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"Alarms of struggle & flight": Lin Fengmian's hastening birds & western modernity.

The modern Western artist may become reiterative for many reasons. He may struggle or luxuriate in the grip of some internal preoccupation, suffer some impasse of technique or idea, respond to market demand. Whatever the case, the reiterative impulse can be conscience-stricken and uncomfortable. Romanticism, now entering its third century of cultural dominance, sanctions fidelity to personal vision, but abhors the rigidity of formula, even deeply felt and intensely personal formula. For the Western artist who has not entirely renounced the romantic tradition, each day must be an apocalypse of the imagination. The Chinese artist is more at ease, accepting reiteration as the device by which art bows to the past and brings incremental novelty within a framework of new tradition. This dynamic explains and sanctions many of the most renowned motifs of modern Chinese art: Qi Baishi's shrimp, butterfly, and dragonfly, emblems of the quizzical unlikelihood of natural beauty; Fu Baoshi's sages of the mountain, at once symbols of aspiration and the wisdom that renounces aspiration; Huang Binhong's rustic hermitages, gesticulations of the rough energy of nature.

Born in 1900 and active until his death in 1991, Lin Fengmian was among the last of the incontestable masters, though his French apprenticeship and Western technique make him anomalous. (1) His more acclaimed reiterative motifs include autumnal valleys seen from a distance and courtesans reposing, dancing, or playing instruments, sometimes in the nude (see Lin 2005, 347, 163). Sculpted of abstract oblongs that particularly recall the series of caryatids that Modigliani executed between 1912 and 1914 (Modigliani 2005, 105-114) and to a lesser extent the work of Matisse, Lin's figure paintings can be sinuously rhythmic and sensual, but their appeal, measured by the hundreds of thousands they fetch at auction, probably has more to do with their au courant integration of Chinese and Western elements, and with their bright, flat, forthright surfaces, which make them accessible and decorative. (2) Lin's permanent reputation will more likely hinge on a body of work--not necessarily modern in style but certainly modern in mood--that reiterates the image of one or more birds, often assumed to be egrets, speeding across a backdrop of brooding lake and mountain (figs. 1-2; see also Lin 2005, 86, 90, 112, 123, 137, 299, 301, 303, 338, 405). (3) Professor Li-ling Hsiao of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hazards in conversation that the paintings illustrate the famous lines from Wang Bo's (ca. 649-76) essay "Preface to the Pavilion of King Teng"--"The sunset clouds and the lonely egret drift in tandem,/The autumnal water and long sky are a unison of color"--but the connection is strictly conjectural.

From the perspective of Western literary and artistic tradition--a perspective that the Paris-trained Lin to some extent shared--these paintings have an intense and unsettling drama. (4) At their best, they convey a sense of pregnant catastrophe and trigger an array of powerful if scattered and tenuous associations. They may remind one of Lucas Cranach's Portrait of Dr. Johannes Cuspinian (1502-1503), with its eldritch backdrop of birds and owls on the wing; of Pieter Brueghel's Hunters in the Snow (1565), with its plunging black crow; of Anthony Van Dyck's Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1630), with its three birds enacting the drama of escape that has been temporarily suspended in the human realm. The critical modern association is surely Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows (1890), which, vaguely following Breughel, conceives its birds as angels of an ineffable melancholy. Farther afield, Lin's bird paintings evoke the desperate, rushing pages of Shakespearean tragedy and Matthew Arnold's iconic Victorian vision "of a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight" ("Dover Beach"). Their more contemporary associations, as discussed below, include midnight sorties into the no-man's-land of cratered Flanders and the deployment of low-flying military jets. Determining how Lin's paintings generate this tension and unease, this suggestion of modernity in crisis, is no easy thing. The elements are simple, but they have a subtle combinatory logic and play upon patterns deeply embedded in Western thought and culture. It is unclear whether this aura of meaning is fully intentional, but whatever Lin's aim may have been, his paintings are powerfully resonant icons of Western modernity. The post-millennial Westerner stands before them with an intuitive grasp of their hieroglyphics.

