A while ago, because of work, I got a chance to spend a short time alone with a painting by Sanyu. Hanging quietly on a wall, it is a painting of floral still life that has a size slightly larger than my palm.
Compared to Sanyu’s other works, the size of this painting is relatively small with a comfortable spatial layout. The flower stems stretch softly and delicately, just like a lazy animal, along the curves of the vase.
At times, when lying on the couch reading at night, I think of Sanyu. Thinking of him, lying comfortably in bed inside a small, shabby studio in Paris, with a book propped against his chest. It was an evening back in the last century that he forgot to turn off his gas stove and, unaware of the gas leak, died in his sleep. His cheeks flushed pink, I imagined. This is a common symptom of gas intoxication.
Though nowadays his work constantly sets records for the highest auctioned paintings by a Chinese artist, Sanyu struggled as an artist during his lifetime and was buried in an unnamed grave, numbered TR/1296/1966 when he died in 1966. After his passing, his paintings were bundled up and sold for a mere few hundred francs.
SANYU 1895-1966 Chinese Painter of Montparnasse is the first publication about Sanyu published in Japan. Based on the major themes of Sanyu’s paintings, the book is divided into three sections, namely Nude, Still Life, and Animals and Landscapes.
Sanyu started practicing calligraphy from a young age and his artistic endeavors were supported and encouraged by his familys. In 1921, he moved to Paris and resided at a small rented apartment in Montparnasse. Not long after, he became part of the local arts community.
At that time, Paris was the center of European modern art, and Montparnasse, located on the left bank of the River Seine, was flocked to by both famous and struggling artists. As a Montparnasse resident, Sanyu befriended artists such as Picasso and Alberto Giacometti, paid frequent visits to cafes, and spent time in his studio sketching nude women. Though being a stranger in a foreign land, Sanyu was not a timid soul and effortlessly blended into the local communities.
Sanyu is also known for his infatuation with French models. Such was documented by Xu Zhimo in his article, “Gorgeous meat” that was published in the book, Tidbits from Paris in 1927. Speaking of, Xu Zhimo was a loyal supporter of Sanyu and particularly fond of the artist’s portrayal of female forms using the skills of landscape painting.
The pink used for the hardcover of SANYU 1895-1966 was the artist’s favorite color. Pink can also be seen in the first piece of work showcased in the book, Pink Chrysanthemums. In this still life painting, Sanyu also made use of another of his favorite colors, Paris Green, which is a highly toxic and bright emerald-green pigment. Though Paris Green has been banned and discontinued, this toxic pigment is an important indicator of the authenticity of Sanyu’s paintings. Stunning yet dangerous, not only refers to Paris Green, but can also be used to describe Sanyu’s artwork.
A decade after moving to Paris, all of the financial support that Sanyu had been receiving from home in China stopped because the family business crumbled. Sanyu had to find ways to support himself; which was when he started doing business with art dealers. Being a somewhat arrogant artist, Sanyu set some rules for the art dealers: 1) Pay first, 2) No looking while painting, and 3) Take the painting and leave. Comments not welcome.
Sanyu’s eccentricity alienated his admirers including the legendary French collector Pierre Roché who abruptly dropped the relationship after years of collaboration. Sanyu fell into dire straits and had to survive by painting furniture.
It is perhaps because of these difficulties that Sanyu began to paint potted plants and utensils. Simple lines on a plain background with bold compositions.
In an interview conducted in 1946, Sanyu commented, “European painting is like a lavish feast with roasts, fried foods, and meat of all kinds. My work is like vegetables, fruit, or salad, which help shape the way people appreciate paintings.”
Sanyu never gave up on painting despite a dire financial predicament. Without the means to buy proper material, he would even work with cheap paints.
Later in his life, Sanyu started painting animals and landscapes. An animal or two sitting in the vast, isolated landscape. No resentment nor nostalgia. Just pure existence.
In the summer of 1966, Sanyu painted his last piece, Elephant. It is a painting of a tiny elephant galloping in an immense desert. As it runs, it becomes smaller and smaller, as if it was about to melt. Sanyu pointed at the elephant and said to his friend, “This is me.”
Sanyu once said to the French art critic Pierre Joffroy, “One should be true to themselves and live an honest life.” Such belief might have inevitably destroyed Sanyu’s artistic career, but it also set the foundation of his art.
The world only knows of Sanyu’s resting place because of the years-long search by his lifelong friend and famous American photographer Robert Frank. Thanks to Frank, we get to rediscover Sanyu, a painter that has long been forgotten by the world.
When I think of Sanyu, I often think of his last night on earth. Laying down in bed with a book on his chest, almost comfortably.
In 1901, Sigmund Freud came up with the theory that, when a person misspeaks or makes an error in physical action, they are inadvertently revealing repressed desires. These slip-ups can be traced back to unconscious urges.
What’s petrifying about this theory is that it assumes there is no such thing as a mistake. In the most extreme case, what does it entail if we accidentally do something that costs our life?