Sanyu - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, November 30, 2021 | Phillips

Create your first list.

Select an existing list or create a new list to share and manage lots you follow.

  • The only ‘street scene’ of its kind with great significance


    Since his arrival to France in 1921, Sanyu spent much of the rest of his life in the area of Montparnasse, Paris. This was an environment which allowed Sanyu to be free and to be part of an open artistic atmosphere. He confronted the modes of Western avant-garde directly, and embraced the spirit of modernist rebellion in the Atelier de la Grande Chaumière, rather than become restricted by a rigid academic system of art creation. However, he never departed from his native culture in aesthetics and cultural identity throughout his entire artistic career; rather he steadfastly maintained the independent spirit of Chinese literati. Sanyu absorbed the essence of Western modernist artists, combined with Eastern aesthetics, and thus blended this synergy into his own unique artistic style. We proudly present a rare work by Sanyu, Paysage Aux Hirondelles, a representation of Sanyu’s combination of a reserved and freehand ink painting expression with a modernist language. Taking the swallow as an oriental image, this is also the only ‘street scene’ painting in his decades of artistic career. Paysage Aux Hirondelles is not only a personal portrayal of Sanyu’s oriental sensibilities as he made his debut in Paris in the 1930s, but also a rare art piece since his subsequent works never again depict scenes from actual locations. Paysage Aux Hirondelles is thus one of Sanyu’s most distinctive landscapes, reflecting the artist’s worldview and approach to life, both vast and subtle.



    A picture containing outdoor, sky, way, sceneDescription automatically generated

    Street scene of Shanghai in the 1920s


    A boat in the waterDescription automatically generated with low confidence

    Sanyu, Ducks and Boat, 1930


    Lively spirit and charm shown through the contrast of black and white


    Paysage Aux Hirondelles is simple in composition and colour, imbued with a modernist flourish characterised by Western painting modes. The treatment of spatial structure and the representation of virtual and reality draws from the unique sense of Eastern principles of yin and yang. His spatial division is a slight departure from modern Western forms of composition: in his paintings, whether of nude women or animals, the horizontal lines are far below the normal height of eyesight, dividing the background into two distinct planes, which not only incorporates the compositional principles of Western modern art, but also echoes the “Pingyuan method” (depicting mountains from near to far) and “Gaoyuan method” (depicting mountains from bottom to top) of Chinese landscapes. In this work, Sanyu uses the traditional Chinese painting concept of ‘five shades of ink’ to create a background of varying shades of ink colours, creating a deep but floating spatial effect. The dreamy pastel colour which was 'like being emerged in a light pink dream'. The work uses his trademark iconic pink of the Pink Period in the 1920s and 1930s to depict the buildings in the street scene, injecting a touch of sweetness and romance that is uniquely Paris. The thin and long cable lines follow the composition of the building, dispersing in both directions, while the view goes over the top floor of the building, projecting to the black background in the distance, highlighting the correspondence and contrast between the front and back of the scene through the simple composition. In the tranquil and open atmosphere, the swallows are densely scattered on wires in two directions. Sanyu’s depiction of each swallow is almost purely abstract, using his unique calligraphic lines and mastery ink and brush skills to incorporate the objects in the viewers’ minds without deliberate elaboration, and to express the spirit of painting with simple strokes and pure colours. 


    Sanyu exquisitely extracted the lively and herd characteristics of the swallows, recalling the Golden Age of the Montparnasse district where he resided at that time, where many masters were born. With sky and sea as the void and the swallow and buildings as the objects, sparse and dense composition is created in the painting. The effect demonstrates the artist’s understanding and practice of traditional Chinese painting, in which reality and emptiness are mutually existent and complement each other. While real objects, scenes and details are outlined, the 'blank space' can still form an artistic conception, leaving room for imagination. It also reflects Sanyu’s ability to appreciate his environs, and his outstanding artistic conception to create an ethereal atmosphere. There is a mystical ambiguity to his works, as we are unsure of the extent of verisimilitude, or if they are entirely imagined. Ultimately, it’s for the viewer to interpret. 


    A picture containing text, towelDescription automatically generated
     Sanyu, Pink Nude on Floral Sheet, 1930
    Poly Auction Hong Kong, 3 October 2016, Sold for HK$ 59,000,000