The Eternal Mountain

Lin's hastening birds typically traverse a backdrop of low-lying mountains. This is the traditional Chinese landscape and yet it lowers in a way that is not quite characteristic. Rendered impressionistically in smoky black and sometimes rounded in alarming connotation of pregnancy, the mountains are not wonders of intricacy and articulation, are not a kind of epic calligraphy wrought in stone, as even the turbulent mountainscapes of Huang Binhong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1865-1955) and Fu Baoshi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1904-65) are in some fundamental way; on the contrary, they are remote and hunched masses, primal and speechless. In the iconography of Western modernism, Lin's mountains are comparable to the "black clouds/Gathered far distant, over Himavant" in T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" (1922), to the Marabar Hills of E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (1924), and to Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, the Mexican volcanoes that symbolically dominate Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano (1947), all of which intimate a remote and inexorable god presiding over an increasingly attenuated creation, either cruelly indifferent or darkly brooding upon a change of dispensation. (5) In A Passage to India, Forster calls the Marabar hills "gods to whom earth is a ghost" (137). He conveys what he means in the epiphany of prehistoric godhead that Mrs. Moore experiences while visiting the caves carved in the hills:

   The crush and the smells she could forget, but the echo began in
   some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a
   moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur,
   'Pathos, piety, courage --they exist, but are identical, and so is
   filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.' If one had spoken
   vileness in that place, or spoken lofty poetry, the comment would
   have been the same--'ou-boum' [i.e., empty echo]. If one had spoken
   with the tongues of angels and pleaded for all the unhappiness and
   misunderstanding in the world, past, present, and to come, for all
   the misery men must undergo whatever their opinion and position,
   and however much they dodge or bluff--it would amount to the same
   [...]. (149-50)

Lowry's volcanoes, which loom over his late modernist masterpiece both literally and figuratively, have a similar but perhaps even more emphatic resonance. In one passage, Lowry adds the element of startled, speeding vultures and essentially arrives at the visual formula of Lin's paintings:

   Target practise in the Sierra Madre. The Consul had been half aware
   of it in his sleep earlier. Puffs of smoke were drifting high over
   the rocks below Popo [i.e. Popocatepetl] at the end of the valley.
   Three black vultures came tearing through the trees low over the
   roof with soft hoarse cries like the cries of love. Driven at
   unaccustomed speed by their fear they seemed almost to capsize,
   keeping close together but balancing at different angles to avoid
   collision. (147)

Startled into flight by unspecified military maneuvers, their cries of terror perversely like cries of love, Lowry's vultures are creatures of a disjointed Zeitgeist, as are Lin's birds in some less definite, less programmatic way. (Ever there first, H.G. Wells, in chapter thirteen of War of the Worlds, anticipates the entire dynamic: "From beyond the low hills across the water came the dull resonance of distant guns and a remote weird crying. Then everything was still. A cockchafer came droning over the hedge and past").

Like the mountains of Eliot, Forster, and Lowry, Lin's mountains suggest a brooding immanence, something immune to petition and placation. At the same time, they are never more than vaguely evocative, and they are all the more unsettling for being so inscrutable and evasive. Unlike, for example, Li Keran's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1907-89) politically symbolic red mountains or Pu Xinyu's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1896-1963) conscientiously orthodox mountains or Zhang Daqian's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1899-1983) deliberately antiquarian mountains (fu gu shanshui), Lin's mountains have no obvious associative detail, no place within a familiar narrative of idea and motive. In this respect, they differ from even Huang Binhong's mountains, which, frenzied as they may seem, exhibit a fineness of line and historical consciousness that place them in the realm of culture, intellect, and tradition. Hauntingly undefined and un-professing, Lin's mountains, by contrast, resist the comfort of order and explanation that inheres in all human narrative, even the most horrifying.

