Early in the 20th century, as the meeting of Eastern and Western cultures began to impact the 5,000-year tradition of Chinese painting and calligraphy, Chinese artists began exploring means of presenting that tradition in a fresh way and infusing it with new life. The art of Lin Fengmian possesses an honesty and loveliness that reaches across all boundaries of language, culture, and nationality. The unfailing appeal of his art is founded on perceptions and interpretations of beauty that indeed imbue the Chinese tradition with new richness and vitality. Both Lin Fengmian's creative achievements and his work as a teacher would have a far-reaching influence on the subsequent flourishing of the modern Chinese painting movement.
For Lin Fengmian, Chinese opera was not just an entertainment that he enjoyed after his move to Shanghai; it was a creative wellspring whose captivating stories and stage effects provided vivid themes for his paintings. In Lin's canvases, the beauty and tradition of Chinese opera undergo a further distillation and transformation. Said Lin,
"The inspiration I derive from Chinese opera and its stage makeup is something I try to inject into my painted figures...when I watch Beijing opera I sense in it the flavor of Chinese dance, which I express through the modern forms in my work." The leading character roles in Beauty Defies Tyranny (Lot 609) are the treacherous minister Zhao Gao and his daughter, who must feign madness to preserve her integrity. The upsweep of the girl's white sleeves in Lin's painting captures a sense of motion and hints at the plot of the opera, involving a clash of opposing factions in the palace. Lin's work reflects the flowing, continuous motion of Chinese opera by juxtaposing various time frames on a single canvas, and in contrast to concepts about depiction of three-dimensional space on a flat canvas, Lin deliberately enfolds into his composition a series of flat images that represent the progression of scenes in the opera.
Lin's composition employs strong geometrical elements and features two main figures that form overlapping, essentially circular shapes. In the surrounding areas within the square space of the art paper, Lin further adds planes of color, suggestive of the stage backdrops of the theater. While the background is handled with an appropriate suggestion of backlighting from a source behind the central figures, highlighting their relative positions enriches the depth of the painting.
The application of white lines and areas of powdery white over other, heavier colors creates a gauzy effect; Lin Fengmian was fond of using white veils and feathered costumes to evoke the idea of fairy goddesses, and also employed veils in his classical portraits of female subjects. Here, along with Lin's backlighting effects, the result is transparency and gracefulness; the sensation of viewing is illusory, imagined space emerges through panes of semi-transparent crystals. Effects such as these reveal both the extent of Lin's meticulous attention to composition and his consummate skill with the brush. This Lin Fengmian work joins the loveliness of traditional Chinese portraits of female subjects and the Beijing opera themes in which the artist pursued his special exploration of temporal and spatial dynamics.