The first time Sanyu encountered the exotic and strange world of nude sketching was in the 1920s at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. For the average Chinese person at that time, it must have been hard to accept that depictions of naked woman should be anything but a form of glorified pornography, even though in the West there was a long tradition of nude art. Back in China, in the years before Sanyu left for Europe, prominent painter and art educator Liu Haisu had introduced the practice of sketching from nude models to Shanghai, a move that sent major ripples through Chinese society and triggered a heated ten-year dispute over naked models and nudity in art. Sanyu, who was personally acquainted with Liu, must have been aware of those goings-on, and he would remain fascinated with the glamorous subject of nude painting right up to the 1950s.
The 1950s were also the time in which "Five Nudes" was completed, the largest currently known female nude oil painting by the artist, and also the one depicting the biggest number of nude women in one single opus. It is also noteworthy that in contrast with the customary sitting or reclining positions, these women are all standing up. According to Rita Wong's Sanyu: Catalogue Raisonné Oil Paintings, of the artist's known extant 51 female nude oil paintings, only seven feature standing postures, and four of these belong to the period between 1920 and 1930, all of them showing a nude pair. The fifth is "Nude with Puppy" from the 1940s, originally part of Robert Frank's collection, and the last two, both from the 1950s, are "Nude in Front of a Mirror", which currently belongs to the collection of the National Museum of History in Taipei, and this lot, the magnificently sensuous "Five Nudes".
The great masters of classical and modern Western painting usually liked to depict nudes in reclining or horizontal positions, such as lying on their side, their back, or flat on their belly. Examples include Titian's courtesans, Giorgione's "Sleeping Venus", François Boucher's "Nude on a Sofa (aka Reclining Girl)" and Manet's "Olympia", as well as nudes by 20th-century artists such as Modigliani, Picasso and Matisse.
Of course there are exceptions: French Neoclassicist painter Jean-August Dominique Ingres' "The Source"(1856) is a typical example of a standing nude. However, the first painting coming to mind in this context is probably Italian Early Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus". After the mid-19th century, standing nudes suddenly gained in popularity, mostly depicted in bathing scenes (likely reflecting the influence of Turkish bathing culture). Examples are found in Paul Cézanne's and Auguste Renoir's work, especially the latter's "Baigneuses" paintings.
During the early 20th century, Picasso was impressed by the aesthetic qualities of African wooden masks, an influence that clearly shows in his "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907), which features five nudes, four of them in a standing posture. This piece is generally considered to be one of the seminal works in the development of Cubism, and with its radical departure from conventional nude representations, and its abstracted, disjointed body shapes, it offers the viewer a fresh perspective on reality. Another painting, Matisse's "La Danse" from 1910, also shows five nudes, but they are dancing in a circle, holding each other by the hands, and their shape and style is reminiscent of classical Greek and Roman sculpture. The coloring is kept deliberately simple: just intense warm hues of red, blue and green. Both the Picasso and the Matisse painting are among the classics of modern art.
Naturally, Sanyu, who practically spent more than four decades of his life in Paris, would have seen or known most of the nude masterpieces described above, and it may well have inspired the wish to create a monumental work like that himself. Of course, with his background in Chinese painting and calligraphy, Sanyu painted nudes that still display some marked differences when put in the context of the Western tradition. Albert Dahan, a former reporter with France Soir and one of the artist's friends in his later years, perfectly captured the hybrid nature of Sanyu's work when he described him as the "Matisse Chinois," a moniker that gained some currency at the time. Dahan praised Sanyu's nudes for the fluidity and sensitivity of the black lines delineating the body shapes, always drawn with quick and sure single strokes. Like Matisse, Sanyu was very fond of painting female nudes, and liked to enhance his compositions with decorative patterns or geometrical shapes, yet the resultant style and mood is very distinct from the French painter's.
Make no mistake, Matisse's work—at least to European eyes—did have something of an Oriental flair, Middle Eastern maybe, mixed with a Mediterranean predilection for ornate embellishments. Sanyu's nudes, on the other hand, are rendered in an artistic language that is intensely individual and idiosyncratic, and cannot be readily compared to any particular model or prototype. Employing the calligraphic lines he had excelled at since his early youth, Sanyu imported the liubai (roughly: "leaving blank spaces") concept of Chinese landscape painting into his tightly composed oil paintings, thereby creating an alluring amalgam of Western-style overt expressiveness and subtly humorous Oriental understatement. Other elements effortlessly incorporated into his nudes include patterns and palettes from Chinese folk art and handicrafts—as we saw earlier, Sanyu had an intimate knowledge of these from his experiences in his family's silk business, as well as later in Shanghai, were he was exposed to the budding art of advertising design in the form of billboards, calendars and other popular media, or even in his later years in Paris, when he had to work in an imitation antiques factory, decorating screens and lacquerware to earn a living.
In "Five Nudes" we find exactly the type of women Sanyu was so partial to: big, tall, voluptuous, and sure of their charms, but at the same time tantalizingly casual and nonchalant. As usual, they have a sculpted feel about them, and their shapes are slightly distorted to accentuate the lower halves of their bodies, making them ooze with feminine sexuality. For all that, and in spite of the fact that the five nudes in this lot fill up almost the entire picture, the prevailing atmosphere is one of peculiar restraint and elegance, redolent of a very Eastern penchant for implying rather than revealing one's inner world. The women's hands and feet are done in the emblematic "comb-style" first found in his paintings from around 1925. According to art critic Antoine Chen's research, there is a Matisse portrait of a lady, with the artist's signature showing it to be from 1946, in which the lady's fingers are represented very much in the same "teeth-of-a-comb" fashion that is typical for much of Sanyu's work. Now it is far from certain whether Matisse ever met Sanyu, although it is quite possible that he had seen some of the Chinese artist's work, seeing as they moved in similar circles and were both part of the vibrant Parisian art scene. Whether or not there was any influence, however indirect or obscure, or if we are simply dealing with a "great minds think alike" scenario, is something we will probably never know for sure, but there is no doubt at all that in terms of talent and skill, Sanyu bears comparison with even the greatest among European painters.
