Biography

SANYU

Sanyu, regarded the Chinese Matisse,
was one of the earliest Chinese artists to study in Paris.
Born in 1895 in Sichuan China, and died in 1966 in his studio in Paris.

Desolate and impoverished in 1931 ten years after he arrived in Paris from China, Sanyu wrote, “The misery of the lives of artists. They ought to be poor, always poor, until the end... I could abandon all that I have now... But there is a chance: My love has not died yet.”[1] Indeed Sanyu’s passion did not die. He continued to struggle as an artist in Paris until his death in 1966. Early in his career, he could have returned to China, as many of his contemporaries did, to achieve a certain level of fame and recognition by teaching in the academies and by exhibiting his paintings. Sanyu knew, however, that to grow as an artist, he could not leave Paris, the art center of the world. “I am obliged,” he intoned, “to stay on in Paris to live the life of a bohemian.”[2]

Although his decision to remain in France was fueled largely by his desire to attain success as an artist, there was also a part of him that enjoyed being with Europeans, more so, it seems, than with fellow Chinese, many of whom found his carefree demeanor rather eccentric and somewhat disquieting.[3] Sanyu made friends easily with Europeans, finding their liberal views more in line with his own thinking. In 1925, four years after his arrival, he married Marcelle Charlotte Guyot de la Hardrouyère, a French woman, and although the marriage lasted only three years, his ability to develop an intimate relationship with someone so culturally different from himself displayed an open-mindedness unconventional for a Chinese at that time. Furthermore, letters written to his friend and patron, the Dutch composer Johan Franco in the early 1930s, disclose that despite spelling and grammatical mistakes, his familiarity with French idiomatic expressions revealed that he was not a Chinese painter who chose to isolate himself among his own cultural circle. His efforts to assimilate demonstrated his resolve to be accepted by his foreign hosts.

At the time of his death, police reported that an application for naturalization to France was found in his studio. After forty years, Sanyu recognized that France was not just the country that could nourish his artistry; it was, in fact, the place he considered home. Undoubtedly, one of his most fervent desires would have been to be recognized and appreciated as an artist in Paris with his paintings shown to a European audience. With the realization of this dream nearly forty years after his death, all who knew or have come to know Sanyu through his paintings will celebrate the significance of this exhibition at the Musée Guimet.

Sanyu (or Chang Yu)[4] was born in Nanchong, Sichuan Province, on 14 October 1901. His family owned one of the largest silk-weaving mills in Sichuan, the Dehe Silk Factory, which was managed by Sanyu’s eldest brother Chang Junmin. The business was so successful that Junmin earned the accolade “Millionaire Chang of Nanchong” and the annals of the city of Nanchong record and applaud his accomplishments. Thirty-seven years older than Sanyu, Junmin doted on his younger brother and, recognizing his interest and talent in art, spared little to support and encourage all his artistic endeavors. The family’s wealth allowed Sanyu to be schooled at home, which included calligraphy lessons with the Sichuan calligrapher Zhao Xi (1877–1938) and painting lessons with his father, known in Nanchong for his skill in painting lions and horses.

Growing up in Nanchong, approximately 300 kilometers from Chengdu, Sanyu was most probably unaffected by the discontent that was brewing in the major cities of China at this time. After the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the Republic in 1911, China was faced with growing autocracy from within and encroaching imperialism from without. Crippled by these dual tensions, compounded by the ineffectiveness of antiquated social and political systems, China was rendered impotent, forcing many to reassess the predicament of their torn nation. The unacceptable terms of the Treaty of Versailles forced a counter movement that gained momentum through student organizations across the country, culminating in the historic May Fourth Incident. Academicians and students led the revolt against foreign infringement of China’s territorial sovereignty and rights to self-rule. They recognized that to regain their country’s integrity, China needed to strengthen itself through reform. A unified voice demanded the rejuvenation of the country through modernization, which, at that time, meant Westernization. Many resolved, therefore, to travel abroad to learn the ways of the West in order to benefit their troubled nation.

