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A Pioneer of Modern Chinese Painting: The Art of Lin Fengmian was jointly organized by the Shanghai Art Museum and the Hong Kong Museum of Art. The long-awaited exhibition consisted of paintings from the two museums as well as private collections. On display were the artist’s paintings from the 1930s to the 1980s. This retrospective presented Lin’s technical virtuosity and innovative spirit and reaffirmed his artistic authority in twentieth-century Chinese art.
Lin Fengmian was born in 1900 in Guangdong province in China. He started his formal education locally and later went to Shanghai and joined a study program that allowed him to travel to Europe in 1919. Upon arriving in France, he immediately became interested in the modernist paintings of the Fauves movement. In 1926, he returned to China when he was appointed director of the National Beijing Fine Art School. Throughout his directorship, he steered the school that was both modern and Chinese, exposing students to the latest Western art concepts as well as to traditional Chinese painting. Unfortunately, his appointment as director ended with the 1937 Japanese invasion. After the 1949 liberation, Lin’s views on art did not meet the government’s approval and he was largely excluded from participation in the Chinese art world. Although he taught oil painting, most of his works were painted on Chinese paper, a practice he continued throughout his life. He passed away in Hong Kong in 1991.
The one hundred and fifteen paintings on view were divided into four genres: 1) landscapes, 2) figures and Chinese opera characters, 3) flowers, birds, and still-lifes, and 4) ladies. The artist’s delicate renderings of rural scenery painted in the 1930s and 1940s delighted visitors. These paintings are small and intimate, demonstrating Lin’s mastery of brushwork.
The artist created a distinctive style of representation in his opera scenes. The War of Red Cliff (1985) and The South Gate of Heaven (1989) were displayed together on a burgundy wall (the rest of the gallery was painted white) to foreground the dramas. Both paintings present theatrical moments in the well-known opera stories. The artist’s years of experimentation with Chinese shadow puppets and Cubism resulted in the visually stunning paintings. A statement by Lin attesting to his labor was presented on a column directly across from the paintings: “My solution is to fold and overlap on a painting surface the characters who appear scene after scene in a traditional opera that I have seen. What I aim at is not the volume of an object or a person but the synthetic succession of time” (it also appeared in the exhibition brochure). It was evident during my repeated visits to the exhibition that viewers found Lin’s statements and explanatory walls texts useful in elucidating the artist’s methods and intentions.
Lin’s paintings of human anguish were presented together in a deliberately darkened corner, signifying the suffering depicted in both his images and his life. These works are his most forceful and personal paintings. Lin led a tragic and oftentimes lonely life, losing his wife and child while in France during his studies. As an educator in China, his spirit was crushed because his ideology did not meet the Communist government’s prescription for artistic expression. He became isolated, and his second wife and daughter migrated to Brazil, leaving him to witness tumultuous social and political events. He destroyed many of his paintings, fearing government censorship, but was eventually sent to jail for four years in his early seventies. A poem written while in prison aptly echoes his imagery of human misery:
All through the night the west wind
Breathes ice into these bars of iron.
Low clanging from dreams
Suffices not to divulge suffering in the world.
Iron locks clink;
Ghostly shadows drift;
The bony come in piles.
Why, oh heavens, why?1
Lin recreated a considerable amount of his lost or destroyed works after he moved to Hong Kong in 1977. Suffering I (1989) is a recreation of a lost painting with the same title completed in 1929. The image is regarded as a social statement, and it made him famous by causing a great deal of political reaction. He was nearly arrested for the radical subject matter, which uses nudity to symbolize human despair. Lin was extremely productive as an art activist and an artist in the 1920s and the 1930s. He advocated unity in the art world and new ideas on modernizing Chinese art.
In 1989, Lin recreated the lost work using ink and color instead of oil paint. (The painting is currently in a private collection.) The scene is dark and somber with black in the background and grey for the figures’ skin tones. Dabs of yellow in the background further dramatize the darkness of the work. The later version of Suffering I was situated within a group of paintings titled Nightmare. The War of the Red Cliff (1985), Suffering I (1989), Christ (1989), The South Gate of Heaven (1989), and Nightmare (1989) (all present in this exhibition) constitute a series of paintings that revisited Lin’s interest in the manifestation of human misery. In these late images, he highlights suffering in facial expressions (hence the use of masks), as compared to his earlier works of the same genre where the figures bear their suffering on their bodies. These expressions are frequent features in his later paintings. In addition, the crowded compositions project a sense of desperation and entrapment, and the mask-like faces accentuate a mocking quality. Many have speculated whether his works of human suffering are a direct result of witnessing specific social events (such as the May Fourth and the June Fourth Incidents), but viewing these images together presented the artist’s empathic view of human misery.
