(Chinese, 1900-1991)
Opera Series: Lotus Lantern
signed in Chinese (lower right)
ink and colour on paper
66 x 65.5 cm. (26 x 25 7/8 in.)
Painted in the late 1950s-early 1960s
one seal of the artist
Private Collection, France (Acquired in Hong Kong in the early 1960s, thence by descent to the present owner)

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Lot Essay

During his study in Europe, Lin Fengmian developed immerse interest in Cubism, which can be seen in the oil paintings dated from that period. Painted in 1924, the sixth year of his stay in Europe, Human Body demonstrates Lin's deep understanding in Cubist theories and its methods of expression. He reduced the human forms to angular shapes in order to unify the whole picture plane, and merged different forms. The central subjects are deviated from the central axis, creating multiple focal points of focus. This work is reminiscent of early cubist paintings by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.
With a systematic reformation of Chinese ink painting underway upon his return to China, Lin worked as the Headmaster of the National Academy of Art in Beijing, and continued to seek innovation in his art practice. The practices in oil paintings and with different medium, especially the series of Chinese Opera, gave Lin great inspiration in making ink-wash paintings. Lin's Chinese Opera series began with oil paintings, explored and discussed the abstract themes of space and time in modern art theories, and finally achieved great accomplishment in ink and wash. Lin's unique artistic style has been studied and championed for generations. As a Chinese artist, Lin captured the essences of Cubism and Chinese folk shadow play and Peking Opera. Opera Series: Lotus Lantern (Lot 113) explored the possibilities of a new form of Chinese modern art, combined with Western culture, hence creating a style that possesses 'contemporaneity', 'nationality' and 'personality' in mid-20th Century.

In the process of reforming traditional ink-wash paintings, Lin brought in a lot of wonderful aspects of Chinese folk art. He thinks that 'creativity' and 'vitality' can be seen from folk art. While living in Shanghai, he likes to watch shadow play, folk drama and Chinese opera, which gave him much inspiration in his own artistic creation. He figured out the concept of the delicate changes in space and time in Chinese opera, and its difference from Western theatre play. Western theatre expresses a change in space and time by swopping the stage setting. On the contrary, Chinese opera uses merely a piece of plain cloth as backdrop, no matter how the plot changes. Music and the rhythm of gongs and drums becomes the means of story-telling, indicating a travel through time while the character is situated in the same background and stage. The way how Chinese opera presents temporal and spatial relationship was used by Lin to explain the abstract theory of Cubism. From Lin's point of view, the cubists deconstruct and reconstruct on the same pictorial place to characterize the different times, space and angles. In Pablo Picasso's case for example, an object or image was dissected to geometric shapes and regrouped together. For Chinese culture, by integrating different means a sense of continuity in time is delineated in one single space. Lin aimed to incorporate the unique way of presenting time and space in Chinese opera to modern art. He saw a piece of square rice paper as the backdrop in Chinese opera, and captured the change of scenes at different times, thus created the dynamic Chinese Opera series.
Opera Series: Lotus Lantern is a major theme in which Lin Fengmian studied Chinese opera. 'Lotus Lantern', which is also named 'Hewing the Mountain to Rescue Mother', is a story about the reunion of a mother and a son : Chenxiang, the grown up son of a goddess Sanshengmu, managed to rescue his mother by recovering the magical Lotus Lantern and cutting open the Lotus Peak, under which his mother was imprisoned. Lin said, 'Old opera uses separate acts to tell the story ... different acts to render the continuity in time. ... Just like Picasso, sometimes he deals with objects by flattening and folding them onto one surface. After watching the old opera, I decided to flatten and press the characters from a series of acts onto my pictures. I'm not looking to depict the volume of figures, but an overall continuity.' In the square picture, Chenxiang holds the Lotus Lantern while walking behind the goddess Sanshengmu. The two figures are overlapping, layers of fine clothes set each other off, suggesting the complicated relationship between characters and the intricately woven plot in the opera. The work reminds us of Marcel Duchamp's early painting of a single character descending slowly the staircase (Fig. 1). To accomplish a sense of "continuity", Lin used white colour and powder to delineate the translucent layer of tulle on top of the heavy coloured background. Shielding the dress of the female characters underneath, the feathery drapes almost look like fluttering against the light. Such dreamlike effects create an illusionary space. The white silk sleeves rising in the air are reminiscent of Chinese dance, at the same time implying an instant motion.

Lin said, 'My inspiration in depicting the characters comes from drama and Chinese opera face masks ... I see dance moves in Chinese opera, and I present them in a modern way.' The curvy lines are significant in terms of expressing the motion of dance. Lin said, 'What we should pay attention to, while speaking of lines, is "the line of gracefulness and liveliness". Curve and straight lines are in opposition to each other, the latter is tranquil and peaceful, which is also a manifestation of continual balance.' Lin, with smooth curves, outlined the movements of lady dancing in her sheer tulle. In addition, bright blue and yellow lines give the viewer visual cues to directions, adding extra motion to the figures in the picture.
Lin treats the square drawing paper as stage curtains. The four black-coloured corners forms an octagon shape bring the focus to the centre. Chenxiang and San Shengmu are dressed respectively in rust red and bright blue, which in return highlights both figures. The backlit technique is employed to present light from behind the figures; the bright background greatly enhances the depth in the space.
Theatrical characters, which encompass the often-overlooked essence of traditional Chinese visual art, have long been the subject studied and contemplated by the artist. The work from Lin's Opera series progressively suggested the possibilities of combining the traditional Chinese visual art with Western modern art. The artist sought for ideas from the flat geometric shapes that assemble the leather figures fabricated for shadow play. The overlapping figures and mingling colours in shadow play create the visual effects that are interpreted by the artist as Cubist style. Lin employed such style to articulate and imply the change of time and the twist of the storyline, breaking off the boundary of a single point of time and space. Hence, Lin's work provides a philosophical discussion on the change of time and the multiple perspectives of world view concerning modern art.

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