Lin Fengmian spent a lifetime exploring the fusion of Eastern and Western artistic traditions, a field in which he made outstanding contributions. His achievements can be attributed to his understanding and love of both Western contemporary art, as well as Chinese classical and folk art. Moreover, because he never pursued fame and fortune, even while facing great adversity he devoted himself to study; although he is no longer with us, his spirit still lives on in others.
- Wu Guanzhong, Lin Fengmian: Master of his Generation
The May Fourth Movement of the 1920's began a brandnew page for China's New Cultural Era. Groups of highminded intellectuals returned to the fatherland from their studies abroad, and in turn brought with them Western ideals of democracy and science, revolutionizing and advancing the development of Chinese art. The intellectuals were enlightened by Western influences during their studies overseas, and they assimilated the essence of contemporary Western literature and art. They consequently began infusing Chinese artistic context with Western literary ideologies, widening their reach and applications, unlocking the door to new cultural dimensions for China in the 20th century.
A contemporary fine arts educator, and a modern art pioneer in 20th century China, Lin Fengmian is one of the most iconic innovators in Chinese art history. After his return to China, Lin established the National College of Art in Hangzhou in 1928, and served as the school's first president. His liberal style and open-mindedness, his innovative approach to education by blending Chinese and Western styles have enabled the Academy to nurture and inspire Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun and Wu Guanzhong - arguably the most representative Chinese artists; and steer Chinese art education to new horizons. Lin had made "blending Chinese and Western art practices" the pursuit of his life: from art theories to actual application, Lin married Chinese and Western art practises with his creative input, and braved a new path for Chinese painting with the spirit of a contemporary artist and aesthetician. This oil piece created by Lin in the 1950's, Fishing Village(Lot 2512), is the quintessence of ultimate artistic attainment: it celebrates the artist's compositional finesse, skillful manipulation of light and space, and his breakthroughs in fusing Chinese and Western arts in masterful colour application.
In early 1950's, Lin resigned from the College and moved to Shanghai to start his life as a semi-recluse. The liberal climate in Shanghai's art community, and the more financially secure lifestyle there allowed Lin to devote himself completely into his creative vision as he welcomed a boom in artistic creations after his days at the College. In mid- and late 1950's, artists were encouraged to experience life in factories and farm villages, and Lin shifted his focus to the magnificence of natural panoramas. His travels took him to Huangshan in Anhui, Dongshan in Suzhou, Zhoushan in Zhejian, and Xin'an River. A down-to-earth man with an appetite for life, Lin found himself drawn to the natural landscape and rustic charms of the country after his extensive contact with farmers, whose friendliness touched him deeply. These experiences also inspired Lin to create a number of pieces on life in the farming village. Lin Fengmian's student, Zhu Ying, said as much about Lin's works during this particular period in Art with Taste: 'Lin was all alone after his wife and daughter left the country (1955), yet that freed him up for more industrious art-making. At that time, Lin travelled to the rustic countryside often to capture the sight of farmers labouring in the field and fall harvests in his many paintings. He heeded the silhouette movement of the characters to give his work a storyline and rich variations, ensuring specific decorativeness of the work, while taking a step back from overdramatised detailing. His palette was powerful, the silhouette free and bold to make a strong statement.' Fishing Village is a masterpiece of this particular stage in Lin's career: the sailboats afar rock gently, and the fish in the foreground leap in joy and bask in the golden twilight, radiating peacefulness. The work symbolised favourable weather and abundance. This piece is composed in Lin's signature 'square format': the presentation in its entirety is characterised by the cavalier perspective over the surface, instead of more defined proportions of distances with perspective. Interlacing lines and overlapping colour blocks are used to dimensionalise the depths of the composition.
Although the inspiration came from real-life, Lin was not interested in limiting his art to the conventional, static sketches; instead, he wanted to highlight the 'movement' of his figures and objects. The characters in his works are disjoined by movements first before reassembling; the silhouettes of his characters and objects are striking and forceful, giving them a visual, dynamic grace. And instead of overdramatised detailing, Lin made coloured blocks the centre of his characters, metamorphosing and exaggerating the shapes to make them more abstract and geometric, then reassembling the geometric blocks to be restructured. The result is a rich strata of architectural effect. In addition to heightening the structure of the composition, Lin also blended the rhythm of Chinese paintings into the confines of the work. Wu Guanzhong lavished praise on Lin's art: 'the whole of the composition moves at his command; not an inch wasted.' The positioning of the boats is orderly; the masts and boat decks are juxtaposed with clean, crisp lines to create a superimposed, geometric impression. The display also combines the texture of cubist art: boats of varying colours loll in the golden twilight, magnifying the sense of spatial vastness. The work also acknowledges Impressionistic rendition and reinterpretation of light, while echoing the artistic conception of 'a thousand-mile landscape captured in a tiny snapshot' in Chinese art.
On the other hand, the artist intended to spotlight the ordinary women in farming and fishing villages to salute the ladies of a new era, celebrating their vivacity and courage in a 'painting of many beauties.' Women have always been Lin's favourite subject. Since 1940's, 'The Ladies of Lin Fengmian' revisited the natural elegance of feminine beauty with a timeless yet refreshing style. Born into a blue-collared family in a mountainous Guandong village, Lin also acknowledged the industriousness of women with his art. In Fishing Village, viewers get to meet a hardworking matron, a robust and self-possessed young woman, a coquettish maiden, and a sprightly small girl. They either stand, or sit; talk, or hold still. Everyone focuses on the job at hand. The characters in the foreground sit in a circle: the visual focus is drawn to the fish-filled creel and the delight with the harvest. The backlit display, and the unique headdresses worn by fishermen in eastern Zhejiang seem to place a golden halo on every figure, evocative of the Madonna in the church and the corona she wears. The work powerfully portrays the gentleness and virtue of Asian women, the beauty of maternal love, the rosy glow of a robust woman, and the joy over the fruit of one's labour. Reminiscent of Millet's tribute to the working class in the 19th century, the piece offers a new rendition of 'Ladies of Lin Fengmian' in a tumultuous time: it is a testimonial to ordinary labourers, and 'women as pillars of the earth.'
This piece has quite a long history with Christie's Hong Kong. Lin Fengmian produced only a handful of oils, and it makes this work a rare find. Mr. Robert Chang took this piece home in a Christie's Hong Kong sale in 1990, and it has been in his possession since. In parting with this rare gem and by virtue of The Pioneers Sale, Mr. Chang hopes to pay homage to this visionary artist of the 20th century, who fused Chinese and western practises and charted new artistic territories.