Lin's mountains are further unsettling in their recession and in the severed topography that divides them from the foreground. This recession makes them seem all the more distant, forbidding, and inhuman, in the world without being of the world, as if an alien immanence. In many instances, the mountains are largely occluded by a fog or mist and glimpsed only in barest outline. In other instances, they are strictly severed from the foreground by a body of water or by a marsh. This disjunctive topography contrasts strongly with so much Chinese pictorial tradition in which the landscape moves sinuously from foreground to background, as if luring the viewer within the bower of the mountains in order to learn the lesson of their stillness and grandeur, just as the sages within the painting learn this lesson. Ni Zan's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1301-74) canonical fourteenth-century landscapes are Lin's most plausible historical reference point. (6) Models of simplicity and restraint, Ni's landscapes likewise depict low-lying mountains severed from the foreground by bodies of water (see Gu Gong Bo Wu Yuan 1993-98, 3: 118-36). There are usually simple hermitages tucked amid the rocky shoreline of the foreground, but there is no active human presence. The scenes convey a subtle sense of desolation, abandonment, or withdrawal that reflects a world in political and social disarray. In James Cahill's words, "[Ni's] landscapes, in their unpeopled thinness and plainness, can be seen as emblems of high-minded disengagement from society and longing for a cleaner, simpler, peaceable world" (Yang 1997, 169). If Ni's landscapes function as social commentary, their delicate articulation makes for a controlled and elegant critique, a lamentation in keeping with literati sophistication and taste. Lin may share Ni's philosophical perspective--his noble disenchantment--but the dark, vague masses of his mountains suggest a moodier anguish. Lin's landscapes are not sublimations, as Ni's landscapes seem to be, but metaphorizations of a distress that remains immediate and acute.

Certain paintings in which Lin omits the mountains and superimposes his hastening birds on some other backdrop--a misty marsh, for example, or the kind of wistful autumnal landscape in which he also specializes (see Lin 2005, 86, 137)--demonstrate the integral importance of the mountains. Omission dissipates the scene's drama by expunging the suggestion of a witnessing metaphysical presence and by breaking the obscure tension between mountain and bird. The birds become mere ornaments of nature, like the elegant cranes that Lin also liked to paint, while the paintings become merely pretty, their nagging element of philosophical meaning effaced or diffused.

The Flight of Tragic Circumstance

Lin's birds may derive their meaning from a new cultural context, but they belong to the pervasive avian imagery of traditional Chinese art. Paintings like Luo Zhichuan's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Jackdaws in Old Trees (Yuan Dynasty) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see Yang Xin et al. 1997) and Zhou Wenjing's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Ancient Tree and Jackdaws (fifteenth century) in the Shanghai Museum of Art are particularly plausible forerunners. First, there is precedent of form and mood: the jackdaws of Luo and Zhou are black jots of middle-distance sketch-work, denizens of a moody, astringent, wintery reality, of what Yeats calls the "cold and rook-delighting heaven." Second, there is precedent of theme: Luo and Zhou stipulate that their jackdaws wheel restlessly about the withered, denuded axis of ancient trees, suggesting a crisis of tradition, something unsettled and awry in the historical moment. This suggestion defines the essence and seeming purpose of Lin's art. On the other hand, Lin's birds have an air of speed, urgency, crisis, and desperate but unknowable purpose that distinguishes them from Lou's and Zhou's circling, restive jackdaws and brings a subtly modern, hair-trigger element to the old tableau.

The birds themselves are notably aerodynamic, reinforcing the impression of great speed and suggesting--sometimes it seems deliberately--the contours of military aircraft. As a general rule, Lin's birds become sleeker and more aerodynamic as his landscapes become darker and more forbidding, suggesting that bird and landscape are related manifestations of a reality primed for convulsion. Tellingly, Lin's birds seem to be most aerodynamic in the work of the 1970s, when the wounds of the Cultural Revolution (Lin was imprisoned and tortured between 1968 and 1972) were still raw and Lin was presumably least enamored of modern reality. The compositional basis of this mood of emergency is clarified by certain paintings in which Lin breaks the bee-line of his birds (see for example Lin 2007, 65). In rare instances, the birds move from foreground to background; in other instances, they cartwheel. The result is a thorough loss of implication and drama, which explains why these variations are so exceedingly rare. There is a similar, though subtler, loss of drama in certain paintings that deemphasize the birds' aerodynamic contours by giving them a slight portliness. The rounded, organic line forfeits the suggestion of speed and crisis as well as the suggestion of remorseless mechanism. On the other hand, this variation arguably humanizes the scene and intensifies its poignancy: the birds seem more vulnerable, more obviously of a kind with humanity.

