Sanyu: Who is the Chinese artist whose work is selling for millions at auction?

He has dominated auctions, and was born in Sichuan in 1895 to a family that ran a silk-weaving mill

Chinese artist Sanyu and a detail of his work 'Nude', from the 1950s. The Li Ching Foundation, Taipei
Chinese artist Sanyu and a detail of his work 'Nude', from the 1950s. The Li Ching Foundation, Taipei

The top lot of the Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction last week was not by a blue-chip western name, but the steadily rising star of Sanyu, a Chinese-French painter who died in penury in 1966.

The artist’s Four Nudes, a painting of four women, went for HK$258.3 million (Dh122.3m) on July 8, after a bidding war among four collectors.

It seems that, though Sanyu stayed in Paris, his works are travelling back east

Last November, the painting Five Nudes set Sanyu’s auction record, going for HK$303.9m at Christie’s Hong Kong. These figures aren’t outliers: activity at auction has meant that Sanyu’s prices have jumped by more than 1,100 per cent over the past 20 years.

The artist's newfound success reflects the skill seen in the refined nudes that he painted in Paris from the 1920s to the 1960s, as well as the burgeoning dominance of the Asian art market.

Born rich in Sichuan, died poor in Paris

Sanyu was born in Sichuan in 1895 to a family that ran one of the largest silk-weaving mills in the province. Because of their means, Sanyu was educated at home, and received art tuition early on: he learnt calligraphy from a famed Sichuan calligrapher and painting from his father, an artist, too.

At the age of 20, like many young aspirational artists of the day, Sanyu moved to Paris to study and participate in the city’s flourishing bohemian scene.

Sanyu’s drawing “Basket of Pairs” was also in Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale last week – the first time the auction house has held an evening sale in Asia. Made in the 1930s, the drawing sold for HK $6,175,000, within its estimate. Courtesy Sotheby's
Sanyu’s drawing 'Basket of Pairs' was also in the Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale last week. Made in the 1930s, the drawing sold for HK$6.1 million (Dh2.9m), within its estimate. Courtesy Sotheby's

Initially, he seemed to be born under a blessed star. His older brother took over the silk mill and supported him with generous stipends. He met and married a French woman, and in 1929, he was picked up by dealer Henri-Pierre Roche, who also worked with leading avant-garde figures such as Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi.

But his relationship with Roche lasted only three years – one year longer than his marriage, owing, many say, to his odd personality.

Trouble back in China also meant that his brother’s financial support sputtered to an end, and Sanyu’s financial position grew evermore precarious throughout the course of his life. At one point, he invented a game called “ping-tennis”, a hybrid of badminton and tennis that used a ping-pong ball.

He tried to parlay this into a money-making scheme, but the world proved already too full of racquet sports, and ping-tennis did not provide the financial lifeline he needed. He died poor in Paris, felled by a gas leak in his studio.

However, his work has flourished long after his death. He made more than 2,000 pencil and ink drawings of figures, and, in the post-war years, 56 oil paintings of nudes.

Formally, the heavily lined, colourful paintings recall the dalliances with the decorative and flatness that marked French Modernists, particularly Matisse. His technique, meanwhile, links back to his origins: he often used traditional Chinese ink and brush for his nude drawings, marrying western and Asian influences.

His works are appealing particularly to the growing Chinese and Hong Kong markets. A handful of museum shows have also helped provide a fuller picture of the breadth of his work, beginning with a 1988 show at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, which explored the link between Paris and China, and a solo presentation at the Musee Guimet in Paris in 2004.

In 1995, Sotheby’s sold off a number of his works from the collection of Johan Franco, the Dutch collector who served as his patron.

Four Nudes, from the Hong Kong sale, went to an unidentified Asian bidder; it seems that, though Sanyu stayed in Paris, his works are travelling back east.

Updated: July 14, 2020 05:08 PM


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