Sanyu’s Last Nude Painting Could Fetch Record-Breaking HK$150m at Sotheby’s Hong Kong

Various phenomenal masterpieces of modern art took the center stage at Sotheby’s recent auctions, including Juin-Octobre 1985, the largest work by abstract painter Zao Wou-ki; Wu Guanzhong’s Lotus Flowers (I) that was created during the Cultural Revolution; Wheels: Industrial New York that was created by Yun Gee for the reopening of MoMa.

And there is no exception for this coming season. This autumn, Sotheby’s Hong Kong presents Sanyu’s last nude painting, Nu, which is expected to fetch in excess of HK$150m (US$19m), a new auction record for the artist. It also marks the auction debut of the painting since it was created more than a half a century ago.  

Sanyu, Nu, oil on masonite, 1965, 122.5 by 135 cm|expected to fetch in excess of HK$150m

Sanyu, a Chinese-French painter, is considered a legend in Asian art and a luminary in Western art history. 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, in which the present nude painting was created.

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. 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. This painting was the cover image of the invitation to the exhibition. 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.

This painting was also chosen as 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 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.

If Nu is sold for price within its estimate, it will obliterate the current auction record held by the artist's Five Nudes, which was sold for HK$128m in 2011 at Ravenel Auction Hong Kong.

We also invited Vinci Chang, Sotheby’s Head of Modern Asian Art, to share insight with us on this amazing nude painting. Please stay tuned.

Sanyu (1901-1966). Nu

Created in: 1965
Size: 122.5 x 135cm
Expected to fetch in excess of HK$150m (US$19m)

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Modern Art Evening Sale
Taipei preview: 21-22 September|Hua Nan Bank International Convention Center
Hong Kong preview: 3-5 October|Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre
Hong Kong auction: 5 October|Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre