Opera Series: Beauty defies Tyranny

Opera Series: Beauty defies Tyranny
signed in Chinese (middle left)
oil on canvas
56.8 x 41.7 cm. (22 3/8 x 16 3/8 in.)
Painted in the 1960s
Acquired from the artist by Mr Douglas Spankie (1929 – 1974), Consul-General of the United Kingdom in Shanghai (1962-
Thence by descent to the present owner

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Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

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Lot Essay

Lin Fengmian was the first Chinese artist, early in the 20th century, to propose a synthesis of Chinese and Western art. In 1919, the ambitious young Lin Fengmian traveled to France for advanced study, and in 1926, at the recommendation of Cai Yuanpei, he became president of the National Beiping Art School. Only 26 at the time, Lin had taken up the banner of reform in Chinese art. Having just returned from his European studies, he was nevertheless quite clear about the directions art must take when he penned The Future of Chinese and Western Art: 'It is a fact that the things that Western art lacks are precisely the strengths of Eastern art, while what Eastern art needs are things which Western art can supply. Using them in a complementary fashion will lead to the birth of a new world art.' But Lin also proposed that 'The development of a nation's culture must be founded on the base of its original culture. Then, absorbing cultural influences from others, a new era will be born, with unending possibilities.'1

Lin Fengmian succeeded not only through his own art, which, with its unique and original style, impacted the ossified world of Chinese painting; he also helped found the most advanced art school of the 1930s in China, the Hangzhou National Academy of Arts. There he expanded the vision of his students by introducing modern, avantgarde art such as the work of the Post-Impressionists, the Cubists, and the Fauves, though his students were required to study Chinese painting at the same time. This embrace of both Chinese and Western art helped cultivate talent that would ultimately influence all of 20th-century Chinese art; graduates of the Academy included the internationally renowned abstract artist Zao Wou-ki (a 1941 graduate), Chu Teh-Chun (also 1941), Wu Guanzhong (1941), Zhao Chunxiang (1939), and Shiy De-jinn (1948). The Hangzhou National Academy of the Arts, following a number or reorganizations, ultimately evolved into today's National Academy of the Arts. Graduates of the Hangzhou National Academy of Arts such as Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki also become well known overseas; in 1997 and 2003, those two artists became fellows of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts, being respectively the first and second Chinese artists to receive this honor.


The five oil paintings presented in this sale are from the collection of Douglas Spankie (1929-1974), who was station at the British Consul General in Shanghai from 1962 to 1964. Those include two from his Opera Series, Guan Yu Releases Cao Cao at Huarong Trail (Lot 44) and Beauty Defies Tyranny (Lot 45), presented at the evening sale, and three more works in colored ink for the day sale: Lady with Lotus (Lot 313), Willow Scenery (Lot 315). and Cormorants (Lot 314). Of the three, Lady with a Lotus was inscribed by Lin Fengmian in French and Chinese on the reverse, 'a mr et mme: Spankie/ Lin Fon Ming/ 1964, mai,' indicating the bonds of friendship that existed between the artist and Douglas Spankie and his wife, Jane.

Lin’s autobiography, drafted in 1971 while he was imprisoned, reveals that in 1963 a Belgian man named ‘Frank Van Roosbroek’ introduced two men named ‘Douglas Spankie’ and ‘Philip Mansley’ from the British Consulate in Shanghai to buy paintings from him.
This cross-cultural friendship was also documented in the 1999 book Biography of Lin Fengmian by Zheng Zhong, who researched Lin's life and work. 'In the past, it had been his wife who took care of these matters (selling paintings), but at this time, someone stationed at the British Consulate in Shanghai took it upon himself to help Lin Fengmian sell some paintings into his circle of foreigners. Those who knew Lin at this time included Douglas Spankie, chargé d'affaires at the British Consulate in Shanghai, and Philip Mansley, another official at the same office; the wife of a Norwegian consul; ‘Paolo’^ at the Italian Consulate; ‘Lucelyn’^ from a bank, doctor ‘Fossick’^, and others, including two physicians from France and Switzerland, ‘Sandler’^ and ‘Kanders’^. All were permanently stationed or living in Shanghai, and would occasionally visit Lin Fengmian and buy one or two paintings. When foreign delegations came to Shanghai, they would be introduced by these friends of the artist and buy some of his works, and several of them also studied painting with Lin.' 2