As a response to this call, students traveled to France under a government-sponsored work-study program. Although it is uncertain whether Sanyu participated in this program, his decision to make France his destination in 1921 was no doubt inspired by the migrating wave of art students, such as Xu Beihong and his wife Jiang Biwei with whom Sanyu became close friends. Xu and Jiang, who had arrived a year before Sanyu, were already finding life in the City of Light too costly for their meager income and decided to move to Berlin where living was cheaper. Sanyu, with no set agenda in Paris and unfettered by financial concerns, thanks to Junmin’s generous support, decided to go along with them to Berlin. During this time, Sanyu formed friendships with other Chinese artists and writers, but instead of making art, they formed a culinary club, gathering daily to plan and prepare gastronomic specialties of their hometowns and having a good time. Only two works by Sanyu, Peonies and Landscape with Willow Trees (W121), both painted in traditional brush and ink style, survive, further attesting to the lack of artistic activity during this period.

After two years in Berlin, Sanyu returned to Paris in 1923. While most of the Chinese art students aspired to enroll in the esteemed Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, Sanyu preferred the less academic environment of the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Here, Sanyu plunged into what to him was the exotic world of nude drawing. One can imagine the excitement the young Sanyu must have felt being in a studio where nude models, forbidden at home, posed at arm’s reach. In this free and uninhibited environment, he could experiment with Western sketching techniques to explore and express the lines of the human form. Sanyu’s early works in Paris comprise exclusively ink and pencil drawings of nudes and figures, of which over 2000 examples survive today.

Since Sanyu was trained in Chinese calligraphy in his youth, it is not surprising that a majority of his nude drawings was done in Chinese ink and brush. The trained calligraphic stroke, with its varying innuendos, afforded Sanyu a unique chance to delineate the human body, not so much in terms of its anatomy but more as a means of expressing the beauty and sensitivity of a flowing line. With only a few strokes, relying on the fluidity and innate qualities of brush and ink, he was able to capture the essence of his subject.

La Grande Chaumière, located in the heart of Montparnasse, was in the vicinity of several artist hangouts, such as La Coupole and Le Dôme, well-known cafés that provided Sanyu a lively milieu for further observation and experimentation as evidenced by the hundreds of drawings done on paper placemats. Enthralled by the pedestrians passing by, Sanyu devoted much of his time to studying and depicting everyday Parisians. Even though Sanyu had spent time in Shanghai and Tokyo, neither city matched the vibrancy and vitality of Paris. Evidently, he was much taken by the stylish Parisian fashion of the 1920s, the ethnic diversity with particular fascination for black people whom he had probably never seen, and Western facial features which he frequently caricaturized with exaggeratedly large noses. Many drawings show fellow students at La Grande Chaumière seated on their stools with pencil and pad in hand intent on their work. It is amusing to imagine the studio scene where students sketch the nude model while Sanyu sketches them! To him, both were equally interesting and exotic.

It was at La Grande Chaumière where Sanyu met his future wife. A young lady of twenty-one, Marcelle was impressed with Sanyu’s talent and requested that he teach her. They became intimate and lived together for three years before getting married. Marcelle recalls that although they shared a lively time together, they never had enough money. Sanyu, however, seemed unconcerned, spending most of his time leisurely sitting in the cafés sketching for hours on the placemats and hanging out with friends. Accustomed to his brother’s support, he was confident that money coming from home would continue, but the increasingly long intervals between allowances already anticipate the financial difficulties about to beset Sanyu.

In 1929, a year after his marriage, Sanyu met Henri-Pierre Roché, an astute and dynamic art collector and dealer better known as the author of Jules et Jim and Deux anglaises et le continent. Sanyu was now facing financial difficulties as funds from Junmin became irregular due to the downturn in the silk business back home. Roché, who had a keen interest in discovering talent, with artists like Marie Laurencin, Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi to his credit, saw promise in Sanyu and agreed to act as his dealer. According to Gertrude Stein, Roché “knew everybody... and could introduce anybody to anybody.”[5] Indeed, Roché was the consummate dealer, promoting his artists to prominent collectors throughout Europe. Over the next two years Roché collected 111 paintings and 600 drawings by Sanyu. Nonetheless, Sanyu lamented, “As for my situation, it is very bad. My art dealer is paying me half the price and he buys very little from me. This is all due to the crisis. I can hardly go on living anymore. I don’t know what I will do.”[6] Sanyu’s constant complaining and demands for money turned him into more of a financial and emotional liability than an artistic asset and in 1932, Roché decided to drop the relationship.

