Exile from Tradition: Chinese and Western Traits in the Art of Lin Fengmian

David Clarke

In the history of early 20th century Chinese painting's encounter with Western art, three names stand out: Xu Beihong, Liu Haisu, and Lin Fengmian. Each played an important role in the development of Chinese art education, and each tried in their own manner to utilize what they had learnt from Western visual sources in the task of modernizing Chinese painting. For Xu Beihong it was the academic tradition of French art which proved most useful, perhaps because this painting (tired though it may have been in the Western context) offered something antithetical to the Chinese literati painting inheritance, and hence a novel resource. Liu Haisu and Lin Fengmian differ from Xu because, unlike him, they became involved with Western modernist art. In Liu's case this encounter with modernism was not particularly extensive: there are signs of his interest in Post-Impressionism, but for the most part it is Impressionism, an art still very much concerned with external reality, to which he responds. It is only in the case of Lin that we see a Chinese artist becoming involved with later Western modernism - that is, with art which was making a conscious break with academic and realist modes, and indeed with the whole Renaissance heritage.

Much of Lin's early work has been destroyed (either during the War of Resistance Against Japan, or during the Cultural Revolution), making it extremely difficult to chart with any precision his encounter with Western art. A major resource for reconstructing his art of the 1920s and 1930s is the photographic record, but grainy illustrations from contemporary art periodicals can give little information about brushwork and textural effects, and offer few clues as to the artist's method of building up a painting's surface. Above all, the fact that these plates are generally in black and white is a severe handicap to the evaluation of an artist for whom colour was to be so very important. Nevertheless, it is possible to glean from a rare surviving colour illustration such as that of Exercise (Xizuo) I the information that Lin Fengmian in 1934 was an artist closely acquainted with Cubism, arguably the most artistically radical movement of Western modernism. Exercise embodies Cubist qualities in its angular treatment of forms and its stylized simplifications that allow the artist to develop a rhythmic pattern of shapes knitted together across the canvas surface. The displacement of objects from the vertical (which helps produce the many conflicting diagonal accents in the image) creates a suggestion of multiple viewpoints similar to those that Picasso and Braque had introduced into their Cubist images in order to break up the unified perspectival space, which had dominated European painting since the Renaissance. There is a distinction of colour between the centrally-placed nude figure of Exercise and its surroundings, and this (together with some strongly stated contouring lines) causes that figure largely to retain its integrity as a form - at least when compared to the objects in so-called Analytic Cubist works such as Braque's Violin and Palette (1909-10).

In that work, the still-life objects have become fragmented and thus linked to surrounding shapes as the principle of multiple viewpoints is applied within their boundaries. Closer comparison can be made, however, with slightly earlier Cubist paintings, such as Picasso's Woman with Pears (1909) or Derain's Bathers (1908). Lin also seems close here to the art of Leger, whose dynamic compositions of clashing forms (e.g. Nudes in the Forest of 1909-10) may have proved an inspiration to him. In that particular work Leger adheres to the subdued colour scheme found in the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, but in slightly later paintings he experiments with colour contrast as a supplement to his interest in formal contrast. Lin may have looked at such works, or have studied those of Delaunay, another Cubist who explored colour, but the particular colour scheme he adopts in Exercise is identical to neither. Leger favoured primary colours, whilst Delaunay's broader palette nevertheless gave prominence to the colours of the spectrum - Lin, by contrast, seems here to favour colours that are more mixed. The extremity of distinctness that primary colours have from one another is avoided, as well as the atmospheric associations that link Delaunay's art to the heritage of Impressionism.

Although he had been introduced to the Chinese brush as a child (both his grandfather and his father being artists), Lin was less than twenty years of age when he arrived in France. For this reason it would be fair to think of Europe as providing him with his first mature and extended encounter with art.  During his time in Europe, and indeed in works produced in the period after his return to China in 1925, Lin's art is basically that of someone attempting to work within modern Western modes, rather than that of someone actively synthesizing Chinese and Western styles. After his return (and, indeed, whilst in Europe) Lin did paint works in Chinese media, but this activity seems to belong to a different compartment of his life - he doesn't seem to be building bridges between his Chinese brush works and his Western media experiments. What Lin does do, however, is attempt to employ his Western style images to comment on the social realities of China - he forges a connection to Chinese life rather than to Chinese art, and does so by means of the connotations he gives to his subject matter. In oil paintings such as Humanity (Rendao) of 1927, and Suffering (Tongku) of 1929,  he lets the (eminently Western) theme of the nude be the bearer of his feelings concerning contemporary China. Such large scale (and therefore explicitly public) works show his allegiance, in the period after his return home, to the reformist spirit kindled by the May Fourth movement. The rationalist tenor of that movement, inspired by European Enlightenment thought, can also be seen in Groping (MOSUO),  a painting Lin made in 1924 whilst still in Europe. Foreshadowing the interest he shows in light effects in his later work, Lin seems here to be representing humanity's fight for progress and civilization by means of figures emerging from shadows.

