In 1951, arriving in Shanghai, Lin Fengmian received frequent invitations from National Academy of Arts Professor Guan Liang to attend Beijing opera performances together. Under the influence of the older opera buff, Lin gradually developed a fascination for the art of Beijing opera, which was undergoing a transition in the new era (Fig. 1). Beauty Defies Tyranny and Zhang Fei were two of the operas he often went to see.
He once said, “Lately, living in Shanghai, I've had the chance to see some of those old operas. The Shaoxing ones have improved a lot. The new plays are divided into scenes, but the old ones are divided into acts. With individual scenes, it seems that you only sense the physical space, but with longer acts there's more of a sense of the continuity in time. In the old plays, there's a better resolution of the conflicts between time and space, like in Picasso, when he handles objects by folding them into a flat space. I use a method where, after I've watched one of the old operas, I take characters from different parts of the story and fold them into the space on the canvas. My goal is not to show these figures and objects massed together but to show an overall sense of continuity...”
Opera Series: Beauty Defies Tyranny and Opera Series: Zhang Fei (Lot 15 & 16 ) both continue Lin's use of a white background that he employed when portraying human subjects during the 1930s and 40s, even though he placed extra emphasis on exploring the presentation of those figures in a Cubist style during this period. He transformed the infectious excitement of the stage and its visual impact into the two-dimensional medium of the canvas, making use of geometric shapes such as triangles and rectangles, in overlapping or adjacent arrangements, to depict these characters, with added details expressed through lines. The white background, combined with Lin's Cubist stylings, presents the opera characters like shadow puppets under an intense light, turning and shifting poses against the cloth curtain to evoke a feeling of motion. The effect achieved here recalls the work of Fernand Leger in his painting Nude in the Forest (Fig. 2).
The two Ling Fengmian works offered here, Opera Series: Beauty Defies Tyranny and Opera Series: Zhang Fei, derive from the collection of the British diplomat, Mr. Trevor Pidgeon, who purchased them during one of his several postings to China and Hong Kong. Pidgeon joined the Foreign Office in the mid- 1950s and after several postings in Damascus, North Vietnam and the UK, was asked to study Mandarin, initially in London, followed by a year in Hong Kong in 1961.
After completing his studies Pidgeon was appointed Vice-Consul in Beijing in October 1962, and Consul in November 1963 (Fig 3 & 4). In 1964, he was married in Beijing to Marion Bosman, followed by a second ceremony in Hong Kong. On completion of his posting in Beijing, Pidgeon completed further postings in the UK and Venezuela before returning to Hong Kong as British Trade Commissioner from 1973 to 1977.
Trevor and Marion Pidgeon had no children but became godparents in 1966 to their godson, who is now the owner of the paintings. He spent part of his childhood in Asia and was fortunate to be able to visit his godparents in Hong Kong in March 1975, and later inherited these two works. The photograph shown dates from a visit to his godparents in March of 1975, and was taken with them at the Hong Kong airport (Fig. 5).