Despite the sour note on which their relationship ended, Roché can actually be credited for the surge in Sanyu’s creativity and development during this time. He had encouraged Sanyu to experiment with printmaking as a means of reaching a wider public at a lower cost. In prints Sanyu found another medium in which he could demonstrate the same sensitivity to economy of line as his drawings. Zinc plates for a series of prints commissioned by Roché show how the artist, using drypoint, an intaglio technique, incised thin and barely discernible lines directly onto the metal plate to create a delicate burr that produces the fine velvety effect of the finished image. Drypoint worked particularly well for Sanyu—the small size of the plates lent an intimacy with the viewer and the fine lines conveyed the essence of his simplicity—and he applied it skillfully and effectively to his nudes (P005, P006, P007, and P009). Even though Sanyu appeared to prefer drypoint, this method required the use of a press and the services of a professional printer, both costly. This was solved when he discovered linocut in 1932 at which time he started to make larger prints (P040 and P041). It should be noted that both Picasso and Matisse favored etching and drypoint during this period and Sanyu was undoubtedly influenced by these masters’ prolific printmaking activities. However, Matisse did not start using linocut until 1938 and Picasso 1959, both years after Sanyu’s initial exploration of the technique.

Matisse once noted that an artist “must draw first to cultivate the spirit” and that “it is only after years of preparation that the young artist should touch color...”[7] Whether or not Sanyu was aware of Matisse’s views, this was precisely the path he followed. All the sketching and drawing during his first eight years in Paris served to prepare Sanyu for his eventual foray into oil painting. His earliest oil painting is dated 1929, the year he met Roché, who undoubtedly saw the future potential of the oil medium for Sanyu and encouraged him to explore it. Under Roché’s tutelage, Sanyu gained entrance to the Salon des Tuileries in 1930 and for the first time exhibited an oil painting, instead of the nude and still life drawings selected for previous salon exhibitions. By the early 1930s Sanyu was fully committed to oil painting, never revisiting printmaking and returning to drawings only as study sketches for his works in oil.

The years 1931–1932 were tumultuous for Sanyu. His brother, Junmin, suffering from a liver ailment and the pressures of a failing business, died in 1931 and all support from home stopped. The following year, not only did Roché decide to terminate their relationship thereby further diminishing Sanyu’s hopes for financial stability, Marcelle, suspecting Sanyu’s infidelity, filed for a divorce and left him. Fortunately for Sanyu, however, Johan Franco, a Dutch composer whom Sanyu had met a year earlier, became his friend and patron. For the next few years, Franco completely supported Sanyu and tried to promote his art to his friends and family, among whom his cousin Vincent Willem van Gogh, the artist’s nephew, and his uncle David van Buuren, a prominent collector with an eponymous museum in Amsterdam. Franco even organized several exhibitions in his native Holland, which were met with mixed reviews and limited success. However, one critic who admired Sanyu’s work defended, “The young Chinese painter Sanyu... has joyfully accepted the legacy of the art of his ancestors, but has also, in his way, profited from some new European ideas.”[8] Nonetheless, the anticipated sales of paintings were not realized nor was Sanyu’s dire financial predicament improved. Franco’s unwavering devotion to Sanyu is attested by his will dated 1932 in which he bequeaths to Sanyu an annuity of 500 francs per three months.

During this period while Sanyu was mingling with Europeans, he also kept up with his Chinese friends. Letters from Xu Zhimo to Liu Haisu intimate a close relationship with Sanyu initiated during Xu’s visits to Paris in the 1920s and continued through letter correspondences after his return to Shanghai. The artist Pang Xunqin spent time with Sanyu in Paris and in 1932 asked him to join the Storm Society, an artist’s group founded in Shanghai whose proclamation urged for a modern-art movement in China. The following year, Xu Beihong curated a group exhibition at the National Museum of Foreign and Contemporary Art (Jeu de Paume de Tuileries) and included one painting by Sanyu. Evidently, Sanyu was regarded by his Chinese compatriots as a forerunner of modern Chinese art. The master Zhang Daqian once commented, “the famed Chinese artist living in Paris, Chang Yu... was one of the earliest Chinese Western-style artists to study in Paris and has been regarded as ‘the Chinese Matisse.’ He is much more established and better known than Zao Wouki. It’s just that he has an odd personality.”[9]