Significantly, those figures apparently represent historical personalities such as Homer, Dante and Tolstoy,  indicating Lin's belief in a significant role for the arts in mankind's struggle out of intellectual darkness.  Although all the figures shown are Western, the subject matter of this work, it should be noted, has no direct precedent in European painting.' Its treatment seems, however, to be indebted to the style of German Expressionist artists such as Nolde, whose work Lin may have come across around that time during his visit to Berlin.

In Lin Fengmian's later work the social or humanistic orientation detectable in certain paintings of the 1920s and 1930s is harder to find. Ambitious large-scale figure works tend to disappear, and although the nude continues to be an important theme in Lin's art, it is characteristically presented in an intimate, as opposed to a public, way, as in Figure (1980). Only the artist (or spectator) is now the witness to the depicted figure's nudity, and a lightly­stated erotic tone is introduced. The influence of Matisse and of Modigliani can be seen, and the angular, Cubistic vocabulary of forms is replaced by one made up of rhythmic curves.  Features gain more definition than in many earlier works - in Exercise the face is the most abstracted part of the image - and also become recognizably Chinese.

A more private art evolves in Lin's landscapes as well. You often feel that you are looking at the scene through the filter of one man's temperament, isolated in a personal, asocial, even sometimes almost solipsistic vision of the world. Since the subject of his landscapes is always China, the developing significance of this genre for him is part of a sinicization of his content which I have already noted in relation to the theme of the nude. Given the importance of landscape as a genre in Chinese art, one can talk at some level of a rapprochement on Lin's part with pre-modern Chinese visual culture. An artistic and a social change of tack both occurred in Lin Fengmian's art during the turbulent years of war and revolution that China faced in the 1930s and 1940s. The outlines of his mature style became visible as this period came to an end.

The story I am trying to tell here is not one of a simple return to tradition on Lin Fengmian's part. In fact, it is only in this later period that Lin seems actively to work at integrating Western and Chinese traits in his art.  Although Western modernist painting is consciously at odds with earlier Western art it does have certain properties in common with pre-modern Chinese painting, such as an emphasis on the artist's gesture, the painted mark, as opposed to the represented subject. " Despite the different reasons for the evolution of these analogous traits in the two cultures, the tilt Lin made in the direction of tradition enabled new Western influences to come into play in his art.


The increasing subjectivity of Lin Fengmian's art naturally fed upon his exposure to the expressionistic side of Western modernism, and in particular its tendency to use non-naturalistic


Lin's interest in techniques involving cancellation is a further demonstration of the extent to which Western art influenced him. In classical Chinese painting the general tendency is towards preserving the visibility of each mark, making the whole process of the image's colour to evoke feeling. This can especially be seen in Lin's landscapes, where a broad range of colours not found in traditional Chinese landscape art are used. Lin's use of colour was perhaps his most individual contribution to modern Chinese painting, the mastery of the expressive potential of this resource proving elusive to most other Chinese artistic visitors to Europe, and almost impossible for artists who had stayed at home, and were attempting to study Western art only in reproduction.


Not only was Lin able to use colour to introduce emotional tone into his landscapes, he also used it simultaneously to create light effects. His interest in light can also be seen in many still-life paintings, where the different problem of interior illumination is addressed. There, Lin often chose to suggest light coming from behind the depicted objects, an effect known as contre jour. Such a strategy can also be observed in the painting of Matisse, whom I have already had cause to note as an influence on Lin's art. Like Lin, Matisse will commonly place a window opposite the spectator, in the rear of the represented space of his still-life paintings. Matisse is also very successful at suggesting light through colour, and the two artists are comparable in a more specific way, namely in their use of black as if it were a colour, rather than an absence or negation of colour. Matisse talked about his love of black in 1946, stating that `before, when I didn't know what colour to put down, I put down black. Black is a force: I depend on black to simplify the construction'. In the same statement Matisse also spoke of his 1916 painting The Moroccans as using `a grand black which is as luminous as the other colours in the painting'.

