All aspects of Lin Fengmian’s art and life had been subject to ideological investigation, because he had been an educator at the national level. In the early 1950s, he resigned his teaching posts and left Hangzhou for Shanghai. Following this decision, Lin finally returned to the pursuit of his personal artistic style in a relatively private environment. During his Shanghai period, Lin Fengmian became interested in traditional Chinese drama at the recommendation of his friend Guan Liang. Every time Lin went to see a play, he had a notebook in his pocket filled with detailed observations of makeup patterns, clothing colours, and gestural particularities, so that he could use them later for his works of art. When he was painting, he emphasized the modernity of the structures and colours in the works. He regarded the theatre as a rich source for artistic exploration. In his works, Lin combined Chinese and Western elements in modern art. He sought a harmony of real life with theatrical concepts of time and space.
Lotus Lantern is a well-known and beloved legend. For centuries, the oft-told tale had been adapted into works of literature, drama, film, and television. According to legend, Yang Lian, niece of the Queen Mother of the West, was visiting the temple on Mount Hua when she met him by chance a scholar named Liu. The two instantly fell in love and married in secret. But the relationship was forbidden, and its discovery by the god Erlang, elder brother of Lian, sent him into a terrible rage. He stole her lotus lantern and imprisoned her in a sealed cave on Mount Hua. In this cave, Lian gave birth to her son and named him Chenxiang. She managed to send the baby safely away to live with his father, and for fifteen years, Chenxiang searched the mountains ceaselessly for his mother. So moved were the mountain gods by this son’s filial piety that they presented him with a heavenly axe to help him defeat Erlang’s divine army. Lotus Lantern (Lot 1040) depicts the climax of the story when Chenxiang and his mother were finally reunited.
In the painting, Lin Fengmian chose a diagonal composition. The mother and son holding the lotus lantern are placed in the centre and right side of the image. Erlang’s divine army, represented with Beijing opera makeup, appears in the left rear background. The clear separation in the painting conveys the artist’s belief in the distinct boundary between good and evil. Lin drew on the shadow puppets of folk tradition, as well as Cubist geometric compositions. Large, flatly-applied blocks of colour and easy, soft curves delineate the figures of mother and son. Through variations in similar tones, he created light and shadow effects. Yang Lian holds one sleeve close and the other raised, capturing a sense of emotion and creating arcs on the left and right. This layers over and highlights the thin silk garments worn by Chenxiang behind her, adding a spatial dimension to a two-dimensional plane. The face-painted figures in the background are divided into multiple geometric spaces, grouped closely together in the painting. The artist added a golden light emanating from behind, drawing the viewer deeper into the source of light behind the figures and creating a fantastical continuity of time and space. Lotus Lantern fully expresses Lin’s concept of avant-garde art in the 1950s and 1960s, and the work breaks from the limitations of physical space, successfully representing the mutual understanding, complementarity, and support that exist between the Chinese and Western artistic languages. In spring 2019, the Modern Art Sale offered Beauty Defies Tyranny, a work with a similar date, dimensions, and subject matter. The piece sold for HK$12 million, which demonstrates the enthusiasm for Lin’s theatre paintings.
Rescuing Mother and Reunion, these recurring themes likely originate from an unresolved personal tragedy in the artist’s past. Having been separated from his own mother at a young age, Lin Fengmian would return time and again to this trauma. The heartbreak was lifelong, and this sense of loss and longing never left him. Perhaps through his art he sought to reconcile the pain by telling the heroic story of a son saving his imperilled mother. In Lotus Lantern, the viewer is confronted with both the triumphs and tragedies of the artist’s life. Despite the darkness, Lin’s thoughts of childhood did not dwell in sadness. He preserved within himself a gentle love for life, often turning to a beautiful recurring memory of his mother washing her hair by the river in his hometown.
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