Just as Sanyu’s carefree and seemingly reckless behavior forced Marcelle to leave him, and his incessant demands for money made him a liability to Roché and possibly Franco, his eccentricity alienated his own compatriots to such a degree that by the mid 1930s he was quite desperate and alone, so that he turned to other interests for possible sources of income. An avid tennis player, Sanyu invented ping-tennis, a combination of ping-pong and tennis in which players use rackets similar to badminton rackets to hit a larger-sized ping-pong ball across a net on a court a little smaller than a squash court. Sanyu was so obsessed with his invention that he even traveled to Berlin to attend the 1936 Olympics where he met the German tennis champion, Gottfried von Cramm, who pledged to help promote this new sport. Encouraged, Sanyu declared, “This is my future life... I am sure I can make money from ping-tennis.”[10 ] Although this was not to be, ping-tennis did meet with a small degree of success in France and was even considered by the Ministry of Sports as part of the curriculum in secondary schools, but the contract was never signed. The importance of ping-tennis in Sanyu’s life, however, cannot be underestimated. Unable to achieve significance as an artist, Sanyu clung to the hope that ping-tennis would thrive and bring him the success and recognition that evaded him as an artist. He went to great measures to promote this sport, including a two-year visit to New York (see below), but like his art, also a hybrid, ping-tennis was appreciated for its originality and inventiveness, but failed to have a lasting impact. During Sanyu’s lifetime, he would find success in neither.

By the late 1930s and early 1940s with the war ravaging Europe, Sanyu fell into even more dire straits. Interest in ping-tennis dwindled and with no financial support, he could not even buy art supplies. Entries for salon exhibitions during this time indicate that Sanyu showed only sculptures of animals and figures (S001 and S002). Without the means to buy proper material, these sculptures are made of plaster and decorated with paint.

In 1948, Sanyu traveled to New York. Looking for a place to stay, he met the renowned Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank who was planning an extended trip to Paris. The two decided to exchange studios. A change of plans, however, kept Frank in New York and they became roommates. According to Frank, “Sanyu came to America to promote ping-tennis. That was his only reason for coming.”[11] As soon as Sanyu moved into Frank’s studio, he asked that all of Frank’s furniture be removed so that he could paint the floor with his ping-tennis court. “I’ll never forget the way he painted it,” Frank recalls, “It took days. He painted it with the utmost care. It was beautiful. I’m sorry that I didn’t photograph it.”[12] Sanyu confided to Frank that he was finished with painting and that for him, ping-tennis was the only way to attain financial prosperity. Evidently, he went to New York to look up von Cramm who had moved there from Germany after marrying the wealthy American heiress Barbara Hutton. Von Cramm, having personal difficulties himself, was in no position to help Sanyu and so Sanyu’s aspirations for his sport were once again thwarted. Aware of his friend’s disappointment, Frank organized an exhibition for Sanyu in New York, but none of the paintings sold. Disillusioned, Sanyu decided to return to Paris leaving all his paintings to Frank as a way of repaying him for supporting him during his two-year stay in New York. Over the next two decades, Sanyu and Frank developed a deep and abiding friendship. As Frank’s career as a photographer took off, he never forgot his dear friend and kept his paintings with him wherever he moved over the next fifty years. In 1997, Frank sold these paintings and donated the proceeds to establish the Sanyu Scholarship Fund at Yale University to support Chinese students of art.

When Sanyu returned to Paris in 1950, even though the post-war art market was recovering, he still had only meager success selling his paintings. He managed to survive by painting furniture and doing some carpentry work for Chinese friends in the restaurant business. There were a few promising moments for ping-tennis—such as when he sold a few sets of ping-tennis equipment to the French newspaper France Soir and when he was asked to give instructions at a sports club—but they amounted to virtually nothing. When Robert Frank visited Sanyu during this period, he sensed that Sanyu was lonely and ever more withdrawn. He didn’t have many friends and, according to Frank, people found it difficult to make contact with him. Perhaps the repeated disappointments in his life, whether as an artist or as the inventor of ping-tennis, forced him to acknowledge that no matter how difficult, he was first and foremost an artist. He is reported to have declared to a friend, “Finally, after a lifetime of painting, I now understand how to paint.”[13] In this period he abandoned the idyllic innocence of his early years and favored an uninhibited eroticism in his nudes, solitude in his animal subjects, austerity in his still lifes and desolation, even danger, in his landscapes—all reflecting moments of his life.

