“I think what people are pursuing and expressing in art is the harmony between idealism and realism, which is also a harmony between life and the universe.”
Lin Fengmian, For Wou-Ki, December 24, 1947
Approaching Utopia: Lin Fengmian, Harvest at Dawn
As the gates of China slowly opened to the rest of the world during the late Qing and early Republic, Western art surged in, its impact an unprecedented challenge to traditional Chinese art. It was also an opportunity for revolution and innovation. At the time, Lin Fengmian had not only set off the trend of studying art in France, he led the ushering in of modernism, demonstrating how the Eastern and Western traditions could be harmoniously combined. Even more importantly, with a keen eye for recognizing talent, the artist cultivated the artistic development of countless disciples, single-handedly changing the entire course of development of Chinese art. In this way, his achievements cannot be summed up merely by the title of “Master” or “Master of the Masters.” Instead, he ought be regarded as one of the few “phenomenal” figures in art history. Of his works that have been passed down, the medium most commonly used by the artist was coloured ink on paper, with very few of his works completed in oil. Of those oil paintings, the number of large-scale works barely exceeds a handful. This Spring, Sotheby’s is honoured to be offering at its Evening Sale Harvest at Dawn (Lot 1008). Appearing at auction for the first time, the lot on offer at 85.8 x 123.8cm is, by the account of the artist’s official publishing and sales records, Lin Fengmian’s largest oil painting. The work displays not only the artist’s modernist style and humanist spirit, it echoes the subject and style of a series of the artist’s paintings at the Shanghai Chinese Painting Academy. When compared, the two resonant off of one another, as though pieces of a shared history are being reconstructed in a grand occasion of harmonious unity.
The Reality of an Era: Traces of a Tumultuous History
In the late 1940s, Lin’s reputation in the Chinese art world had already shot to the highest peaks. Not only was he greatly esteemed domestically, a reporter from America’s Life Magazine travelled to the foothills of Yuquan District in Inner Mongolia to interview Lin Fengmian in 1949, leaving with a photo commemorating the occasion. When China changed regimes, however, the artist’s championing of modernism came into conflict with the realism that was being officially promoted. Thus, in November of 1950, the artist resigned from all of his teaching posts, bid farewell to the National Academy of Art that he had single-handedly founded, and left for Shanghai. In the next ten years, Chinese society marched toward socialism in the idealistic spirit of establishing wealth equality among its citizens. To this end, Lin participated in many labour programs in the countryside, an experience that left an indelible impact upon his art. Among the most significant was a trip in 1958 to Yanqiao Village, located in Dongjiao District’s Chuansha County, where the artist participated in farming vegetables with fellow members of the Shanghai Branch of the Chinese Artist’s Association, including Wu Dayu, Guan Liang, and Lai Shaoqi. Yanqiao Village was situated on the east coast of the Huangpu River, one of the county’s six vegetable farming villages, an area today considered part of Shanghai’s Pudong New District. While labouring in the fields, Lin, no longer youthful, suffered from a stomach ailment, and was given special care by the landlord of the home where he was staying. Lin himself came from a mountain village, Meixianshan Village of Guangdong province, and this experience of kind hospitality conjured up his warm sentiments toward the idea of the rural village. The artist formed deep friendships with the local villagers, and even after his stay, he often returned during the summers and winters to visit them. From these visits came a series of painting revolving around farming life and the scenes from harvest. Harvest at Dawn was created during this time.
Harvest at Dawn depicts the joyous scene of a village during harvest time. The sun shines down with warmth as a group of village women with healthy and beautiful physiques, their faces full and round, happily engage in the work of harvest. A lush, green field extends boundlessly in every direction. Where the field joins the sky, the viewer can make out, faintly in the distance, villagers’ homes as well as chimneys and electric posts. These details show us that these are no longer the small farms of feudal times. The women in the fields are not the oppressed works of landowners. The agricultural revolution has occurred, and these villagers work as their own masters, earning their life necessities in the collective production of the people’s commune. The atmosphere of this rural scene is brimming with idealism.
The Beauty of Innovation: A Pioneer in Blending East and West
The day-to-day of a farming village is the subject of Harvest at Dawn. Yet within the arrangement of the unadorned figures and scenery, the artist has inserted his rich and fluent command of both Eastern and Western artistic languages. In the 1920s, Lin studied abroad in France, first at the Dijon Academy of Fine Arts and later at the Paris Academy of Fine Arts, where he laid his artistic foundation. Feasting his eyes upon the ancient and modern classics of the European tradition, the artist later invoked the techniques of these masters, including in Harvest at Dawn. In the piece, the portrayal of a group of women in a rural setting conjures Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings of lively countryside scenes. To the casual eye, the women in Lin’s painting seem as though arranged at random across the canvas, but upon further examination, one can see that their positioning is the result of meticulous planning. The woman in mustard yellow at the centre-right of the painting serves as the central coordinate of the piece, her face and downward extended right arm the central axis. If a cross were drawn right at her waist, the canvas is divided into four sections conforming perfectly to the golden ratio (1 : 0.618). Groups of women are placed in each quadrant, as though circling around the activities of the woman in the centre. Extending upward the vertical axis of the imaginary cross drawn at the woman’s waist connects her to the rural buildings in the distance. Extend the vertical axis downward, and it directly meets the viewer’s line of sight. In this way, at first glance, the viewer’s eyes naturally alight upon the woman in the centre, her body language invoking Jean François Millet’s The Gleaners, drawing the viewer into the world of the painting.