The opulent tones of yellow and red that make up the background of "Five Nudes" are rarely found in Western-style painting, but are staple colors in Chinese folk art, handicrafts and everyday life, where they symbolize prosperity and good fortune, or help to generate a festive atmosphere. Very similar hues are also seen in Sanyu's late flower stills. In the foreground of the painting we can discern little flowery designs that are drawn in comparatively fine black lines. These can be observed in oil paintings from every period of the artist's career, and a closer look reveals them to be peony-shaped designs, the kind that were traditionally applied as decorative patterns to ceramic vases, furniture or garments. As we have mentioned, Sanyu's earliest known painting is "Peonies"—a recurring motif, then, that possibly reflects his longing for a better past when life was easier. After all, in China the peony is considered to be the "king of flowers" and frequently serves as a symbol for affluence and nobility.
In his book Overseas Chinese Fine Arts Series—Sanyu, Antoine Chen gives a detailed introduction to "Five Nudes": "After WWII, Sanyu painted considerably fewer nudes. There are now only about a dozen from that period to be found on the global market. "Five Nudes" is a monumental work dating from 1955, in which dark red and bright yellow serve to set off the white figures of the nudes, each of them striking a distinct pose. There is significantly less distortion of their shapes when compared with the artist's 1930s nudes, yet neither is the style realistic. The somewhat choppily outlined black contours create the brand of almost classical simplicity typical of some of Sanyu's late work. Some of his inspiration for this piece may have been derived from a pencil sketch from his early years titled "Four Nudes", although the dissimilarities in technique and effect are actually more striking than the parallels. One thing the two works have in common is that in each the three women to the left have just one eye, even though at least part of the other "should" be visible, even with their heads slightly cocked to the side. When a friend from North Africa asked him about this, Sanyu gave an unexpected and rather cryptic answer, 'I may be painting women with only one eye, but in reality I love nothing more than women who are absolutely perfect.' Maybe he had a twinkle in his eye when he said this, and maybe a possible interpretation of the "missing" eyes is that these women are winking at the observer: an intimate gesture that can be flirtatious or indicate tacit understanding, and in any case leaves some room for the imagination—something quite in sync with Paris in the 1930s, where nothing seemed certain and everything possible. There is a photo of Sanyu by the seaside from around 1945, showing him winking at the camera. In "Five Nudes", the main hair colors found in Europe are all represented: blond, black, brunette and red, putting one in mind of young Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita's picture of five young girls with different hair colors. Under the brush of the mature Sanyu, we get five full-grown women in beautiful, confident postures. As for the artist himself, at this point in his life he has come a long way from the wealthy young dandy from Sichuan. The carefree man of the world, while having matured as an artist, yet seems to have been cut down to the size of a Pekingese lapdog or cute little kitten, more than happy to put himself at the mercy of larger-than-life nude women. The peony patterns scattered across the yellow carpet in the painting's foreground can probably be read as a metaphor for the life as a member of a rich and influential family in the "old" China, where wealthy men could have several wives and concubines. Or in the words of the painter Shiy De-jinn, "Once a ladies"man, always a ladies' man." There is another nude painting by Sanyu to be considered in this context, Four Reclining Nudes (1963), currently in the collection of the National Museum of History in Taipei. Here the artist employs a bird's-eye view to show four women lying close to each other on their backs, head and feet alternating. Taking up nearly the entire canvas, their orange-yellow bodies quite literally push the similar colored bed sheet—embroidered with the decorative Chinese characters for happiness, wealth and longevity—to the fringes of the picture, marked at the top and bottom by narrow red margins. The composition swings with a kind of undulating rhythm, generated mainly by the smoothly interlocking bodies and the curves of the closely adjoining breasts and legs. Monotony is avoided by arranging the hands and feet in a variety of positions. If we compare the earlier "Five Nudes" with this painting, we find that as he grew older, Sanyu expressed himself in an increasingly direct and revealing fashion—it seems that in "Four Reclining Nudes" the last vestiges of constraint and cool understatement have been brushed aside in favor of a much more blunt expressiveness." (Antoine Chen [Chen Yen-fon], Overseas Chinese Fine Arts Series—Sanyu, Artist Publishing Company, Taipei, 1995, pp. 51-52)
Now, this coming May, a very attractive lot will be offered for sale at auction: the oil painting "Five Nudes", also from 1950. It is the largest of Sanyu's nudes and was previously shown at the 1988 exhibition "China – Paris, Seven Chinese Painters Who Studied in France, 1918-1960" at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. It also graced the front and back cover of art critic Antoine Chen's 1995 book Overseas Chinese Fine Arts Series- Sanyu, a further indication of the painting's important position in the artist's oeuvre. "Five Nudes" was also the work that represented the artist at the 2010 exhibition "Treasures of the Century—Masters of 20th Century Chinese Art" held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center. Now this monumental lot is up for sale, and there is much expectation that it will set a new price record for a Sanyu painting.