Due perhaps to his heightened artistic energy, Sanyu made several European artist friends, including Alberto Giacometti, and interacted more with artists in the Chinese community. In October of 1963, the Minister of Education of Taiwan, Huang Jilu, also a native of Sichuan, requested a visit with Sanyu. Sympathetic to Sanyu’s plight, Huang formally invited him to teach at the National Normal University in Taiwan and to hold a one-man exhibition in Taipei. Distanced from his homeland for so long and heartened by the gracious offer, he accepted Minister Huang’s invitation.

The following year, Sanyu shipped forty-two paintings to Taiwan for the proposed exhibition with the intention of making the trip there himself a few months later. For unknown reasons, his travel plans failed to materialize. He tried to get his paintings back, but to no avail. Shortly thereafter, Sanyu died and his paintings have remained in the safekeeping of the National Museum of History in Taiwan ever since.

On 12 August 1966, Mr. Hau Shing Kang, a Chinese friend who owned a restaurant in Paris, went to visit Sanyu at his studio at 28 rue de la Sablière. When his repeated knocks on the door went unanswered, he alerted the concierge. Upon forcing the door open, they smelled a strong gaseous odor and when they went up to Sanyu’s loft bedroom, they found him dead, lying in his bed with a book propped against his chest. According to Mr. Hau, Sanyu had a few friends over for a late dinner the night before and probably did not turn off his stove properly. After his friends left, Sanyu went up to read and, unaware of the gas leak, died in his sleep.

Even though the police report confirmed that he died of accidental gas intoxication, there remains the speculation that Sanyu, unable to overcome the seemingly endless and insurmountable obstacles that confronted him, had chosen to end his life. Friends who knew him, however, unanimously argue against this. Sanyu embraced life passionately, they claim, and in spite of all the agonizing difficulties he faced he was essentially optimistic, if not overly innocent, and never lost his beguiling sense of humor. Although delightful and winning to his friends, Sanyu nonetheless rarely engaged in intimate relationships. Without family or close friends, he was buried in an unmarked grave that was leased by the Franco-Chinese community services association—an anonymous ending to one whose dreams and aspirations eluded him.

In 1931 Sanyu was commissioned by his friend, Johan Franco, to make a large screen. He was excited about this project and wrote to Johan, “I would like to paint on your screen a group of horses or nude women or flowers... Tell me what you want. For me, it is all the same.”[14] This current exhibition at the Musée Guimet with the language of the body as its theme illuminates Sanyu’s spirit as an artist. Indeed, the subject matter of his painting was not his primary concern. Instead, Sanyu endeavored to distill his subjects, whether animals, nudes or still lifes, to their bare essence. His minimalist approach, informed by his Chinese roots linked to the emerging European modernism, melded a sensuous linearity with a spatial serenity. He once commented, “I don’t have anything in my life. I am simply a painter. 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.”[15]

All biographical information in this paper is based on Rita Wong, Sanyu Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, Yageo Foundation and Lin & Keng Publications, Taipei, 2001.

[1] Sanyu’s letter to Johan Franco, 18 February 1932.

[2] Ibid., 18 November 1931.

[3] Interview with Chang Yi-an, New York, June 1996.

[4] Sanyu was the artist’s personal romanization of his name based on the Sichuan dialect pronunciation. Chang Yu follows the more accepted hanyu pinyin system of transcription.

[5] Carlton Lake and Linda Ashton, Henri-Pierre Roché: an Introduction, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1991, p. 27.

[6] Sanyu’s letter to Johan Franco, 26 January 1932.

[7] “Henri Matisse, letter to Henry Clifford, Vence, 14 February 1948,” in Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968, pp. 140–41.

[8] Jan D. Voskuil, “Yu Sanyu,” Haarlem Courant, 22 October 1932, p. 17.

[9] Wang Zhiyi, Wuode pengyou Zhang Daqian (My friend Zhang Daqian), Hanyin seyan, Taipei, 1993, p. 145.

[10] Sanyu’s letter to Johan Franco, n.d., with the return address “chez Tseng, 11 Stahlheimer Str., Berlin N. 113.”

[11] Interview with Robert Frank, New York, June 1995.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Telephone interview with Albert Dahan, April 2000.

[14] Sanyu’s letters to Johan Franco, 28 and 30 November 1931.

[15] Sanyu’s letter to Johan Franco, 3 August 1932.

Written by Rita Wong