A Rare Private Collection
In 1965, with his ship, the Sea Coral, docked in Shanghai, Captain Parr visited the only bar in town open to foreigners at the time, the Seamen's Club on the Bund. He sat at what was then the world's longest bar and chatted with the club's only other patron that night, a chargé d'affaires from the British Consulate. The conversation turned to the Chinese painter Lin Fengmian, who was living in Shanghai at the time. Through an introduction by the chargé d'affaires, the captain was later able to meet Lin at his apartment. He saw hundreds of works, which Lin pulled from under his bed. And on the wall were two small Peking opera oil paintings beside a large oil painting of a fishing harvest in a boxwood frame. That night, along with the three paintings on the wall, the captain also acquired 17 of the artist's ink-brush works. This season, Christie's is pleased to offer Fishing Harvest (Lot 24) in the Evening Sale, along with six ink-brush pieces in the Day Sale: Opera Series: Lotus Lantern (Lot 101), Dancing Ladies (Lot 104), Lady Playing Pipa (Lot 106), Lady Playing Yueqin (Lot 102), Lady Holding Lotus (Lot 105), and Seated Lady in the Garden (Lot 103). All of these works come from Mr. Parr's rare private collection.
At the start of the 20th Century, the political situation in China was tense as international powers challenged the country. With the advent of the 1919 May Fourth New Culture Movement, Chinese traditional painting experienced a revival, with the fusion of Chinese and Western painting becoming a distinct trend. Lin Fengmian was born during this dramatic time. He joined the study-abroad wave, traveling to France in pursuit of the potential to modernize Chinese art. Lin had vowed to "bring salvation to the nation through art" taking on the mission to continue the development of China's traditional art forms through the fusion of Eastern and Western practices. In 1921, Lin, who had expressed a fascination with naturalism, was accepted by the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he was under the tutelage of Fernand Cormon, known for his academy-style paintings. After closely observing the practices of Western modernism, Lin turned his attention to the development and fusion of Eastern and Western aesthetics, resulting in a new way of painting.
Wu Guanzhong once said that Lin's art "utilizes the entire surface, with no space wasted." On his customary rectangular canvas, his focus was on the painting's overall structure. Therefore, different subjects, including the female figure, flowers, landscape, or fruits, were all transformed into compositions of lines and planes, some full of rounded refinement and others scattered with vivacious lines. The strong contrasts of black and white ink-like strokes on white paper and the saturated colors of yellow, blue and red created a brand new outlook for the development of Chinese painting, which, since the Qing and Ming dynasties, were more focused on the brush and the ink rather than colors. A new oriental style emerged through the fusion of colours and compositional styles from the East and the West.
Lin frequented the theater when he first moved to Shanghai in the 1950's, and began to depict theatrical characters in the Cubist style. Opera Series: Lotus Lantern is based on a famous Chinese legend in which the female immortal San Shengmu battles her brother, Erlang. He once said, "the irony between time and space seems to be easily resolved in the old theater. This is just like how Picasso resolved the depiction of the object by folding it all within one plane. My aim is not to create the figurative mass of people or objects; rather, I am after a composited sense of continuity." In his paintings, Lin attempted to break down and reconstruct movement, preferring to depict people in motion rather than static. The subjects' skin is flattened and a sense of translucency is created through Lin's exceptionally controlled use of color. This can be seen in the white pigment used to articulate the folds of the clothing and the yellow-toned light source. His art has enriched the range of expressiveness in Chinese painting and has captured the gentle and sophisticated femininity of the East. The paintings exude a kind of beauty that is poetic and dreamy, yet distant and unreachable. The figures, compositions, and backdrops in each of these paintings are unique, and are important iconic works created by Lin Fengmian during this particular period. In the 50s, Lin's studio was lit by a single yellow light bulb. He often painted alone well into the night, with the dim light compelling him to use the colour yellow to give his paintings a subtle illumination. Like in Matisse's Fauvist paintings, Lin's work placed an emphasis on the compositions of the backgrounds of his paintings. From the tabletops to the wallpaper, the various details depicted in the backgrounds project flat, decorative qualities, creating spectacular theatrical effects. Chinese Opera Series: Lotus Lantern, Dancing Ladies, and Seated Lady in the Garden are each composed of an inner circle circumscribed by a square, which is based on the ancient Chinese philosophy of "the dome-like heaven embraces the vast earth". Lady Playing Pipa, Lady Playing Yueqin, and Lady Holding Lotus are composed of vertically dissected squares. Lin had begun to paint in square compositions starting in the late 1930s, which marked a major turning point in his artistic career. The square composition gives the image a unique dynamic power that is at once impenetrable and commanding.
Lin once mentioned that, "My paintings of ladies are mostly inspired by Chinese porcelain art. I am particularly fond of porcelain from the Tang and Song dynasties, especially Song porcelain with their translucent color applications created by the imperial kilns." Lin's classical ladies are all adorned with simple garments, ethereal white textiles, and illuminated with subtle yellow glow. The glazed yellow hue is created through Lin's exceptional skill in applying semi-transparent layers of gouache pigments. The works exude the gentle and sophisticated warm tone of white porcelain. The ladies are slender with elongated limbs, echoing not only the extended neck of a porcelain vase but also the portrait paintings of Modigliani. Lin also drew inspiration from the Dunhuang murals, modeling the delicate curves of the garments created by the impact of flying. Ladies in traditional clothing are not only the most iconic theme in Lin's work, demonstrating his ability to combine his versatile Chinese craft with ancient historical elements and the language of modern art.
Lin also once stated that, "The reason Chinese art lasts is because of its lyrical essence". Although he was well-versed in the language of Western modern art, he still chose to maintain the essence and spirit of Chinese culture in his paintings. With the impacts brought forth by the exchanges of the cultures from the two hemispheres, Lin spent decades of his life in pursuit of the harmonious balance between East and West. Lin's depictions of ethereal, lyrical states of mind within rational and orderly compositions have invigorated Chinese painting with a vibrant surge of energy. This season, Christie's presents Lin Fengmian's beautiful mid-career portraits as the centerpiece of the sale. The paintings showcase Lin's pioneering achievements in composition, light, spatial relations, and color application. Lin's revolutionary endeavors not only represent a milestone in the development of Chinese modern art but also demonstrate that Lin accomplished what he set out to do in 1928, which was to fuse the spirit of the East and West into a harmonious ideal.