In what seems their rapid-response deployment and engineered aerodynamicism--their jet aircraft aspect--the birds belong to a notable tradition of twentieth-century anxiety. Where the nineteenth century had looked to the skies in security and innocence, though with certain anguished longing for the old cloud-partings of Tiepolo, the twentieth century had learned to shudder and cower, the sky having become inseparable from the trauma of London, Guernica, Tokyo, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and inseparable from premonitions of missiles tipped not with the destruction of a city block but with the destruction of whole cities and civilizations. The political philosopher Richard Weaver summarizes the historical development:

Triumphs against the natural order of living exact unforeseen payments. At the same time man attempts to straighten a crooked nature, he is striving to annihilate space, which seems but another phase in the war against substance. We ignore the fact that space and matter are shock absorbers; the more we diminish them the more we reduce our privacy and security. Our planet is falling victim to a rigorism, so that what is done in any remote corner affects--nay, menaces--the while. Resiliency and tolerance are lost. What an anxiety neurosis has the airplane brought into the world! (Weaver 1984, 173)

Prophetic as a matter of mental reflex, H.G. Wells predicted the whole business in his 1908 novel The War in the Air, while C.R.W. Nevinson's (1889-1946) "The First Searchlights at Charing Cross" (1914), "Taube Pursued by Commander Samson" (1915), and "Searchlights" (1916) were possibly the first major paintings to construe the sky as a space of crisis and conflict (see Nevinson 1999, 172-73; Black et al. 2004, Plate 25). In his great tale "The Garden of Forking Paths" (1941)--a story of World War I espionage narrated, coincidentally or not, by a Chinese literatus--Jorge Luis Borges epitomizes the modern imagination as it shapes the meaning of the sky. Happening to look up, his protagonist, like Lowry, all but hits upon the visual formula of Lin's art: "A bird streaked across the misty sky and, absently, I turned it into an airplane and then that airplane into many in the skies of France, shattering the artillery park under a rain of bombs" (1961, 90). Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz (1959), plausibly the greatest work of science fiction ever written, similarly construes the new meaning of the sky. With another history-ending nuclear apocalypse apparently imminent, Dom Zerchi, abbot of a thirty-eighth-century monastery, exclaims in exasperation, "That's another thing. Everybody keeps looking at the sky, staring up and wondering. If it's coming, you won't have time to see it until the flash, and then you'd better not be looking" (309). The sense of the sky as space of crisis became definitive in the famous opening lines of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973): "a screaming comes across the sky." Only a few pages later, Pynchon's Captain Prentice, having seen from his rooftop the contrail of an inbound German missile, summarizes the logic of what amounts to modernity's post-traumatic aversion to the heavens: "This could ruin a man's taste for sunrise.... Will we have to stop watching the sky?" (8). In one sense a religious satire, the novel casts the missile as mystic godhead and depicts humanity literally and figuratively craning its neck skyward, in the iconic modern posture of wonder and fear.

Like Wells, Nevinson, Borges, Miller, and Pynchon, Lin looks to the sky and finds it overwritten with the pattern of catastrophe, though perhaps not so obviously. His sky is a space of vague drama and crisis, while his birds seem a visionary prolepsis, an augury of a political or military chain reaction not yet initiated or only just initiated, but nonetheless predictable as a function of the fallen world. Lin's series of "Nightmare" paintings envision the realization of what the bird paintings conceivably portend: bodies huddled in terror above the wounded and bleeding against a backdrop of flaming ruins (see Lin 2007, 172-73). The extent to which Lin himself experienced aerial warfare is unclear, but it is surely relevant that the Japanese invasion of 1937 forced him to flee inland to Yuanling, Hunan, with the teachers and students of the National Academy of Art in Hangzhou, of which Lin was the principal. He returned to find his home ransacked and his paintings destroyed (Lin 2007, 37, 55, 193). In some sense, then, Lin had personally experienced the terror of attack and dislocation.

Lin's association of bird and airplane may be novel in its baleful vision, but it conceivably revisits and revises Gao Jianfu's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1879-1951) famous "Flying in the Rain" (1932) in the collection of the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (see Kao 1995, plate 29). Gao's painting depicts seven bi-planes disporting above the traditional Chinese landscape of misty water and mountain. Gao's hazy gold scene is soft and dreamy, and his airplanes--whimsical, gossamer structures--curlicue lazily and harmlessly, evoking the fluttering path of the butterfly. Gao grasps the analogy between mechanical and natural form, but he has no sense of the tension between the two and no sense of the menace and disruptive power intrinsic to an age of mechanism. He conceives the airplane as a means of yet fuller human participation in the pattern of nature, and his painting implies the ecstatic joy of soaring like a bird after millennia of the durance of the ground. Even relatively tough-minded Westerners were susceptible to this giddiness, as witnessed by Nevinson's painting "Spiral Descent" (1916) and Yeats' dark, rapturous poem "An Irish Airman Foresees his Death" (1919), which ends this way:

   Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
   Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
   A lonely impulse of delight
   Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
   I balance all, brought all to mind,
   The years to come seemed waste of breath,
   A waste of breath the years behind
   In balance with this life, this death.

