(Chinese, 1900-1991)
Portrait of a Nun
signed in Chinese (lower left)
ink and colour on paper
66 x 65 cm. (26 x 25 5/8 in.)
one seal of the artist
Formerly the Property from Ms Yuan Xiangwen Collection
Private Collection, USA

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Eric Chang
Eric Chang

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Lot Essay

Lin's greatest contribution to modern art is identifying the common qualities of Western and Chinese traditional art theories. He did not miss out on any, and made a very forward-looking remark, 'As a matter of fact, the shortcomings of Western art are exactly where the strength of Eastern art lies, and vice versa. Complementing each other will make the world's new art.' (The Prospect of Chinese and Western Art, 1926). He applied two approaches, on the one hand, he revived the Chinese traditions; on the other hand, he introduced new thinking from the Western art.

Lin further delved into the study of lines and symbolic theatrical arts. From his works produced during his stay in Shanghai (from the 1940s to the 1960s), we could notice his emphasis on the treatment of depth in space, in order to create distinctive portraits which fit right into the modern aesthetics. Such modernity is manifested in his bold attempt to combine lines with a colourful background. Lin abandoned the technique of liu bai, "leaving blank", often seen in traditional Chinese portraits. He not only used coloured lines to create forms, but also employed coloured shapes to divide a pictorial space. In Portrait of a Nun (Lot 111), the tableau is divided by segments of colour in great contrast of light, rendering the interior of a solemn church with flickering candlelight. The work describes in details the definitive relationship between light and objects.

On character design, especially on treatment of faces, Lin combined traditional Chinese notion of "lines" mastering "shapes" and acquired both "shapes" and "spirit", which is also coherent with the minimalist aesthetics in Western modern art. Bada Shanren from late Ming Dynasty captured the gist of objects through highly symbolic and metaphorical "lines". He expressed the "shape" and "gist" of an image with only lines that were essential. Brancusi, the Western modern sculptor, returned to a minimal concept and created Sleeping Muse (Fig. 1) with her facial features barely articulated. In Lin's work, he was inspired by the makeup of Chinese opera actresses with an emphasis on the nose contour (Fig. 2). Lin appropriated the idea and extended the simple lines of eyebrows to the nose, and painted the eyes in thick ink, portraying a simple yet vivid face. The look of the lady's face is not only Lin's signature style, but also a successful fusion of Chinese and Western art that presents a sophisticated concept in great simplicity.
When compared with Lin's works of Chinese ladies, Portrait of a Nun indicates how Lin further pursued the female image and its associated connotation in his work. Through a religious theme, he reinforces the lady's face with his original hanging eyebrow, pointed lips, and black hair in a bun. The nun's face, calm and at ease, seems to be devoid of all desires - no happiness, hatred, or regret - exudes enormous power of serenity, which surpasses the noise and outcry in the outside world. In Portrait of a Nun, blue and white porcelain, floral patterns and elegant and bright-coloured tulle, typical in Lin's works of Chinese ladies, are all absent. One can only see the simple cut colour planes and a calm-looking nun standing in the middle. The nun, putting on white headscarf and holding white lotus, is symbolic of virtue and pour spirituality. As a young child, Lin witnessed a mother was captured and severely beaten up for escaping. This shocking scene and Lin's sorrow for being separate from his own mother are imbedded in his works. After growing up, Lin has never returned to his hometown in Meixian, Guangdong Province. However, Meixian's landscape becomes an important theme in his works. Lin's portraits of Chinese ladies and nuns provide a channel for the artist's personal memories and melancholy.

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