While Lin used Western painting techniques to convey a Chinese subject, he was at the same time devoted to bridging traditional painting techniques into the new era. He took advantage of the intersection between the flat plane technique used in shadow puppetry, for example, and Western Cubism, making it the foundation upon which the dozen or so women are depicted in Harvest at Dawn. To express basic visual logic, Lin used the “aerial perspective” oft-employed in traditional Chinese landscape painting, in which the figures and objects closer to the foreground are depicted in more vivid detail and clarity, while those in the distance are faded and simplified. Additionally, traditional Chinese art emphasizes the use of the line. Lin brought this idea onto the canvas, using the plain and simple lines of embroidery and calligraphy in depicting the embellishments on the women’s clothing and the outlines of their figures, creating a mood of profound and lingering charm.
Unceasing Virtue: The Artist’s Steadfast Kindness
Lin never wavered from his insistence upon modernism in his artistic style, yet on a spiritual level, he remained faithful to the eternal verities. After returning to China in the 1920s, his work focused on expressing the humanist spirit. In fact, one of the artist’s earliest works available for examination is his 1923 painting Fishing Village After the Storm, in which – even in the black and white image that is all which remains of the painting – one can easily discern its subject of village women. Yet even after many decades, during which the artist undoubtedly experienced the variety and the dramatic changes of the world, his interest in humanity remained steadfast, his former idealism clearly exhibited in Harvest at Dawn. The women in the painting are depicted as amiable and kind, and despite their status as common civilians, they radiate with a spiritual, holy light. The village houses appear only symbolically in the distance, yet they resemble Lin’s own past home. Born into a Hakka stonemason’s family, the villager’s life in the rural countryside always represented the idea of home in the artist’s heart. Lin was separated from his mother at a young age, and was separated again from his wife in the 1950s; thus, the people animated by Lin’s brush are often women, as though the artist hopes to create his ideal of the woman, representing the virtues of truth, goodness, and beauty, while at the same time creating a peaceful and gracious setting as a stable dwelling place for them.
A Trove of Treasures: A Perfect Union with the Shanghai Chinese Painting Academy Paintings
The precious value of Harvest at Dawn derives in large part to its intimate resonance with the artist’s works collected at the Shanghai Chinese Painting Academy. The Shanghai Academy was under preparation for construction in 1956, and formally completed by 1960. It was established in the new China as an institution for continuing the development of Chinese art as well as organizing the creative efforts of Chinese artists. Lin attended several meetings of the planning committee, developing close relationships with former Academy Deans Feng Zikai (taking office in 1960), Lü Meng (taking office in 1979), and Cheng Shifa (who held office between 1984-2002), and also took on a teaching post at the Academy. For years he was actively involved in the institution’s activities. In 1977, Lin was granted the opportunity to visit relatives abroad, and the artist moved to Hong Kong. Two years later, he penned a later to the Shanghai Municipal Party Committee, as well as the city’s Art Association and Art Academy, expressing that he wished to donate all 105 paintings that he had left for safekeeping at the academy. This remarkable collection became the most valuable public collection of the artist’s work, reflecting the artist’s creative style between the 1940s to the 1970s. In 2003, the Shanghai Chinese Painting Academy and the Shanghai Lin Fengmian Arts Research Association gathered these pieces into a highly informative collection, entitled A Collection of Lin Fengmian Works Holded by Shanghai Chinese Painting Academy. Within it, a series of coloured ink on paper paintings from the 1950s share a subject with Harvest at Dawn, and among them, two coloured ink pieces – Vegetable Farmers and Peasant Women (In the Farm) – are nearly identical to Harvest at Dawn in their arrangements. Additionally, over a dozen more paintings depict scenes from rural farming life, a testament to the artist’s profound experience in the countryside, his thorough observation of the many scenes of village living. After repeatedly experimenting with partial scenes, the artist’s efforts finally culminated in Harvest at Dawn, a bold and impressive large-scale painting, rendering the scene for the first time in oil instead of ink. This rare and precious museum-quality masterpiece echoes the collection at the Shanghai Chinese Painting Academy, leaping across time to reunite with history.