Lin Fengmian was an artist of capacious spirit and far-reaching ambitions. He tasked himself with modernising tradition and charted new aesthetic realms in every direction. An accomplished painter and influential teacher, he inaugurated a renaissance of Chinese painting. In his private life, however, Lin Fengmian was a recluse who paid no attention to fame and fortune and dedicated himself instead to the pursuit of beauty in nature. Still life painting was the crystallisation of his life experience. With unusual sensitivity, he sublimated objects in the world into a beauty beyond description. Even ordinary objects vibrate with vitality once they enter his canvas.
Lin Fengmian enjoyed not only painting flowers but also growing and caring for them. No matter his material circumstances, he needed flowers in his life. He painted flowers of all varieties and forms, some exuberant and colourful, others quiet and delicate, but all charged with vitality. Lin Fengmian aspired and innovated passionately towards reconciling Eastern and Western art. In Blooming Chrysanthemums (Lot 1018), he creates a beautiful scene of lively flowers huddled together, using the brushwork of Chinese ink landscapes to generate the textures of oil painting. Potted flowers radiate outwards and extend in all four directions towards the very edges of the canvas. Vermilion, orange, red, green, light blue, azure, and purple are all present, suffusing the scene with dazzling tonal variety. Such an exuberant composition recalls the "Mille-fleurs" decoration on the porcelain of the high Qing period, whose auspicious symbolism expressed the wish for peace and prosperity. The sense of ebullient suffusion in Blooming Chrysanthemums reflects the painter’s rich inner life, as well as his passionate ambition and his wish for a prosperous and strong China.
The vibrant painting belies a grim historical reality. Lin Fengmian experienced some of the most traumatic moments of his life in the 1970’s, having been deemed a “black painter” during the Cultural Revolution and suffered both bodily and spiritually for it. However, he was an optimist and held his beliefs firmly. Like the chrysanthemums in the painting, he refused to bow to adversity and instead summoned his courage in the face of it. Such was Lin Fengmian’s self-understanding in old age: having lived through the vicissitudes of history, he never lost his integrity, his joy of life, or his sense of responsibility towards society. As Wang Bo wrote in Preface to the Pavilion of Prince Teng, “At old age we should be ever stronger—how can we let our ambitions waver when we are white-haired? In distress we should hold our beliefs ever more firmly and never disappoint our lofty aspirations.”
Still Life with White Rose
In contrast to the sense of suffusion in Blooming Chrysanthemums, Still Life with White Rose (Lot 1019) is a painting about emptiness. This emptiness is different from the reserved spaces of Chinese ink paintings. As a depiction of physical emptiness, it has the same effect of letting a composition breathe and inviting in the viewer’s imagination. Still Life with White Rose pictures a seemingly quotidian scene—China roses in a glass vase, apples on a tray, and a round vase atop a table and next to a curtained window—but is in fact full of hidden meanings. China roses are also called changchun hua or “everlasting spring,” and apples in Chinese are a homophone for “peace and safety.”
Together these motifs form an auspicious rebus. The flowers are not quite in full bloom, and the apples are still green; both hint at an impending burst of life, which is further emphasised by the energetic harmony of colours in the remaining spaces. The interactions of pigments and ink, which sometimes blend with and sometimes occlude each other, suggest the vitality of nature. The colours are deep and vary unpredictably and together form striking but harmonious contrasts. They dazzle the eye and inspire quiet meditation at the same time.
At first glance, Still Life with White Rose resembles traditional Chinese floral painting, but upon closer inspection the influence of Cubism becomes evident in Lin’s composition, so that the painting is a perfect fusion of Eastern and Western aesthetic ideals. The motifs tend towards abstract geometric shapes of square, cone, and sphere, which are held in a harmonious tension between resonance and dissonance. The square table-top is slanted, and divides the composition evenly into three parts with the wall and curtains behind it, so that the composition gains a surprising stability. The glass vase and fruit tray form two inverted triangles of different proportions, echoing and animating one another. This use of abstract geometry reflects both Lin Fengmian’s personal pictorial language and the aesthetic spirit of his time. If we compare Still Life to Wu Dayu’s Flourishing (Lot 1022), we see that the two masters, despite their shared ambitions and similar backgrounds and subject matters, ultimately developed in different directions aesthetically. Lin Fengmian tended to “sinicise” Western styles, whereas Wu Dayu tended to internationalise Eastern aesthetics. Both were giants of their times who contributed tremendously to the advancement of artistic modernism and the modernisation of Chinese artistic traditions.
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