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Sanyu's final masterpiece leads Sotheby's HK Modern Art Evening sale
Sanyu, Nu, oil on masonite, 1965, 122.5 by 135 cm. Courtesy Sotheby's.

HONG KONG.- Sotheby’s Hong Kong will present Sanyu’s Nu, the ultimate masterpiece created by the Chinese émigré artist in France in the 1960s, at the Modern Art Evening Sale on 5 October. Painted at the height of his artistic maturity, this last nude by Sanyu is also the artist’s final masterpiece and the definitive expression of his singular vision. Extensively illustrated in every catalogue of Sanyu’s oil paintings, Nu was the cover image of the invitation to the artist’s final solo exhibition. Appearing on the market for the first time in more than half a century, this exceedingly rare work is set to cause tremendous excitement among collectors in Asia and beyond.

Vinci Chang, Sotheby’s Head of Modern Asian Art, comments: “Sanyu’s paintings began with floral motifs and culminated with female nudes. Throughout his life, the artist strove to distil his creative vision, a process that reached its zenith with Nu, his final masterpiece. This season, we are honoured to offer Sanyu’s last nude painting, which has dazzled and captivated viewers for half a century, and to present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire a work that stands at the pinnacle of the artist’s career.”

A legend in Asian art and a luminary in Western art history, Sanyu spent much of his life as a drifter in Paris. In the 1920s, he went to the city with fellow Chinese art students – among them Lin Fengmian, Wu Dayu and Xu Beihong. Together they wrote a glorious chapter for Chinese émigré artists in France. By the 1940s and 1950s, Sanyu had become revered in Paris, by Wu Guanzhong, Zhang Daqian, Zao Wou-Ki, and Chu Teh-Chun, among others. He remained a purist through to old age in the 1960s, disregarding critical judgement as he focused on the final chapter of his career.

On 17 December 1965, Sanyu mounted his last solo exhibition, hosted by close friends Mr. and Mrs. Lévy at their family residence on Rue du Moulin Vert. The opening was attended by a group that included Pan Yuliang, Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun and Shiy De-Jinn. Unfortunately, Sanyu died from an accident in his Paris apartment only a few months after the exhibition, making Nu, which was created in April 1965, his final masterpiece.

The importance of Nu in Sanyu’s artistic career is undisputed. It was the cover image of the invitation to the Lévy Residence exhibition and the poster image for Hommage à Sanyu, an exhibition organised by the legendary dealer and collector Jean-Claude Riedel in his gallery in 1977. From the 1990s to the present, Nu has been illustrated in every catalogue of Sanyu’s oil paintings. As one of the largest paintings of a female nude by Sanyu, Nu is much more ambitious than any of the works in the National Museum of History collection in Taipei, which also houses the eponymous oil sketch for the work. Due to its singular importance, Nu was the highlight of the major 2004 exhibition Sanyu: l’ecriture du corps at the Musée Guimet in Paris.

Sanyu’s exploration of the female nude as a subject for his art seemed to accord with the 20th century Parisian art world, but was in fact also an extension of his Asian literati sensibilities. If in the West the human body was regarded as a manifestation of divinity, then in the East such a concept was found in natural landscapes. By combining the aesthetics of both traditions, Sanyu saw a path forward for each.

His nudes from the 1950s and 1960s began to show a radical new style, with painting on a monumental scale and the depiction of the female body in unconventional ways. Nu presents a surprising vision of a nude prostrate against a white, abstract background, her legs bent and folded in an L shape. Sanyu adopts a highly unusual angled perspective that exaggerates the nude’s lower body and genitals. More than simply presenting the beauty of a woman’s body, he exaggerates and transforms it into something akin to a traditional Asian landscape painting.

In Nu, Sanyu at once liberates the female nude from romanticism and eroticism, and creates a modernist interpretation of Asian landscape aesthetics. By exaggerating the nude’s lower body, he toys with discomforting the viewer; and by openly presenting this area of the body which for thousands of years would have been considered taboo, he reveals the expressiveness of the human body at its fullest.

Before Nu, Sanyu had painted a similar composition on a smaller scale (46.5 x 49.5 cm) which he sent to Taipei in 1964 for his solo exhibition at the National Museum of History, where it remains today. Enlarged to a scale seven times the earlier work, Nu is more expressive, more mature in conception, and more visually impactful.

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