A group of the artist’s landscapes completed in the 1950s to the 1980s was presented in the center of the gallery space. His series of wild geese, reeds, and lotus ponds provide a scenic change from his paintings of agony. In the most popular genre of Chinese art, Lin is renowned for his use of a square format popular in the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD). His keen observations are embodied in his skillful manipulation of composition and colors, changing each scene with meticulous details (e.g., reeds blown by the wind in different directions). His artistic sensitivity is further reinforced in the rendering of West Lake that he executed in the latter half of his long and prolific career. Lin painted West Lake after he left China. Only then did images of the renowned scenic spot stream back to his memory, and he rendered them directly on paper. In Autumn (1988), Summer (1988), and Winter (1989), Lin captured the changing seasons and atmospheres with imaginative use of colors, turning these images into visual poetry. The three paintings are displayed side by side to show a sense of continuity. Throughout his career, he exhibited keen interest in the expressionistic side of Western modernism, particularly the use of non-naturalistic colors to evoke feelings. He is perhaps the principal Chinese artist to recognize the expressive potential of this resource.
Despite his growing popularity, Lin is still sometimes criticized for painting in the “Western” styles (i.e., the deliberate absence of inscription, considered an integral component of traditional Chinese paintings). His images of ladies are his unique invention, successfully fusing Eastern and Western artistic styles and techniques. Combining traditional feminine features and costumes with his innovative use of light and contrasting colors, Lin created women who are feminine, antique, and yet timeless. Four paintings of his ladies were displayed together on a dark blue wall to show that light emits from the compositions and to allow comparison of the subtle differences in each work. This wall of display was at the exact opposite end of the burgundy wall with the opera paintings, providing an interesting contrast of the dramatic and the tranquil.
If Lin’s paintings of human misery symbolize his private torment, his flowers, birds, and still-lifes represent his love of nature and his fondness for color. His birds, such as Dancing Egrets (1986), are animated, and his flowers are vibrant and colorful. Still life, a thoroughly Western subject matter, signifies Lin’s experimentation with forms and composition. The intimacy of the images also evokes the private nature of the artist who chose to focus on his art and shun fame and fortune.
Viewers could examine the artist’s still-lifes before entering the education corner, a lively affair where children were encouraged to paint and some produced charming emulation of the artist’s works. The theme of East-West exchange was presented in this corner where Lin’s paintings were compared to the works of Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and Paul Cézanne in order to illustrate artistic lineage. A video program on Lin and his contemporary Xu Beihong (1895–1953) was repeatedly shown to explain the development of twentieth-century Chinese art and its two key figures. A timeline of both artists and comparative pictures were on display.
Paintings in this exhibition were reproduced in a relatively inexpensive exhibition catalogue. Three articles (in both Chinese and English) by Lang Shaojun (an art historian), Wu Guanzhong (a well-known painter and Lin’s student), and Feng Yeh (Lin’s goddaughter and student) provide a balanced understanding of Lin’s life and his artistic output.
This exhibition was coordinated by the Hong Kong Museum of Art’s curatorial team, including the chief curator, Tang Hoi-chiu, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Hong Kong’s reunification with China. The selection of paintings included the artist’s small ink pieces from the mid-1930s when he was at the Hangzhou National College of Art as well as landscapes and Chinese opera characters in ink from the Chongqing period of the 1940s. The Shanghai Art Museum lent its collection of Lin’s paintings produced from the 1950s to the 1970s, when the artist was in Shanghai before the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Lin’s late works, completed in Hong Kong in the 1980s, are in the collections of Feng Yeh (the artist’s goddaughter) and other private collectors whose willingness to lend the paintings to this exhibition allowed the public to see them for the first time. The range of paintings in the exhibition promoted a well-rounded understanding of Lin’s artistic choices. Scrutinizing his works in person reveals the vibrancy of his use of colors, the delicacy of his composition, and his skillful brushwork; none of these crucial elements have reproduced well in publications. Though the thematic division guided viewers, it de-emphasized the chronology of the artist’s works and resulted in confusion, especially for those attempting to comprehend Lin’s artistic development.
This retrospective foregrounded the Hong Kong Museum of Art’s effort in organizing collaborative exhibitions with museums in China, bringing important artwork from the mainland to Hong Kong to be admired by local viewers as well as an international audience. The theme of East-West exchange is particularly suited for a museum in the former British colony as it characterizes the hybrid nature of Hong Kong.
Lin’s paintings embody dramatic changes in Chinese artistic development as well as the country’s turbulent history. He spent the last years of his life in Hong Kong to focus on artistic exploration, making him a most appropriate subject for celebrating Hong Kong’s reunification.
Visiting Lecturer, University of Hong Kong, School of Professional and Continuing Education
1 Feng Yeh, “Low Clanging from Dreams,” in A Pioneer of Modern Chinese Painting: The Art of Lin Fengmian (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Museum of Art, 2007), 48–53.
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