The Origins of Lin Fengmian's Opera Characters
Lin Fengmian's portrait subjects have included members of the Miao (Hmong) tribe, rural farmers, fishermen, women in classical dress or modern fashions, religious figures, female nudes, and opera characters. He studied opera characters (Figs. 1-4) over a long period and often thought about how to vividly present them. Current literature suggests that this genre first appeared in his work in the 1940s, chiefly in studies of individual characters and with attention to their modeling and expressions.
In 1951 Lin left Hangzhou for the modern metropolis of Shanghai, where a different mode of living brought gradual change to his art. In particular, under the influence of Guan Liang, a fellow professor from the Hangzhou Academy of the Arts also living in Shanghai, Lin became fascinated with Chinese opera, which was undergoing a wholesale reconstruction back then.
In a letter to his students he wrote, 'Most of these works feature opera characters. But these are very different from the opera characters I painted during my time at Hangzhou. I can say that around 1940, I was focusing first on their figures and expressions, and strengthening my grasp of freehand line drawings with added colour. But this time I've been drawing from Western art, especially Cubism, trying to express these characters as figures in time and space.'
In creating these portraits, Lin Fengmian shifted his focus toward the interactions within an opera scene as a whole, the agile movements of the actors, and a sense of the continuity of development of the plot. At least two opera characters now appear in his paintings, which are also more complex. Their compositions display Lin's strategy for presenting continuous action in an abstract form, along with the complexity of character interactions.
The circle is the most basic geometric form: it exhibits an organic flow of motion that is possessed by neither the triangle nor the rectangle. Under traditional Western theories of composition, artists strove to make their viewers ignore the edges of the picture space, and to avoid letting their gaze fixate on the corners. Artists therefore strove to keep the viewer's gaze moving in a cyclical manner. In his oil paintings of opera characters, Lin Fengmian leaves large areas of background blank, even blending his signature into their figures, from which we can see that his stark white backgrounds were a result of his deliberate creative choice. These white backgrounds are important in forming the entire composition; they represent the special interweaving of time and space on the opera stage.To break down the hard edges of the white background, Lin chose circular compositions in which the interactions of his figures are ingeniously placed around a large circle. Between the two figures he creates a return loop, successfully guiding the viewer's eye around it and producing a sense of continuity and unending motion. However despite this visual loop, Lin nevertheless designed his compositions with specific points of entry and exit. In this way viewers, after taking in the whole of the painting, can easily extract their attention from the cycle.
The circular viewing process in Opera Series: Legend of the White Snake (Lot 23) begins from the leftward-tilting head of the white snake, Bai Suzhen, and continues leftward through the wooden paddle in the hand of the green snake, Xiao Qing. Then, from her outstretched right leg, it connects with Bai Suzhen's feet and upwards along the length of her body, to her upraised left hand and the saber she holds. From there it returns to the knot in Bai Suzhen's hair.
In Opera Series: Zhang Fei (Lot 22), the scimitar-shaped outstretched arms of one figure subtly outline the circular composition, while the right elbow and the outstretched right leg of his opponent in combat each lie along the arc of this circle.
In Opera Series: The Monkey King (Lot 20), as Sun Wukong (the willful monkey) crosses one leg in the air, his leg follows an arc, and the viewer's eye follows it toward the upper center to the magical staff (the Ruyi Jingu Bang) he wields. The circle is completed by following the line of Sha Wujing's (Friar Sandy's) body down to his Crescent Moon Spade. Within the larger circle of the composition, Lin paints an arc on the upraised leg of Wukong, and his right arm on the inner side also forms an arc, suggesting motion.
In Opera Series: Scene of Assassination of Wang Liao (Lot 21), the crescent shape of King Liao's left arm likewise suggests Lin's theory of circular composition. The exaggerated motions of the assassin, Zhuan Zhu, are contained within the arc of this circle.
Overlapping Geometries-In a Single Breath
Just as Lin Fengmian described, he found inspiration in Cubism that allowed him to express the interactions in Chinese opera - the agile movements of the characters and the continuity of plot development. He once said that 'Lately, living in Shanghai, I've had the chance to see some of those old operas. The Shaoxing ones have improved a lot. The new plays are divided into scenes, but the old ones are divided into acts. With individual scenes, it seems that you only sense the physical space, but with longer acts there's more of a sense of the continuity in time. In the old plays, there's a better resolution of the conflicts between time and space, like in Picasso, when he handles objects by folding them into a flat space. I use a method where, after I've watched one of the old operas, I take take characters from different parts of the story and fold them into the space on the canvas. My goal is not to show these figures and objects massed together but to show an overall sense of continuity...' Lin Fengmian's interest in Cubism had in fact taken root much earlier, during his stay in Europe, as can be seen in his Figure Study from 1924.
