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
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