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 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 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.'
OVERLAPPING GEOMETRIES - IN A SINGLE BREATH
The artist described that he found inspiration in Cubism as it allowed him to express the interactions in Chinese opera - the agile movements of the characters and the continuity of plot development. He once said, 'Lately, living in Shanghai, I've had the chance to see some of these 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 is more a sense of continuity in time. In the old plays, there is 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 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 continuityK' Lin's interest in Cubism had in fact taken root much earlier, during his stay in Europe, as can be seen in his works from as early as 1924.
In this painting, 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. Taking from the Song dynasty Chinese folklore saga of the Female Warrior of the Yangs, Lin creates a composition with continuous narrative and motion of the heroines Mu Guiying and her attendant. The basic composition is a stable 'x' formation, with sharp diagonals counter-balanced by the curves and arcs of the attendant's arms and bow. The dynamism of a balanced, self-generating continuum of overlapping geometric shapes and lines brings an organic flow of motion of circles, arcs and curved lines to the scene. Costumes, stage props are reinterpreted into geometric forms of complementary colours, creating visual tensions and clashes, conveying lively dynamics and dramatic opposition. The ingenious visual loop in the composition also represents the interweaving of space and time on the opera stage in an abstract form.
Light and colour are exceptionally important elements of Lin Fengmian's vocabulary, as seen in his attention to light sources in his studio. In this painting, red is the main tonality, and is reserved for the main heroine Mu Guiying. This is punctuated with accents of brilliant tangerine and lemon yellow that unifies the two figures in the scene. The ultramarine blue triangles at the base stand to the fore, and serves to create strong contrast to the warm palette. With one figure in bright red tones and the other in dark hues, as well as the pose and height of the figures, we can see Lin's strategy to convey the complex interactions of the figures and the grandeur and poise of Mu Guiying.
STORY OF THE FEMALE WARRIORS
The opera is set during the war between the Northern Song and the Kingdom of Western Xia, after the death of Song dynasty general Yang Zongbao. When Yang Zongbao, the son of Yang Yanzhao and Princess Chai, travelled to the Muke Fort in search of the Dragon Subduing Wood, which would help in breaking Liao army's Heaven Gate Formation, he met Mu Guiying, who married him after capturing him. Mu Guiying would prove instrumental in breaking the Heaven Gate Formation with the rest of the Yangs. When Yang Yanzhao died, there were few males left in the Yang family. Around that time, Western Xia invaded Song, and Yang Zongbao had been killed in action, so the twelve women in the family participated in the campaign against Western Xia. Yang Zongbao's hundred year old grandmother, She Saihua, along with Mu Guiying and other widows of the Yang family, lead the Song army to resist the invaders. The women generals of the Yang family proved that they were not inferior to their male counterparts, continuing the fruitful legacy to loyalist generals of the Yang family.