In researching Douglas Spankie's collection, we interviewed his eldest daughter who remembers the name of the Belgian friend of her father's, Frank Van Roosbroek (who introduced Spankie and Mansley to Lin Fengmian), Philip Mansley, and the wife of the Norwegian consul referred to the above, Mrs Gundersen. Previously, those names were only known to us through the Chinese transliterations which appeared in Lin Fengmian's autobiography and in Zheng Zhong's biography of Lin Fengmian. Now, however, their names and their identities have each been verified, allowing us to appreciate the unique historical value of this collection. Further, by presenting to us the circle of foreign friends that Lin had at the time, we have also learned how widely his work was appreciated in foreign diplomatic circles.


Lin Fengmian's stay in Shanghai represented a peak period in his artistic development. In 1951 he resigned from his position at the Hangzhou National Academy of Arts, giving up the bothersome job of teaching and moving to Shanghai where he could concentrate wholeheartedly on advancing his art. The works of his Opera Series are emblematic of this period. Taking after his friend Guan Liang, who also lived in Shanghai, Lin became fascinated by Shanghai opera, which was undergoing a comprehensive transformation at the time. In a letter to his students, Lin wrote, 'My recent paintings have turned out to be excellent, due to the influence of Shanghai opera....' 3

Through Chinese opera, that quintessential national art form, Lin Fengmian came to understand the concept of free time and space. This deep insight led him to further advance his integration of Chinese and Western art through the theme of theatrical characters. As he said in a letter to a student: 'Most of these paintings are based on opera characters. But painting these characters now is very different from the period when Shanghai was under Japanese occupation. If around 1940 I focused on their shapes and expressions, adding colors to my freehand line drawings, today I've shifted toward borrowing modern Western models for my work, especially Cubism, searching for a style that can express time and space.'

Currently available materials show that Lin Fengmian's opera figures appeared as early as 1948, typically depicting the appearances and expressions of the characters. In Guan Yu Releases Cao Cao at Huarong Trail and Beauty Defies Tyranny, we see Lin in his Shanghai period employing sharp, quickly drawn straight lines to produce numerous square and triangular shapes, within which curving lines also appear. The images in the composition are folded, and frontto- back spatial relationships are compressed, showing how from the 1950s on he focused on exploring these kinds of folded, layered spaces and juxtapositions in time.


As Lin Fengmian has noted, he derived inspiration from the Cubists, allowing him to express the sense of interactions between characters, their flexible movements, and the sense of continuity in plot development. He once said, 'Lately, living in Shanghai, I've had the chance to see some of those old operas. The Shaoxing ones have improved a lot. The new plays are divided into scenes, but the old ones were divided into acts. With individual scenes, it seems that you only sense the physical space, but with longer acts there's more of a sense of the continuity in time. In the old plays, there's a better resolution of the conflicts between time and space, like in Picasso, when he handles objects by folding them into a flat space. I use a method where, after I've watched one of the old operas, I take characters from different parts of the story and fold them into the space on the canvas. My goal is not to show these figures and objects massed together but to show an overall sense of continuity....'4. Lin Fengmian had in fact begun to develop an interest in Cubism early on when in Europe, a fact that can be glimpsed in his 1924 painting, Body.

