Lin Fengmian: 10 things to know about his art and life

We assess the legacy of this charismatic pioneer of Chinese modern art, the teacher of both Wu Guanzhong and Zao Wou-Ki

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Photo: Journey of Lin Fengmian – Lin Fengmian 100th Birthday Memorial, published by China Academy of Art Press

1. He had a strong social conscience

Born in Guangdong in the last years of imperial rule, Lin Fengmian (1900-91) was a pivotal figure in the history of Chinese modern art. An artist and a teacher with a strong social conscience and a bold, international outlook, he became the man of the age in the 1930s, when he proposed a synthesis of Chinese and Western art.

2. Lin Fengmian united Western and Eastern art

Before the advent of Communism in China, a short-lived moment of fragile liberalism in the 1920s and 1930s had seen the beginnings of a Chinese modern art. At its helm was the young revolutionary, Lin, who was attempting to revitalise what he saw as an ailing artistic culture by instigating new European ideas about perspective, gesture and colour. He promoted a Pan-Asian ideology, exhorting other Chinese artists to be outward-looking and adopt innovative practices.

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Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), Opera Figures from The Magic Lotus Lantern. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 65.5 x 65.5 cm. (25 ¾ x 25 ¾ in.). Estimate: HK$4,000,000-6,000,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 30 November 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

3. Lin was radicalised by the German Expressionists

Having showed prodigious talent for drawing as a child, he won a government-sponsored scholarship to study in France in 1919, where he discovered Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Primitivism. He later travelled to Berlin, and was radicalised by the German Expressionists Erich Heckel (1883-1970) and Emil Nolde (1867-1956), who used their talents to critique the corrupting forces in the Weimar Republic.

On his return to China in 1926 Lin began teaching at the Beijing Academy of Art, where he attempted to reconcile traditional Chinese art and art practices in Europe. Paintings such as Opera Figures (below) reveal his interest in Matisse portraits.

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Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), Opera Figures. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 65 x 65 cm. (25 ⅝ x 25 ⅝ in.). Estimate: HK$3,000,000-5,000,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 30 November 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

4. He began a modern art movement that published a journal: Apollo

In 1928, Lin established the Art Movement Society with the artists Lin Wenzheng (1903-89) and Li Puyuan (1901-56). The group was ‘founded on absolute friendship and uniting the new power of the art world.’ They published the art journal Apollo, in which they promoted their paintings and those of the European avant-garde.

In 1929 they wrote a manifesto which championed collective action and likened artists to ‘farmers who work in the field of the spirit for all mankind’. Lin’s paintings at this time reflected this interest in nature.

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Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), Autumn Village. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 65.4 x 68.5 cm. (25 ¾ x 27 in.). Estimate: HK$1,000,000-2,000,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 30 November 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

5. He taught Wu Guanzhong and Zao Wou-Ki

In 1928, Lin became the director of the newly established National Academy of Art in Hangzhou, introducing Van Gogh and Cézanne into the curriculum. Among his students were the now world-famous Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010) and Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013).

He became one of The Four Great Academy Presidents, a rarefied group of pioneering teachers who sought to transform Chinese art education in the republican era. Another member of the group was the painter Xu Beihong (1895-1953).

6. Lin Fengmian suffered two great tragedies

While studying in Germany Lin became interested in the thinker Arthur Schopenhauer, who conceived of the notion of philosophical pessimism.

Schopenhauer was one of the first European thinkers to recognise certain similarities in Western and Eastern philosophy. He suggested in his book The Wisdom of Life  that aesthetic contemplation could be an escape from human suffering.

This resonated deeply with Lin, who had suffered two great tragedies in his life. When he was seven years old his mother was sold, and he never saw her again, although he spent much of his early adult life trying to find her. Then in 1924, his Austrian wife Elisa von Roda and new-born child both died. These events had a momentous impact on the artist’s creative output.

Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), Lady Playing Pipa. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 33.5 x 33.5 cm. (13 ¼ x 13 ¼ in.). Estimate: HK$200,000-300,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 30 November 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), Lady with Flute. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 33.5 x 33.5 cm. (13 ¼ x 13 ¼ in.). Estimate: HK$200,000-300,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 30 November 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

7. He was persecuted, tortured and imprisoned

At the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937 Lin’s studio was ransacked by soldiers and many of his paintings attacked. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, Lin chose to destroy all of his paintings to stop them being used against him.

He was persecuted and tortured. A banner was placed over his house that read, ‘Down with the bourgeois reactionary scholar-tyrants’. His fascination with opera and other ‘intellectual’ pursuits was used against him, and he was imprisoned for four and a half years.

In 1992, Wu Guanzhong wrote in the preface of The Paintings of Lin Fengmian: ‘Most of his artworks were soaked in the water basin or bathtub and flushed away as pulp. As for oil paintings, after the siege of Hangzhou, they were used as tarpaulins by the Japanese army.’

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Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), Fisherman and Cormorants. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 66.5 x 66 cm. (26 ⅛ x 26 in.). Estimate: HK$1,000,000-1,500,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 30 November 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

8. Works by Lin — and exhibitions of his work — are rare

Lin’s paintings are highly valued, with works fetching up to $5 million at auction. Yet they are rare, as many paintings were destroyed in his lifetime. A retrospective of Lin’s work at the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 2007 took 10 years to organise, so difficult was it to find works by the artist.

9. He moved to Hong Kong, and had his first retrospective in Taiwan

It was not until the death of Mao Zedong that artists were able to exercise some creative freedom once more, and the protagonists of the early avant-garde were slowly rehabilitated. In 1977 Lin was allowed to leave China and he moved to Hong Kong, where he spent his remaining years catching up for lost time, working on new paintings and remaking the work that had been lost during the Cultural Revolution. In 1989, at nearly 90 years of age, Lin had his first retrospective in Taiwan at the Natural History Museum in Taipei.

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Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), Still Life. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 68 x 68.5 cm. (26 ¾ x 27 in.). Estimate: HK$1,200,000-2,200,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings on 30 November 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

10. One of his greatest inspirations was Song-dynasty ceramics

Lin Fengmian shocked traditional artists by choosing to paint on a square format rather than a long scroll. While his use of bright colours, brushwork and unusual perspective is thought to have been inspired by his time studying in Europe, in fact, Lin has written that his greatest inspiration came from the figures on Song-dynasty ceramics and primeval cave paintings.

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Today the artist’s paintings can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Hong Kong Museum of Art and the Shanghai Art Museum.

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