As the Hong Kong Museum of Art opens a retrospective of Lin Fengmian's influential work, Valerie C. Doran examines his complex life and works that mirror China's recent history.

Trajectory of modernity

The Hong Kong Museum of Art's upcoming exhibition, A Pioneer of Modern Chinese Painting: The Art of Lin FengMian, could be described as a blockbuster. lt's certainly long overdue.

Organised in collaboration with the Shanghai Art Museum and held to mark the 10th anniversary of the handover, the exhibition reveals the achievements of an artist (1900-1991) whose works you might read about in art history books rather than see in a museum.

Lin's work consists of gently modernist, richly hued ink and colour paintings depicting poetic subjects such as women in repose or wild geese flying across misty landscapes.

The retrospective of more than 100 works painted over 60 years reveals Lin as an artist of deep complexity, a thinker of daring originality and a humanist whose faith in the transcendent value of art survived great tragedy.

More than 60 of the paintings are from the Hong Kong and Shanghai museums, with most of the others on loan from private collections.

"We're particularly grateful to Lin Fengmian's god-daughter Feng Ye," says Hong Kong Museurn of Art (HKMA) assistant curator Asta Ho Chi-Ming. "Without her support it would have been next to impossible to secure such importaant loans from private collectors around the world."

Feng, who studied extensively with Lin and is now an artist based in Hong Kong, is lending her own collection of paintings from the artist's later period, from 1977 to his death in 1991, when he lived in Hong Kong. The result is a comprehensive exhibition, which is a major achievement, given that many of Lin's earlier works were destroyed during the Sino Japanese war.

Sadly, an even greater number of works (including those from Lin's middle and mature periods of the late 1950s to mid-1970s, when he lived in Shanghai) were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution  many by the artist himself.

Yet, as Feng describes in her exhibition memoirs of the Cultural Revolution years, even this didn't prevent him being jailed for more than four years and brutally tortured as punishment for the very achievements this exhibition now celebrates.

Born in Meixian county, Guangdong province, Lin was "contemporary with the 20th century", according to chief curator Tang Hoi-chiu. The trajectory of his life and of his artistic development reflects that of Chinese modernity itself.

The son of a stone carver and calligrapher, Lin was soon recognised as a prodigy and sent to study ink-and-brush painting under private teachers. When he was 20, he was one of the fortunate few chosen for Chinese educator Cai Yuanpei's Work-Study program, which sponsored young artists to go to France. Lin's experiences in Europe spawned new aesthetic and personal potentials.

At the Écoles des beaux arts in Dijon and Paris, he breathed an atmosphere electric with the new movements of Fauvism and Cubism. Later, in Germany, he was deeply influenced by the Expressionist movement and its embrace of other styles, including African and eastern folk arts.

The simplicity of his typical square format  can belie the intricate choreography of colour in which the artist engaged over decades

During this period, Lin produced the first of a lifelong series of large Expressionist-style works dealing with themes of human suffering that were an extreme contrast with the light-filled depictions for which he is best known.

The HKMA exhibition, which opens on Wednesday, includes several important examples of this rarely seen style and a chronology offering insights into the passion and pathos of a personal life that deeply influenced his art.

Visiting Germany in 1924, Lin met and married a young German-Austrian aristocrat, Elise von Roder, but a year later, both his wife and their newborn daughter fell ill and died. In 1926, Lin remarried, this time to a young French sculptress, Alice Vattant, with whom he returned to China that year to take up the position of director and professor of the new National Beijing College of Art.

There, Lin created controversy hy instituting life-sketching classes using nude models. A year later, he escaped an apparent assassination attempt- a violent protest against his role in organising the three week Beijing Art Assembly, which exhibited and encouraged the integration of different modes of art: Chinese ink painting with western modernism, folk with fine art, music with painting - all radical concepts at the time.

Unfazed, Lin continued to court controversy, introducing his students to Cezanne and Matisse and encouraging experimentation in a quest to revitalise Chinese art. As artist Wu Guanzhong attests in his catalogue essay, when the
young Lin was later appointed by Cai Yuanpei as director of the new National Hangzhou Academy of Art in Zhejiang province, he became an important mentor to a whole generation of innovative ink painters, including Wu himself and contemporaries such as Li Keran.

With its broad scope, the exhibition will help audiences to discover - or rediscover - the full complexity of Lin's technical and conceptual experimentation, often revealed only subtly.

The seeming tranquility of many of his themes -from court ladies to still-lifes, opera figures to autumn landsccapes - and the simplicity of his typical square format can belie the intricate choreography of colour and ink, surface and layering, time and space, in which the artist engaged over decades.

For example Lady with Fruit, dated to 1960, reveals the way the superficially Matisse-like composition is actually built up of a complex stylistic layering: the transparent line technique of Tang dynasty murals, the colouration of Song ceramic ware, the geometric relativity of Cubism, and the luminescent infusion of ink and wash that is one of Lin's most inimitable qualities.

The show's catalogue is an invaluable resource, with analytical texts by Wu and art historian Lang Shaojun, among others, and a moving personal memoir by Feng, who will speak at one of the museum's lectures this month.

A Pioneer of Modern Chinese Painting - The Art of  Lin Fengmian, Wed-June 3, 10 am-6pm, daily; 10 am-8 pm, Sat (closed Thu), Hong Kong Museum of Art,10 Salisbury Rd, TST. Inquiries: 2721-0116



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