Lin constructs his opera figures from geometric components. In Beauty Defies Tyranny, Lin abstracts and simplifies the shape of one figure's long beard into a curved shape like a sickle, imbuing it with the sense of theatrical movement and creating a slightly comic effect as well. The beard is highly symbolic, allowing viewers to identify at a glance that this a scene from the classic opera Sword of the Cosmos, or Beauty Defies Tyranny. The official robes of the character Zhao Gao and his official's cap are simplified by Lin into trapezoidal and rhombus shapes, while his robes are decorated with symbols indicating imperial rank. The sleeves of the female figure of Zhao Yan likewise become triangular; her hair is deliberatively extended quite low, its only slight curvature setting off the broad curve of Zhao Gao's beard. Various geometrical figures express her personality and beauty, while also serving the functions of balance, stability, contrast, and movement. Curving, vertical, and horizontal lines weave together for a variety of visual effects. In Beauty Defies Tyranny, Lin Fengmian makes use of the exaggerated movements of Chinese opera characters, ingeniously capturing the way in which Zhao Yan feigns madness in order to avoid being taken as concubine by the licentious and brutal Hu Hai, the second Qin emperor. The classic scene in which she pulls at her father's beard becomes, in Lin's painting, a dramatic moment of confrontation.

In Guan Yu Releases Cao Cao at Huarong Trail, Cao Cao's upper body is comprised of incisive straight lines and trapezoidal shapes, while his robe is essentially one large triangle. To express a sense of movement, Lin adds curvature to lines at the bottom and left of the painting, while the conspicuous oval shape of his waist sash emphasize his movement toward the right side as he leaves. The painting depicts a scene following Cao Cao's defeat in the Battle of the Red Cliffs; as Cao Cao's forces retreat along the Huarong Trail they are ambushed by the waiting Guan Yu, but Guan Yu, in repayment of an earlier debt when Cao Cao spared his life, allows Cao Cao to proceed on his way. Guan Yu's accoutrements are set out in complex and overlapping geometrical figures that indicate the heaviness of his military uniform and his brawny figure. Lin's analytical reduction of his figures into geometric components shows the influence of Cubism, its deconstruction and reassembly of objects, but likewise draws on the Eastern folk tradition of shadow puppets. For a lively presentation of the quick movements in such puppet shows, the puppet figures were broken down, from head to foot, into eleven component parts, which were typically the head, chest, abdomen, arms, forearms, hands, and legs. To effectively cast their shadows on the white screens, the details of the puppet figures had to be simplified; faces, for example, were often shown in profile or three-quarter view, their features set out in simple lines. Lin Fengmian adopts precisely these profile or three-quarter views in both Beauty Defies Tyranny and Guan Yu Releases Cao Cao, with facial features simplified into lines and simple shapes that nevertheless capture his subject's expressions. He develops the exaggerated features of puppet characters into figures that symbolically project their character and meaning.


The geometrical shapes within Lin's opera characters are typically comprised of straight and slanted lines, angled in many different directions to create tightly-knit, rhythmic compositions. But Lin Fengmian further places these elements within an overall circular compositional frame that adds a greater sense of fluidity. Circles are the most fundamental of geometric shapes, possessing an organic, flowing movement completely absent from triangles or rectangles. In accord with traditional Western theories of composition, Lin attempts to make the viewer forget about the boundaries of the pictorial space. He finds a way to keep their eyes moving in a circular path so that their gaze will not be blocked. In Lin's opera scenes in the oil medium, he leaves large areas of completely empty background space, even to the extent of making his signature a part of the characters he portrays. Clearly leaving his backgrounds entirely empty was a deliberate creative choice, an important element in forming the composition and one that helps express the overlapping times and spaces of the opera unfolding on the stage. Lin Fengmian's choice of a circular composition further helps to break down the hard boundary of the background, and the interactions of his characters all take place within a large circular frame. The movements between the characters produce a return movement, guiding the viewer's eyes around the composition for a sense of uninterrupted, cyclical motion. But despite this cyclical motion, Ling Fengmian still provides points of entry that draw the viewer's eye into the work, as well as other places where the viewer may find an exit and a sense of completion. In Beauty Defies Tyranny, the scythe-shaped beard provides a point of focus, leading their viewer's eye toward the figure of Zhao Yan and her straight fall of hair, then upward toward her face in profile. Following her upraised left arm completes the cyclical movement. In Guan Yu Releases Cao Cao, the circle begins with the front of the Guan Yu figure, then from his right shoulder continues to the face of Cao Cao and then to Cao Cao's right arm and elbow. The line of motion moves down to the red tassel on his sash, then returns across his robes to the figure of Guan Yu.


