Traditional Chinese painters relied on multiple points of perspective where scenes and landscapes are 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 the 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.
Seascape (Lot 1322) clearly illustrates Lin Fengmian's successful blend of Chinese and Western aesthetics, the quintessence of his artistic accomplishment. The composition of Seascape is very neat but shrewdly calculated. A series of analogous colors of blue, black, green, grey, and white, are used to divide the painting into three sections: the sky, the sea, and the beach. Lin's use of color in many ways parallels that of Western Abstractionist, Mark Rothko; this is particularly true in Lin's appreciation for the expressive qualities of pure color. Inheriting but transforming the three-section structure of Ni Tsan (1301-1374) the famous Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) literati painter, Lin's painting expresses a calm and peaceful aura. In contrast to the distant mountains, some thatched cottages and tiny buildings are settled at the corner, an apparent reference to the structural composition of Ma Yuan (1160-1225) from the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1276). This strong diagonal line breaks and changes the conformity and regularity of the horizontal structures, adding a sense of liveliness to the painting. Intricately applied, the horizontal layers of thick strokes on the sky are formed by alternate thick-and-thin layers of watercolor. Apart from filling the scene with moisture, this skill also increases the airy feeling of light and shade and has thus become a remarkable symbol of Lin's painting. In addition, the bank of clouds flowing in slow motion, symbolize time, stillness and peacefulness, creating a timeless poetic atmosphere in the painting. Besides strengthening the sense of distance of the scene, it also makes people think of the ancient Chu cultures which were rich in content, romantic and mysterious in style.
Two pieces from the Peking Opera series painted by Lin in the 1940s featured in this season's sale vividly display the artist's exploration of color and spatial structures. During his settlement in Shanghai, Lin was very much engaged in operas. As play-going became a major activity in his daily life, it laid a solid foundation for what would become a dominant theme and inspiration in his art practice. Under numerous persecutions and slanders during the Cultural Revolution, Lin suffered from the total destruction of his 2000 pieces of artwork accumulated over decades after his return to China for teaching. As such, these two pieces are exceptionally rare for having survived that period and are extraordinarily precious. Existing early works of Lin were collected by individuals or families during the thirties and forties, so that over the last 50 years, only with occasional transfers of estates might these historic pieces find their way onto the market. Lin Fengmian had more room for creation and thinking later in his life when settled in Hong Kong. He also resumed writing and reconstructed the aesthetic characteristics of his early works. Hence, when examining the overall art development of Lin Fengmian, the works in the 1940s display the core characteristics and structures of his art. And also because of that, any works privately collected before the 1940s have a deeper historical meaning and value for the study of Lin's aesthetic development than some similar works painted at the later time.
Lin Fengmian's technical facility is fully displayed in Lady in Peking Opera (Lot 1323). His execution of brushwork is fluent and smooth; on the elongated face and thin fingers of the ladies, or their tendered garment and long dark hair, the stroke is once and for all without any hesitation or deviation, showing a clear, precise and expressive linear style. In addition to the smooth lines in Peking Opera Ballet, variations in color washes give a soft mood. Subtle strokes of blue and cyan are knitted together, adding to the complexity in layering, increasing the effect of light and shadow as well as enhancing the ambiguous beauty of the figures. The artist's mastery of ink, watercolor and gouache is apparent in the semi-transparent texture of the powder-cyan drapery and white gauze of the ladies. As Lin said, "I am mostly influenced by the color of Chinese ceramics...especially the transparent-like porcelains from the official kiln and longquan kiln in Song Dynasty". As such, his interest in clear and clean colors like sky blue, or the light green of the pond, is not without its origins. The artwork not only reflects the typical full lines and classical artistic conception of Song porcelains, but also resembles the glaze of longquan (Figure 1) on the ladies' dress. Neutral, fresh and harmonious, the colors seemingly project the character of a Chinese traditional gentleman who neither humbled himself nor showed opulence, thus injecting the painting with a classical feel of the literati tradition. A special emphasis is put on the tension of structure and spatial layering. Lin Fengmian achieves this by overlapping the three figures and their clothes. The foremost lady wearing bright blue is the most prominent. Yet her open-armed posture and fluttered clothes leads the viewer's attention to the lady in cyan-coloured garment at the back. This rhythmic composition repeats and finally stops at the male actor in blue. The overlapping and interlocking of the three figures form the spatial structure of the painting subtly indicated the sophisticated relationship and circumstances in a Peking Opera. The structure is tensely, at the same time casually, formed with the lively changes of layers "cyan-blue-cyan". As such, Lin stakes his place within contemporary debates within modern art over representing multi-dimensionality of the world and synthesis of time. Lin Fengmian concluded that: "story-telling in old operas is sectional...a continuation of time and concept that seems to exist from one take to another...I fold the figures in every take on the canvas surface after seeing them in the old operas, just like Picasso folding an object on a plane surface. I try to show the synthetic continuity rather than the volume of a figure." His commentary provides us a special insight into his Peking Opera series. To him, the overlapping of figures and interlocking of colors are the main characteristics of Cubist paintings, and the key breaking conventional monotonous design of space. The chapped and staccato wiped brushstrokes at the background vivify the whole painting. Lin's paintings, innocent and spiritual, as light and soft as the dance of the ladies and the feathered dress, display the poetic expression inherent to his best works.