“As for my work, when one looks at it, one knows well enough what it is all about. All that my works declare is simplicity,” said the inimitable Sanyu, also Chang Yu, the pioneering Sichuan-born, French artist who defied and blurred the boundaries of East and West in the 20th century. Sanyu’s own unique style, of saturated color, continuous, energetic brushstrokes and lines (derived from his training in Chinese calligraphy), and his compositions laid bold and bare, characterize a unique and distinct lyricism that have earned him global reverence as the “Chinese Matisse.”
Born in Nanchong, Sichuan in 1901 to a mercantile family who ran the region’s largest silk-weaving mills, Sanyu saw an early life with ample freedom and resource to create. Homeschooled and isolated away from the rigors and conflict of the time, namely the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, a 3,000-year-old imperial system that dictated China’s political, economic, educational and social customs and beliefs, Sanyu saw the continued support and patronage of his family, including that of his older brother, Chang Junmin. Formatively, he was able to take calligraphy lessons with renowned Sichuan calligrapher Zhao Xi, and learn painting from his father.
As Republican era China became increasingly fraught with competing ideologies and schools of thought to replace the old order, many students began to equate modernization simplistically with Westernization, and a rampant desire to reform. Subsequently, Chinese youth began to travel westward, including Sanyu, who first went to Europe in 1921. Following the footsteps of artists, like Xu Beihong and Jiang Biwei, Sanyu went to Paris, with a short stint in Berlin, where he formed meaningful and formative relationships with other members of the Chinese Bohemian elite, even creating a culinary club where friends gathered regularly to carouse and celebrate the food of their respective hometowns.
In 1923, Sanyu returned to Paris to enroll at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière and was introduced to his most celebrated subject, nude drawing, which would largely inform much of his oeuvre. Having rented a small flat in Montparnasse, Sanyu was in the thick of Paris during its roaring 1920’s prime: a mad mix of past tradition, heritage and masters, but also the forefront of modernism, experimentation and the avant-garde.
Unencumbered and free, Sanyu became a part of the zeitgeist, and Paris’s rich and dynamic cultural tableau. He could be found in local cafes, sketching all day, as time passed, idling, painting, and studying the human form, even grasping the attention of Henri-Pierre Roché, the famed art dealer, who temporarily promoted Sanyu’s work.
But living as an artist during his lifetime was not without its hardship. The artist fell upon financial strain, as allowance from his brother back in Mainland China began to dwindle, and Europe entered wartime. Sanyu, instead of returning to his home country, as many Chinese artists of the time did, continued to travel, finding himself in New York in 1948, where he met and lived with Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank. Dispirited and defeated that his artwork would not generate income, despite earlier experimentation to reach a broad audience, like printmaking with drypoint and linocut, Sanyu returned to Paris and became increasingly withdrawn and recluse. However, his cultivating spirit and search to bridge art and cultural traditions between East and West made him a true citizen of the world.
Sadly, Sanyu tragically passed while leaving the gas on his stove turned on in 1966, dying in his sleep with a book atop his chest following a dinner party the evening before. His collective work, which was later lifted from obscurity and rediscovered by art dealers in Taiwan in 1988 during a China-Paris exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, shed greater spotlight into the vivid, dynamic work of this legendary artist and his timeless legacy. To him, we pay respectful homage.