Lin often over-paints one colour with another, but allows the first colour to remain visible around the edges of the second. Whilst this may be a matter of superimposed patches of paint, there is one variant of this layering technique in which  Lin defines the boundary of a form by a linear mark made on top of an area of colour. Such a colour area (which may have been applied quite freely) will partially escape beyond the boundary line, suggesting a sense of continuity beneath it. In this way it weakens the tendency of lines to divide up the painting's surface, and helps create a degree of formal continuity. This also happens when an area of paint depicting something distant in pictorial space has clearly been painted after an adjacent area representing closer objects. When this creation of background through the overlapping or canceling of existing paint layers takes place, the illusion of three-dimensional space is undermined to some degree, emphasizing two-dimensional design qualities.


Lin's interest in techniques involving cancellation is a further demonstration of the extent to which Western art influenced him. In classical Chinese painting the general tendency is towards preserving the visibility of each mark, making the whole process of the image's production transparent to the spectator. Although effects involving overlap do of course occur in Chinese painting, cancellation (or masking) has a less central place there than in its Occidental counterpart. In the European tradition the possibilities of opacity have been more fully explored, and an understanding of the painting process as an accumulation of layers holds no novelty. Lin's interest in colour would have helped him exploit cancellation and overlay effects, which are difficult to develop without the resource which colour provides for subtle distinction between layers of paint.


In contrast to the tendency in traditional Chinese painting to leave a large part of the image bare of paint (contributing to the effect of lucidity I've just mentioned), Lin frequently covered the whole of his painting surface with pigment. Even when he was working in the monochrome media of Chinese ink on paper (where he did make use of the negative space created by the bare white surface of the paper), there were still many ways in which his style was informed by the West. One can point to his preference for a square format (something that can be found as far back as Exercise), as well as to the predominance of strong horizontal accents in many works. This latter quality is often underlined when it appears in the inclusion of a flying bird (as in Landscape of 1979). The placement of the image of the bird, and our reading of the implied direction of its flight within the painting's space, creates a further horizontal dynamic to the work - albeit one that is as much conceptual as strictly formal.


One could mention many further Western characteristics of Lin's landscapes (such as the almost Impressionistic interest in reflections on the surface of water), but I feel the overall impression one gets from them is that they are `Chinese'. Whatever the balance of ingredients from East and West in any particular case, the overall flavour (in part, quite simply because of the subject matter of mountains and water) tends to be one that can be related to Chinese painting traditions. Lin's works seem to be telling us, however, that tradition is no longer available to us in any direct way; that the momentous changes that have occurred in Chinese society have caused a rift with the past that cannot be unproblematically healed over. Traditional Chinese art seems visible in his work, but through a modern, and partially Western, filter - as something that can only be obliquely alluded to.


If Lin's mature work took a move towards tradition, giving up its earlier desire to carry social or humanistic meanings, then it is as something elusive, never fully present, that traditional art (and perhaps, by implication, traditional Chinese culture generally) is suggested in his landscapes. He refuses to pretend that a continuity is possible, highlighting, rather than magically eliminating, our distance from the past. His exile's experience (his early years in Europe, his displacement by war when in China, and his late years in Hong Kong from 1977) had perhaps given him a particularly sharp intimation of the `homelessness', the alienation from a fixed position, which modernity imposes on us all. Lin's depicted China is never close at hand (there is rarely much interest in the foreground of his landscapes) and it is also commonly uninhabited: one often feels that loneliness and separation are suggested, rather than simply some kind of Daoist communion with the natural world. 13 The clouds can seem heavier and more threatening than those we are accustomed to meeting in Chinese landscape art, and it is frequently Autumn: a season of great beauty (as Lin's paintings certainly tell us), but also a poignant, melancholy time when our sense of the transience of things is heightened.

The connotation that Lin's landscapes often bear of bereavement, of yearning for connection to a traditional Chinese culture from which modernity has exiled both him and his spectators, can be more readily appreciated if we contrast them to the quite different mood of his still-lives. This genre of his mature work is the one in which a Western flavour can most clearly be found, in part because of the stylistic influence of Matisse and of late (so-called Synthetic) Cubism which informs it. The fact that still-life painting is, unlike landscape, a genre which only really exists in Western art helps reinforce this Occidental feel, marking a distance from the conscious engagement with China with which his landscapes seem to be involved. Unlike the far-away quality they exude, everything in the still-life paintings is close-at-hand, possessable. In this genre all is foreground, available in its sensuous richness to our eye, but also, one feels, to our touch - and even our taste, since much Lin depicts is either edible or drinkable. Within the protective confines of the domestic environment, where a diffused light is the only evidence of the exterior world's existence, Lin's art does find a vision of plenitude - a fullness of presence, which counterbalances the sense of loss it mourns elsewhere.

Article from Colours of East and West Paintings by Lin Fengmian published by the University of Art Gallery - The University of Hong Kong. David Clarke is a professor in the department of Fine Arts, The University of Hong Kong.

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