    Rich in meaning and connected to his native culture


    Paysage Aux Hirondelles is not only a reflection of Sanyu’s thoughts on the simplification of Western modernism, but also a subtle echo and a return to his own culture by placing a skillful and full-bodied oriental sentiment in the painting. This work is a true reflection of the artist’s state of mind: the overlapping layers of electric wires do not resemble Paris' city landscape, but rather, the appropriation of the poles probably originated from grafting memories from Sanyu's teenage years as a student in Shanghai. The result is an emotional expression, a ‘spiritual return to one’s homeland’, in which the swallow is the only imagery that carries the artist’s profound emotions from his life to a foreign land. Notably, swallows are migratory birds and build their homes under the eaves of someone’s home. They leave when autumn arrives and return when spring comes, without forgetting their old nests. This has left abundant room for imagination for the Chinese literati from past to present, evoking the image of yearning for home. As Wang Yan of the Southern Song Dynasty wrote in his Dian Jiang Chun: 'On a rainy east wind day, on which swallows are passing through the house. In the evening of a lonely village. Spring is gone and flowers are beginning to wither. Wandering everywhere, the thought of going home lingers in my mind.' As a swallow flies back from the north during the celebration of Tu Di Shen (the God of Land) in spring, the swallow is also often used as a symbol of the return of spring in traditional Chinese culture. As stated in the Yan Shu Po Zhen Zi: 'The swallows come just in time for the festival to celebrate Tudishen‘s birth.' Moreover, the swallow is often regarded as a long-lived and auspicious bird. In Chinese, the pronunciation of 'swallow' is the same as in 'banquet', and 'banquet' in ancient Chinese language translated to peace and joy. Therefore, people often associate swallows with joy and peace. In the 1930s, Sanyu frequently participated in autumn salons, independent salons, and the prestigious Salon des Tuileries. This work was created when he was at the pinnacle of his artistic creation and personal prestige. Paysage Aux Hirondelles is not only an expression of Sanyu’s multiple interpretations of the cultures of his homeland and foreign land, but also relates to the artist’s real life, and conveys his deep connection to ‘image abstracting from observation’ to ‘experiencing the image in one’s mind’. The work is also a visionary fusion of Eastern and Western aesthetic lexicon, movingfreely between the two with ease. Filled with intense meaning and connotations, this painting reaches ultimate eternity.




    Mao Yi, Swallows and Willow Tree, Southern Song
    Collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington


    A bold, pure and highly expansive visual experience


    Sanyu’s fusion of Eastern and Western art creations has not only enriched Eastern culture but has also nourished Western culture. It is difficult to categorise his paintings into a particular genre since most of his works have an artistic language of its own. Even Matisse--an artist to whom Sanyu is often compared--used spirited lines and flamboyant colours in a manner different in logic to Sanyu’s paintings. Sanyu’s work is based on the aesthetics of ink and brush painting, combining calligraphic concepts where one treats blank space as black. In his methods, shades of ink used in traditional painting are fused with the simplicity of the medium of Western oil painting and the stylistic simplicity borrowed from Picasso’s paintings. One can conclude after a review of his works throughout his art career that Paysage Aux Hirondelles is different from the sweet colours of the floral still lifes of the 1930s, or the bold and spirited lines used in the nude paintings of the 1940s, or the solitary emotions expressed in the late paintings of animals. This work uniquely focuses on Sanyu’s echo of traditional paintings' philosophy, displaying the notion that 'the artist is not bound by conventional methods but works in accordance with the rules of art in every way'. This is shown not only in the subtlety of the work's visual composition, but also in the distillation and grafting of the life scenes he used to live in the painting. As advocated in traditional Chinese paintings, where ‘the four seasons are blended in one', Sanyu makes a more pioneering and modern expression of the traditional Chinese literati language by breaking the limits of time and space. This masterful spatial arrangement deepens the sensual meaning of the objects and provides the viewer with a wider scope for imagination, allowing them to wander between poetic and pictorial enjoyment, between reality and dream. Paysage Aux Hirondelles is not only the unique street scene in Sanyu’s art creations, but it also broadens the visual experience of both Eastern and Western painting with its sensual, symbolic style, thus giving this work groundbreaking historical significance.



    A picture containing nature, valley, canyonDescription automatically generated

     Dong Yuan, Summer Mountains (detail), Five dynasties
    Collection of the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China



    A picture containing text, mountainDescription automatically generated

    Paul Cézanne, The Gulf of Marseilles Seen from L'Estaque, circa 1885
    Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, USA 



    A picture containing background patternDescription automatically generated
    Willem de Kooning, Untitled XVI, 1976
    Phillips New York, 16 May 2019, Sold for US$ 10,268,000



    • Provenance

      Collection of Mr. Henri-Pierre Roché, Paris
      Collection of Mr. Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris
      Jia Art Gallery, Taipei
      Private Collection, Asia
      Christie's, Hong Kong, 27 May 2017, lot 45
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Taipei, Tamsui Center of Arts and Culture, Sanyu, 18 August - 4 September 1994, p. 36 (illustrated)
      Taipei, Jia Art Gallery, Sanyu, 12 August - 3 September 1995
      Taipei, National Museum of History, The Exhibition of Sanyu, 14 October - 26 November 1995, pl. 26, p. 36 (illustrated)
      Hong Kong, de Sarthe Gallery, Pioneers of Modern Chinese Painting in Paris, 13 May - 21 June 2014, p. 44 (illustrated, p. 45)

    • Literature

      Jinxu Publishing Ltd., ed., Masters of Chinese Painting: Sanyu, Taipei, 1992, p. 7 (illustrated)
      Jia Gallery, ed., Home Collection, Taipei, 1992 (illustrated)
      Artist Publishing Co., ed., Overseas Chinese Fine Arts Series I - Sanyu, Taipei, 1995, pl. 62, p. 119 (illustrated)
      Rita Wong, ed., Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, Taipei, 2001, pl. 256, p. 383 (illustrated)
      Rita Wong, ed., Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné Oil Paintings: Volume Two, Taipei, 2011, pl. 256, p. 145 (illustrated)

Property from an Important Private Asian Collection


Paysage Aux Hirondelles

signed 'Yu [in Chinese] SANYU' upper right; further signed and dated 'SANYU 20.4.1931' on the reverse
oil on canvas
50 x 80.5 cm. (19 5/8 x 31 3/4 in.)
Painted circa 1931.

Full Cataloguing

HK$26,000,000 - 46,000,000 

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art
+852 2318 2026
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 30 November 2021