LIN FENGMIAN (1900-1991)

Wisteria in a Vase

Wisteria in a Vase
signed in Chinese (lower left)
ink and colour on paper
68.5 x 68.5 cm. (27 x 27 in.)
Painted in 1957
one seal of the artist
Private collection, Asia
Asia Pacific Art Promotions Ltd., Lin Fengmian: Leader of Chinese Modernism Art, Taipei, Taiwan, 1999 (illustrated, p. 161).

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Lot Essay

“Throughout his life, Lin Fengmian explored and contributed tremendously to the blending of Chinese and Western styles in art. His achievement did not only originate from his grasp of and love for modern Western art, classical Chinese art and folk art. It stemmed even more strongly from his resolve to stay out of the limelight and devote himself to artistic creation and inquiry, which he pursued with impeccable integrity even in challenging circumstances.”
—“The Master Lin Fengmian”, Wu Guanzhong

As a contemporary fine arts educator and a modern art pioneer in 20th century China, Lin Fengmian is an iconic figure in the history of art. His exploration of still life subjects was an experiment in distorting the portrayal of objects and things, composition division and planarization, lines and form, as well as light and colour. For Lin Fengmian, the exploration of still life subjects was also an investigation into the essence of all things, since the portrayal of nature was such an important foundation for his pursuit of artistic formats. The still life series presented in this year’s Evening Sale was created in the 1950s, and the paintings are from the earlier years in Lin’s Shanghai period (1951-1977). They represent the fruits of his devotion to exploring and merging innovative artistic formats.

Born in a farming village in Guangdong, Lin Fengmian displayed a passion for painting from an early age. At the age of 19, he participated in a work study programme that allowed him to travel abroad to France. Once there, he studied at the Ecole Nationale Superieure d’art de Dijon and the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. As his talent was recognized by Cai Yuanpei, Lin was appointed the principal of the National Beijing Fine Art School upon his return to China at age 26. Despite controversy and opposition, Lin introduced his teaching philosophy of combining Chinese and Western approaches in arts education to China. In 1928, he founded the Hangzhou National College of Art, becoming its first principal. Throughout his career as an arts educator, Lin championed a new style of arts education, as he advocated the innovation of Chinese art in the aspects of education, theory and artistic creation. With a teaching methodology that encompassed Chinese and Western approaches, he fostered artistic talent and development in the college that would become a cradle for modern art in 20th century China, leading the nation into a new artistic realm. Furthermore, he embraced the blending of Chinese and Western painting styles as his life-long pursuit. From theory to practice, Lin carved out a new path for Chinese painting, one that was grounded in a modern aesthetic consciousness.

Learning from Western art, Lin Fengmian stressed the importance of developing a firm command of depicting objects and things. In his philosophy of arts education, he believed a solid foundation in the rendering of objects was key to revolutionizing Chinese painting, where there had long been an overt emphasis on capturing the spirit of the subject rather than its form. Even for those who had decided on pursuing Chinese painting in their artistic career, Lin believed they should hone their skills in sketching as the foundation for further study in Chinese painting. With his profound grasp of depicting objects, Lin gradually turned away from intricate rendering, and focused on encapsulating the spirit of their images. He also attempted to merge different techniques of Chinese and Western arts in developing his personal artistic style. In this still life painting, there is distinct contrast between the elongated vase and the dramatic-looking bouquet, which reveals a certain decorative intention. The thirds of the white vase, the bouquet and the dark-coloured backdrop stabilize the composition. This planarized, distorted representation of still life borrows from Post-Impressionism and Fauvism, and it also resounds with influences of Cubism. The artistic approaches of Picasso had a profound influence on Lin at one point. In Lin’s view, geometry was the aesthetic foundation in Cubism. This is reflected in his use of geometrical shapes to distort the images of objects and things to varying degree in different types of paintings in his oeuvre. In the still life series, the distortion mainly stems from the re-division of space, which is completely different from the division that is centred around time and action in the Chinese opera series. This style of representation also appears in an early still life work by Zao Wou-Ki, a student of Lin’s. In addition, Lin transformed the approach of “composing the blanks as lines” in spatial organization in Chinese painting; he turned it into “composing lines as blanks”, where the solid, dark-coloured backdrop is accentuated with rich and bright colours. This approach of painting against a black backdrop was in fact a revamping of Chinese lacquer painting. Again, it illuminates Lin’s profound ties to traditions: in achieving a harmonious balance between the real and the illusory, and between colour and space, Lin took Chinese painting, which had long privileged the dynamic of the brushstroke over coloured composition, to an entirely new artistic realm.

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