Memorable Era

Memorable Era
signed in Chinese (lower left)
ink and colour on paper
68.2 x 68.2 cm. (26 7/8 x 26 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1958
one seal of the artist
Private Collection, Asia
Leader of Chinese Modernism Art, Taipei, Taiwan, 1999 (illustrated, p. 213).
Sylvie Chen Art Gallery, The Portrait of Chinese painting in 20th Century, Taipei, Taiwan, 2007 (illustrated p. 63)

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Lot Essay

“When an artist is locked inside the studio, separated from life, separated from the people, then the things that he creates are of very little use.” —Lin Fengmian

Living at a crucial time in the 20th century, when East increasingly encountered West and new trends in thought surged through society at home and abroad, the outlook and the choices of the artist in China had far-reaching influence. As Lin Fengmian noted, “Works of art are products of a particular time and culture, reflecting the social life of the time, yet they remain the artist's own individual creations. The artist still has to accept these East-West exchanges in his own mind, and any fusion or transformation of the two ultimately requires the artist to make his own choices.” If artists such as Xu Beihong chose academic realism, Lin Fengmian chose a much more individualized form of expression. He took modern art as the platform on which to integrate Chinese and Western elements, and he focused on the individual's inner self, its expressions and reactions relative to society and life. During the 1950s, as the disruptive Great Leap Forward unfolded, Lin Fengmian created a series of works with an expressionistic flavor, works communicating a great deal of oppression, darkness, and fear. One of those, his Memorable Era, has fortunately survived until the present, as great many such paintings were destroyed during the ten-year catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution. In his later years, when he took up the brush and once again created a series called Nightmares, he recalled that period of time, noting that “I have a series of impressions and memories; during that period I often had nightmares.”

In 1958, as commanded under the Great Leap Forward, a great campaign was in full swing in China's rural areas to eliminate 'the four pests'. Sparrows were initially considered such a pest because they feed on mulberries, and everyone, from city to countryside, was ordered on one particular day to climb to the rooftops and scare the sparrows using drums and scarecrows until the sparrows died from exhaustion. The nationwide movement to kill sparrows succeeded, but brought in its train years of disaster in the form of locust infestations. Lin Fengmian witnessed this campaign, and contrary to his usual habit, he filled his Memorable Era with dark, somber colours; its segmented pieces crowd together, portraying the event through rows of distorted faces in rough, simplified lines. The mood of this piece recalls Picasso's Guernica in its turmoil and feeling, and a sense of agitation permeates the entire work, conveying the artist's subjective feelings toward the realities of his society. Unlike the reserved, elegant use of colour in his landscapes and paintings of female subjects, in this series Lin preferred to apply colour with heavy pressure on a dry brush. In many areas, he mixes inky blacks into the other colors to produce the painting's somber tones. Compositionally, he creates a three-dimensional space, a deep and nightmarish phantasmagoria; sparrows drop through the foreground in a clearly layered and defined space, separate from the floating specters behind. Through such means, Lin successfully weaves a mix of reality and fantasy in the single plane of this painting. Like Magritte, in Golconda, reality and illusion mix and contrast. But Lin Fengmian found an approach of his own, seamlessly fusing elements from different schools of Western modernism, his purpose to portray the land and the people of his memory.

In 1958, in response to guidance under the Great Leap Forward, Lin Fengmian went to the countryside to engage in physical labor under the auspices of the Chinese Artists Association, along with Guan Liang and Wu Dayu. His Memorable Era was for the most part created during this period. Facing grueling farm labor and getting close to the peasants in the countryside was not inconsistent with Lin's own outlook, given his birth in a mountain village, his simple, down-to-earth personality, and his love of nature, and one result seems to have been to inject a deeper vein of social concern into his works. Lin Fengmian in fact always advocated a kind of symbiosis between the artist and his times, and his Memorable Era expresses that creative outlook in his own unique manner. As he said with great feeling at the time, “When an artist is locked inside the studio, separated from life, separated from the people, then the things that he creates are of very little use.”

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