Keng Gallery Inc., Sanyu, 9-31 August 1997.
Taipei, Taiwan, National Museum of History, In Search of a Homeland - San Yu, 2001.
ASIAN 20TH CENTURY & CONTEMPORARY ART
75 x 92 cm. (29 1/2 x 36 1/4 in.)
Lin & Keng Gallery Inc., The Art Works of Sanyu and Yun Gee, Taipei, Taiwan, 1994 (illustrated, p.19).
Antonie Chen, Artist Publishing Company, Overseas Chinese Fine Arts Series - Sanyu, Taipei, Taiwan, 1995 (illustrated, plate 89, p. 148).
National Museum of History, In Search of a Homeland - The Art of San Yu, Taipei, Taiwan, 2001 (illustrated, plate 87, p. 134).
Rita Wong, Yageo Foundation, and Lin & Keng Art Publications, Sanyu Catalogue Raisonn?: Oil Paintings, Taipei, Taiwan, 2001 (illustrated, plate 119, p. 230).
Galerie Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris, France
Private Collection, Taipei, Taiwan
Anon sale; Christie's Taipei, 12 April , 1998, Lot 8
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner