Sanyo, the star of modern Chinese art

The art world can be very unfair. Imagine a painter in a unique and fascinating style who creates compositions (nude, animals, flowers, landscapes, etc.) with elaborate, smooth shapes moving through strong color contrasts reminiscent of the verve of Picasso or Matisse, just like streamlined. Brancusi sculptures. This man died in Paris in 1966 poor, misunderstood and lonely.

Sanyo was a Chinese artist who was born in Sichuan in 1901, landed in France in 1921 and spent the rest of his life there. Several decades after his death, his dedication came thanks to the booming Chinese art market. In 2019, Christie’s sold in Hong Kong, at a record price, a painting representing five naked women in her signature style for 35.2 million euros.

In the midst of the Covid crisis in 2020, another painting from the same 1950, this time representing four nude figures lying on a dark background, reached €29.4 million. Sanyu is a safe bet for Sino-French modern art, just like Zao Wou-Ki for contemporary art. Moreover, Taiwanese Rita Wong, who has worked on the subject for 30 years and is the author of a highly consulted artist catalog, believes that painters are interested in the same type of hobbyist.

More than 2000 designs

Its largest collectors are in Taiwan, followed by mainland China. Already, in the 1990s, influential gallery owner Alice King championed the colors of Sanyo in Hong Kong. But Paris is his creative cradle.

Eric Lefevre, director of the Cernuschi Museum is familiar with the subject: “Sanio’s uniqueness is due to the fact that he stayed in France while all his compatriots left for China. It was inhabited by Chinese painting but was also in osmosis with major French movements like Surrealism. Its nudes are almost atmospheric, like Balloons. The poet Xu Zhi Mo said that his women have cosmic legs.”

The Frenchman Natasha Levy was a friend of Sanyo in his later years, when he lived at 28 rue de la Sabliere in the 14th arrondissement. “We often met at Montparnasse in La Coupole where he would spend his evenings alone in front of a café. We organized an exhibition of him in my house in 1965 We didn’t know how to promote him. No journalist came. We didn’t sell anything. Only my mom and I bought paintings from him at modest prices. A few months later, when we came back from vacation, he was dead and some paintings disappeared from his studio. We didn’t really know The cause of his death even if we talk about a gas leak.”

According to Rita Wong, Sanyo produced 320 paintings and more than 2,000 drawings, but few dealers defended him. During his lifetime, only Henri-Pierre Rocher (1879-1959), a friend of Brancusi and Marcel Duchamp, known as the author of the novel Jules et Jim, would defend him. Between 1929 and 1932 he bought 111 paintings and 600 drawings. But don’t sell anything. In November 1932, Rocher, tired of supporting the artist, clearly wrote in his diary “Farewell Sanyo.”

In 1948, Sanyo traveled to New York to promote one of his inventions, a new sports system, table tennis, from which he waited in vain for a monetary return. There he met the photographer Robert Frank (1924-2019), who was also impressed by his undeniable talent, and who organized an exhibition of his works during which he would not buy anything, except himself.

drawing power

When Sanyo died, a sale was organized in 1966 at the Drouot Hotel, scattering what was left of his studio. As for the stock owned by Henry Pierre Rocher, after his disappearance, his widow sold everything to a Parisian merchant, Jean-Claude Riedel. On June 9, Artcurial Auctions presented 45 drawings of Jean-Claude Riedel who died in 2018. Here the pedigree is of paramount importance, because, as the expert on 20th-century Asian art, Helen Szaday, explained, “Many fake Sanyo are in circulation, some of which have been copied.” Especially well. It happens that works are sold in China without being included in the index index. ”

The mass of drawings proposed by Artcurial individually is estimated at between 12,000 and 35,000 euros, and they mainly represent nudes painted with a black and white brush. It is polished, hieratic and executed with just a few strokes. Great graphics power. They were all identified by Rita Wong.

Coincidentally, on June 2, in Neuilly, the auction house Agutes presented not only nine drawings of the painter (estimated between 18,000 and 30,000 euros) but also two unpublished paintings from his youth, once again recognized by Rita Wong. They were part of the “box” of Henri-Pierre Rocher. Painted in 1926 and 1927, they respectively represent a gullible knight (estimate: €475,000) and a teapot set on a table with an original overhanging viewpoint (estimate: €175,000).

China, alarmed by a harsh health policy, could be less present during these auctions that celebrate 54 drawings and two long-overlooked by the Chinese artist’s talent.

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