Within his circular compositions, Lin further constructs the figures of his opera characters from geometric parts-as in the triangular arms of White Snake and Green Snake in Legend of the White Snake, the rectangles and triangles that form the body of Sha Wujing in The Monkey King, and the circle-shaped eyes that express sincere kindness. In Zhang Fei, triangular eyes convey instead fierceness and a valiant demeanor, while his opponent's arms, legs, and torso are shaped by triangles and a trapezoid. In Scene of Assassination of Wang Liao, the upraised arms of the assassin, Zhuan Zhu, and his upper body are formed out of triangles and his legs out of trapezoids, while those same two shapes also represent the robes of King Liao. In addition to the influence of Cubism, in the way objects are divided and reconstructed (Fig. 5), this use of geometric elements also shows the influence of shadow puppet theatre in Chinese folk culture. A complete shadow play figure - from head to toe- would comprise eleven components, including the head, chest, abdomen, legs, arms, elbows, and hands, for the most convenient and flexible portrayal of bodily movements and actions. Because shadow plays are projected against a white fabric, the details of the characters need to be simplified. Their faces are often shown in a three-quarter view or in profile, and their facial features represented with simple lines; Lin Fengmian employs profiles or three-quarter views in each of these paintings of opera figures. The simplification of shadow play features into lines or simple shapes helped highlight their expressions and further emphasize the specific traits of the different characters, and these aspects of appearance tended to become symbolic of the different roles and characters.
While attending to the forms and movements of his characters, Lin also carefully established points where they overlap and connect-in Legend of the White Snake, the outstretched right leg of Xiao Bai overlaps with the feet of Bai Suzhen; in Zhang Fei, there are two points of connection: one, where Zhang Fei's right hand meets his opponent's face, and one where his enemy's hand overlaps at his waist. In Scene o Assassination of Wang Liao there are large areas of contact, including the beard of the assassin Zhuan Zhu, the roasted fish he holds, and the overlap between his leg and the king's figure. These careful arrangements reflect Lin Fengmian's ability to capture the interactions of his figures and create a closely-knit scene.
Colour in Lin's Oil Paintings of Opera Figures
Light and colour are exceptionally important elements of Lin Fengmian's vocabulary. His attention to light sources can be seen from looking at his studio (Fig. 6). His ability to unify diverse colors also characterized his work; any paintings in which color played a major role would be unified around a central tonality, while containing a wealth of minor tone values and gradations of hues. In The Monkey King, yellow is the main tonality, but within this brilliant yellow, lighting effects create areas of tangerine and orange yellow, lemon yellow, auburn yellow, and yellow ochre. In Zhang Fei, terra cotta hues predominate, with terra cotta green and blue, pale yellow, and burnt ochre. Cyan stands to the fore in Legend of the White Snake, along with light lake green, sapphire, pine green, and powder blue. But at the same time, within his unifying colors, Lin adds colors that are easily separable or that have strong coverage, such as white, black, yellow, or red. Thus even within his darker tones there are variations of hue and reflections, creating rich intermediate and bright colors that stand out. Another feature of Lin Fengmian's paintings was the skillful use of complementary colors. Complementary colors, as highly contrasting tones, create tension and visual clashes, conveying lively dynamics and dramatic oppositions. In Scene of Assassination of Wang Liao, the sunny yellows and bright blues of the king's robes, the tangerine orange of his stage makeup, and the brilliant red of his beard create strong contrasts with the deep reddish-brown of the assassin's clothing. With one figure in bright tones and the other in dark hues, their antagonistic relationship becomes clear as the artist portrays a moment of deep peril for the king.
It is generally thought that the story behind Legend of the White Snake was first written down in volume 38 of a Ming era book of storyteller's scripts - Stories to Caution the World - with the title The White Maiden Locked for Eternity in the Leifeng Pagoda. It tells the story of a white snake who, after 500 years of training and self-cultivation, is able to take human form. She adopts the name Bai Suzhen and is wedded to the human Xu Xian. A monk, Fa Hai, passes by the medicine shop they have opened and realizes that Bai Suzhen is a spirit, not human, and thinks of a way to reveal her true identity to Xu Xian. When this happens, Xu Xian sees her true form and immediately dies of fright. Bai Suzhen, however, braves great danger to steal a magical herb to help him; in the end, the Supreme Venerable Sovereign is moved, gives her the herb, and Xu Xian is restored to life. But Fa Hai remains determined to break up this snake-spirit and human relationship, and imprisons Xu Xian in Jin Shan Temple. Bai Suzhen determines, with Xiao Qing's help, to rescue Xu Xian. Lin Fengmian portrays the scene in which they have flooded the Jin Shan Temple and take up weapons to do battle with Fa Hai, one with a saber, and one with an oar (Fig. 7).