While Lin Fengmian stresses form in his oil depictions of Chinese opera characters, his decisions about color complement his arrangement of geometric figures. Line and color coexist in a close relationship in both Beauty Defies Tyranny and Guan Yu Releases Cao Cao. In Guan Yu, the principal tonality is based on cyan, but with rich variations in shades and color levels that extend to indigo, sapphire, moss green, sap green, and dark forest green. At the same time, within a unified color palette, Lin adds lines in colors that either cover or contrast sharply with the underlying tones, such as yellow-orange, yellow-brown, or yellow-green, producing variety and reflective effects within the darker tones of the painting. Such combinations of line and color can also be seen in Beauty Defies Tyranny.

The use of complementary colors is a feature of Lin Fengmian's painting; as he once said, 'Color should be bright and resounding, because color is the life of any artist.'5 Strong contrasts created with complementary colors produce tension and visual impact, suitable for expressing vitality and dramatic confrontation. Guan Yu's red face contrasts strongly with the white face of Cao Cao in Guan Yu Releases Cao Cao, as do Zhao Yan's blue dress and the yellow-brown robes of Zhao Gao in Beauty Defies Tyranny. Their roles are set out in stark contrast, one dark and one light, presenting the crucial dramatic moments on which the entire plot hangs in these opera scenes.


According to the writings of Zheng Zhong, Lin Fengmian's career, from the time he studied abroad until his death, spanned a period of 80 years. Yet only 13 of those years were spent primarily working in oils. By 1938, Lin had almost entirely given up working in the oil medium 6It was only in the 1950s and '60s, when he sold paintings to foreign visitors, that he once again began working in oils specifically for that purpose.

Lin Fengmian paintings featuring Chinese opera characters appeared as early as 1948 in the ink medium, but without the more expressive use of color that would come later. It was only when he portrayed these characters in oils, with their thick, heavy, contrasting colors, that he was able to present both the elegance and poise of Chinese opera as well as its exaggerated, theatrical feel. His experience painting these subjects in the oil medium, however, influenced his approach in the ink medium, illustrating the extent to which his oil paintings in the opera series were important to his creative work in the 1950- 60s period. Lin Fengmian had mastered Western modern art as a part of his plan for a synthesis of Chinese and Western art. His opera characters, deriving from the East, had a fortunate encounter with these Western influences but ultimately returned to the East. The opera characters he created differed somewhat from the Western Cubists' style of deconstruction, but differed also from the folk arts tradition of the East. Ultimately they accorded most with the expressive values favored in contemporary Chinese art. This perhaps is what Lin Fengmian meant by modern Chinese art that would 'reflect its times,' art that would be 'art with a national character,' and with 'an individual style' of its own.
These names have been phonetically transcribed from the Chinese in the autobiography.

1 Chinese Painting New Theory, Lin Fengmian, 1929.
2 Zheng Zhong, Biography of Lin Fengmian, Dong Fang Chu Ban Zhong Xin, Shanghai, China, 1999, p. 199.
3 Same as above, p. 214.
4 Lin Fengmian letter to student Pan Qiliu, November 17 1951.
5 Zheng Zhong, Biography of Lin Fengmian, Dong Fang Chu Ban Zhong Xin, Shanghai, China, 1999, p. 162.
6 same as above, pp.162-163.

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