The art of Lin Fengmian holds great aesthetic value and historical significance, and has established a milestone in the development of modern Chinese painting. In his efforts to modernize and reinvigorate traditional Chinese painting, Lin established a fundamentally unique and creative form of expression, a style that played as important a role in Chinese modern art as Impressionism played in the development of Western art. Before the development of Impressionism, Western art was confined to the naturalistic representation. However, in closely studying the principles of optics and applying them to their art, the Impressionists placed emphasis on showing the perception and transience of light, and began to manipulate the effects of changing light conditions. As a result, the transformative quality of nature is revealed through their distinctive style of interpretation. Their use of overlapping, short brushstrokes not only reinvigorated paintings with its textural depth, but also inspired the subsequent generations of artists to explore the use of pure color.
In a similar manner, Lin Fengmian successfully reinterpreted the essence of Chinese traditional painting and opened up a brand new chapter in the development of Chinese art. Traditional Chinese painters relied on multiple points of perspective where scenes and landscapes were arranged relatively loosely across the scroll. Rather than conveying three-dimensional depth, they preferred to seek a more relaxed and flexible relationship between objects in the same perceived spatial dimension. Although ink as a medium is limited in its ability to present colors and textural quality compared to the oil medium, Lin Fengmian exercised the tonal variations of ink to its full potential under the banner of "reviving Chinese Art". In using colors of the same hue, Lin presented a unique artistic ambience characteristic of spiritual emptiness. His ability to balance spatial depths and relationships between colors of similar hues within well-structured compositions enriched his pictures of daily life with a unique ambience and expression of his emotions. Romantic and fanciful, the elegant and expressive brushstrokes of Lin's paintings display a highly stylistic and dream-like artistic vision. The thick gouache washes used in Autumn Twilight in a Forest (Lot 1007) is a fine example of Lin's successful blend of Chinese and Western aesthetics, the quintessence of his artistic accomplishment.
Autumn Twilight in a Forest has implicit symbols that are arranged in a strict manner. A continuous mountain group fills up the background of the painting that stands against the blue sky. The viewer's eye is drawn to the middle ground and a row of lush trees beside a silent river. The river in the foreground, depicted in overlapping layers of colours, reflects the images of the mountain and the forest. Lin has made consummate use of the watercolor medium in constructing more complex spatial layers than the Chinese traditional landscape paintings. Even within a small composition, Lin Fengmian is able to depict light and shade of the bold autumn colors within the shining twilight with considerable mastery. The horizontal mountain range contrasts with the verticality of the trees, along with the quietness of the flowing water, creating a vivacious composition of alternating horizontals and verticals, and void and solids. The rhythmic and orderly arrangement of the solid forms against empty space is suggestive of the spatial structure in Western compositions, but also incorporates the rigorous and subtle essence of Chinese traditions.
In Lady (Lot 1006), he uses semi-transparent lines and a grid-like pattern to structure the whole canvas surface, displaying the characteristics of both Cubism and Post-Impressionism. Lines are smooth and subdued and hints at the relaxed attitude of the lady, the comfortable posture of her body as well as the natural extension of her garment. The elegant posture of the lady echoes the form of Chinese blue and white ceramics. Lin Fengmian uses colors from the same scheme to enhance harmony, layering the painting with a tactful arrangement of color and structural forms. The upper part of her garment is separated from the lower by dark and light greys. Her crossed-leg sitting posture also enhances the variation of grayish color and thus strengthens the layering. In addition, the artist has applied a few horizontal strokes ingeniously across the brownish background to enrich the color layering of the whole piece. As such, Lin Fengmian's characteristic use of color is fully manifest. Lin Fengmian has mastered the principles of deconstruction and geometric forms of Cubism, embodied in George Braque's Woman with a Guitar (Fig.1) but retains his romantic and atmospheric style. His lady in the boudoir is sentimental and expresses a subtle, soft mood of contemplation. As such, his art is fueled by the theoretical base of Cubism, Expressionism and Abstraction, yet rooted deeply in traditional Chinese aesthetic values, signifying Lin's successful fusion of these two world views.
The expressivity of ink was not significantly developed until Lin Fengmian. He was proficient in using ink, watercolor and gouache to project natural scenes in his paintings. Transparent, luminous and bright, the watercolor he used imitates the traditional painting brushstrokes and effects of blending and spreading of Chinese ink. Lin Fengmian's works present the glittering vistas as well as the aesthetic principles of abstraction. In contrast to the solid textures of oil painting, however, his use of ink and gouache conveys a sense of tenderness and purity, romantic charms and emotional sentiments, forming Lin's own individual style of creation.
Due to historical and political reasons, it is not until recently that the accomplishments of Lin Fengmian have been suitably and fully recognized. Once historical reference materials on Lin's artworks became available, Michael Sullivan, a renowned Western scholar in Chinese modern art, promptly acknowledged Lin's significance in Chinese art by saying that "knowing Western art (especially post-Impressionism) weighed more than any other Chinese artists in his time, and befriended Matisse, Lin Fengmian created a brand new style by blending together the intrinsic aesthetic value of the West with his own interpretation of Chinese art. It was not a coincidence that the last most prominent group of modernist artists in this century like Zhao Wou-ki, Chu Teh-chun and Wu Guanzhong have all inherited this from him." Lin Fengmian was among a handful of the first generation of Chinese artists who firmly established and directed the modernization undertaking of Chinese art. His concern with the changes of shades and light, composition and spatial structures, allowed him to transmit the beauty his subjects by combining all that visual elements and strokes in the painting, but also conveyed poetic mood, an appreciation for pure abstraction and expressive qualities. Lin Fengmian successfully led the tradition of Chinese painting into wider, richer and more modernized terrain, surpassing all his contemporaries who also strove to blend the essential qualities of both Chinese art and Western art together.