The Assassination of Wang Liao (The Sword Inside the Fish)
Near the end of the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history, Prince Guang of the Kingdom of Wu (later, King Helü of Wu) plotted to kill King Liao of the Wu Kingdom and instate himself as king. Wu Yun (also known as Wu Zixu) recommended Zhuan Zhu to Prince Guang as the best person for the task. Zhuan Zhu came from a butcher's family, was soldierly, and had a sharp mind. He knew that King Liao loved roasted fish, and decided that a sword could be hidden inside a fish and used to murder the king at an opportune moment. At a banquet, Zhuan Zhu presents the roast fish on a serving tray, having already hidden a sharp sword inside it. Lin Fengmian's painting portrays the moment when Zhuan Zhu has arrived at the King's seat, suddenly pulls out the dagger, and stabs the king. His thrust penetrates the king's triple layer of protective armor, severing his spine, and the king cries out and falls dead on the spot.
Zhang Fei of the Reed Marshes
Here Lin Fengmian portrays a figure from the Three Kingdoms, Zhang Fei, who at the order of Zhuge Liang, disguises himself as a fisherman and hides in the reed marshes to await soldiers led by Zhou Yu; he ambushes them and blocks their way. Zhang Fei reveals himself in the painting wearing the straw hat and sandals of a fisherman, but with a heroic fearsomeness.
The Monkey King and Sha Wujing
The Monkey King (Sun Wukon) and Sha Wujing is derived from one of the four great classic stories of China, Journey to the West. Tang Sanzang is assisted by two disciples in his journey to the 'western regions' (India) to obtain sacred Buddhist scriptures. Sun Wukong is a fellow apprentice with Sha Wujing; he is intelligent, loyal, and hates evil and injustice. He further possesses magical powers, and can cover thousands of li in a single somersault. Sun Wukong has a magical staff (the Ruyi Jingu Bang) as a weapon, which expands or shrinks at his will. Lin Fengmian portrays Sun Wukong with long limbs, one leg upraised and crossed. As a sign of his extraordinary powers, he wields his magical staff with ease, though according to the legend, it weighs thousands of pounds. By contrast, Sha Wujing is steady and cautious, conveying a sincere and retiring character. He holds the Crescent Moon Spade, and his duty is to hold close to Tang Sanzang and protect him, and in this he spares no effort as they journey across mountains and rivers.
China and Switzerland: A Testament to Cultural Exchange Between East and West in the 1950s
The four Lin Fengmian works offered at this season's sale were first collected by Swiss businessman Albert Kurt Forrer. Forrer migrated in 1946 to Shanghai as a Swiss merchant. Initially working for a Swiss import-export company, he learned to speak, read and write Chinese. In 1949 he successfully established a barter trade system for international companies in Shanghai. In the mid-1950s he accepted a position as director of the Swiss Aluminum Rolling Mills in Shanghai. He and his wife, Marfried Zubler, who shared similar interests in contemporary Chinese art and Chinese antiques, married in 1950 and had two sons. The young couple combined their collections of artwork and expanded them greatly over the next decade. They mainly focused on contemporary Chinese paintings, antiques, and stone rubbings. Their joint collection included artists such as Pang Zhao, also known as Pang Zuoyu (1915-1969), Fu Shuda (1910-1973), and Lin Fengmian (1900-1991). By means of mutual introductions between other collectors and artists, they met Lin Fengmian in the early 1950s, purchasing these four oils as well as some ink works; some of those ink works were sold at the Christie's 2013 fall sale and 2014 spring sale. Due to the political climate at the end of the '50s, Forrer decided to leave Shanghai in 1960, but it was necessary for him to first handle the process of turning over the aluminum rolling mill operations to the Chinese government. He first sent his wife and sons abroad, and asked a friend to see after them if he should be unable to leave China as anticipated. Prior to their departure, out of gratitude to his friend, Forrer presented him with one of the Lin Fengmian oils as a gift. Forrer, however, was later able to leave without difficulty and returned to Switzerland in 1961. Three of the paintings-Legend of the White Snake, Zhang Fei, and The Monkey King-were inherited by Forrers sons, while Scene of Assassination of Wang Liao has been held by his friend's children up to the present.