Opera Figures

Opera Figures
signed in Chinese (lower left)
ink and colour on paper
68 x 68 cm (26 3/4 x 26 3/4 in.)
one seal of the artist
Anon. sale, Christie's Hong Kong, 29 April 2001, Lot 36
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner
Private collection, Asia
Tina Keng Gallery, R/evolution, Taipei, Taiwan, 2009 (illustrated, p. 36)
Taipei, Taiwan, Lin & Keng Gallery, Lin Fengmian, 11 June- 3 July 2005.
Taipei, Taiwan, Tina Keng Gallery, R/evolution, 1 November-27 November 2009.

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Lot Essay

The contradiction between time and space seems to be easy to solve in these old dramas, just as Picasso sometimes solved the problem by folding objects on a plane. My own method is that after seeing an old Chinese opera, with their different characters in scene after scene, I take those characters one by one and fold them into the picture space. My goal is not the feeling of volume in the figures; what I seek instead is an overall sense of continuity. —Lin Fengmian

Looking back at Lin Fengmian's works from the 1950s, their unique creative techniques, harmonious and stable forms, and integration of essential Eastern and Western elements provide ample evidence that he had entered his period of full maturity. In his opera figures where Lin made use of cubist techniques, special difficulties were created in terms of overall harmony when mixing different approaches in this way. But Lin's approach to Western teaching was not to simply transplant theory and aesthetics; instead, he sought a creative language where he could blend traditional methods with Western forms to arrive at a unique, personal view, which is what we find in his series of Chinese opera figures.

By 1951, Lin Fengmian had left school and moved to Shanghai, where he kept mostly to himself, devoted himself to his art, and developed a strong interest in Chinese opera. Opera characters thereafter became one of his favorite creative themes; he kept a sketchbook in his pocket when he went to the theater, and after multiple attempts, finally succeeded at combining Cubism with the forms of those figures. Lin once said, “I like to watch movies and all kinds of dramas, no matter how good or bad. As long as there are images, action, and change, it's always interesting to me.” Such dramas brought him different views of time and space; he was able to understand the Cubist grasp of time and space by reference to the divisions between acts and scenes in plays. Lin observed images from the stage, and produced his own uniquely dramatic theater scenes by cutting figures into blocks, simplifying their forms, and using strong, straight lines with contrasting tones of red and black. To capture specific characters, Lin experimented with geometric structures, studying shadow plays with figures constructed of individual plates. The paintings of Chinese opera figures he created echo the figures in Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and further, by deconstructing and then reconstructing their actions on the stage, he gradually understood the element of serial movements in the work of the Futurists. The sense of space and volume, however, that arose from the characters' movements or roles were deliberately flattened, but at the same time, their movements were geometrically segmented, juxtaposed, and recombined to suggest continuous time and motion. Such an approach borrowed from Picasso's Cubist ideas but drew as well on the Futurists' concepts of time, which can be seen in Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. These elements confirm the statement Lin once made to his student Pan Qiliu, “My goal is not the feeling of volume in the figure, as I seek instead an overall sense of their continuity.”

In his choice of colour, Lin Fengmian incorporated a number of colour references found in traditional folk art. He often replaced modern Western pigments with natural mineral pigments such as ochre, azurite, and ink, as their tone and luster evoke an ancient beauty. Using these pigments together with ink also brought out a strong traditional Chinese character in his work. Compositionally, he created square structures of his own invention, from which he derived a variety of compositional methods. Among them, only the opera character series makes frequent use of compositions with left-right symmetry. In them he focuses on pairs of figures, bringing them close as if through a camera lens, simplifying the background and environment and eliminating the sense of space between the characters. This unusual, collage-like method of composition actually found its inspiration in Lin's many years of studying Han Dynasty portrait bricks. This shows just how seriously he explored the possibility of joining both ancient and modern and Eastern and Western influences, and how he endeavored to add what he learned to his creative output. He believed that whether in the East or in the West, as long as lines and colors were used creatively together, they could create an artistic language capable of communicating. Lin Fengmian's series of Chinese opera characters may be the finest example of this, of how to create outstanding art by fusing elements drawn from these opposite extremes.

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