While Gao optimistically metaphorizes the mechanical in terms of the natural, Lin metaphorizes the natural in terms of the mechanical, suggesting his sense that humanity has become an overweening presence, the promulgator of a crisis whose reverberations overrun and disconcert even the pattern of nature. "Lightning and thunder require time ... deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard," writes Nietzsche in The Gay Science. Gao's art reflects the interstice, the moment of doomed innocence. Lin's art reflects the expectation or the onset of the thunder.

The spatial formula of Lin's bird paintings is unsettling in another way. It systematically frustrates the desire for explanatory or narrative context and thus mirrors aspects of Western surrealism and modernism, a connection obscured by Lin's penchant for gorgeous finish and sumptuous natural detail. In the usual arrangement of Lin's paintings, the birds fly horizontally across the plane of the picture in a line parallel with the plane of the mountains. The crucial consequence is that the viewer has no idea where the birds come from or where they go. They are inscrutable in their purpose and context. In this regard, the paintings reveal enough to generate alarm, but not enough to generate an explanatory narrative with its balm of order and orientation. This incomprehensibility touches a twentieth-century nerve: the impression, stemming from the experience of the Great War, that events are inhumanly vast, impenetrably bureaucratic, maddeningly random, and essentially conspiratorial, and that people can neither comprehend nor influence the forces that shape their lives. This sense is the core of the modern mood, embodied in Kafka's The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), Robert Graves' Good-Bye to All That (1929), Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1952), and Pynchon's V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity's Rainbow, to name more prominent works in this vein.

In their aesthetic of epistemic impasse, Lin's paintings are particularly referable to the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico (1888-1978). Between 1912 and 1966, De Chirico obsessively reprised the image of the train chugging and puffing in the distance while traversing the plane of the canvas, frequently with a desolate Italian piazza in the foreground, sometimes with mountains to the rear (see De Chirico 1971, passim). James Thrall Soby picks up on the paintings' dynamic of frustration, of something withheld: "Sometimes the trains speed by in the distance amid a silence which evokes an almost physical longing for the reassurance of their sound...." (Soby 1969, 29). Like Lin's birds, the train journeys from unknowable origin to unknowable terminus and systematically frustrates the viewer's craving for a comprehensive perspective and explanatory context. De Chirico's intention to symbolize the modern condition or crisis is plainer than Lin's because his paintings are strewn with puzzle-pieces of twentieth-century detritus, but Lin's paintings are deeper and more beautiful: they visit the disarrangement of things on nature itself, envision a disconsolation expressible only in terms that have themselves been lost or compromised. His elegy is the more poignant for being spoken in a dead language and for metaphorizing loss in the image of the thing lost.

Rene Magritte (1898-1967) attempts to induce a precisely analogous epistemic frustration in his several paintings titled The Lost Jockey, in which a horse and rider race cross the plane of the canvas against a variety of disjointed and surreal backdrops, leaving the viewer to grope for explanatory hints that are carefully withheld (see also Magritte 1992, plates 81, 504, 1178, 1180, 1253, 1435, 1605-1606). The object being to tantalize and exasperate, Magritte's title is a minor faux pas, as it inadvertently acknowledges a context that the image itself withholds. In any case, his jockey seems not to be "lost" but driven by an unknown purpose or mission. Speaking of himself in the third person in a 1954 autobiographical sketch, Magritte comments on a 1926 version of the painting: "He executed the painting 'The Lost Jockey', conceived with no aesthetic intention, with the sole aim of RESPONDING to a mysterious feeling, a 'causeless' anguish, a sort of 'call to order' which impinged on his consciousness at certain non-historic moments and which had guided his life ever since birth" (1: 169). "Causeless anguish" is a phrase equally relevant to Lin's art. Magritte and Lin, we might say, analogously sought and discovered a visual metaphor for this sense of causeless anguish.

It is an intriguing consistency that De Chirico's trains (for the most part), Magritte's horses (invariably), and Lin's birds (invariably) move from the viewer's right to left. De Chirico and Magritte may have wanted to balk the left-to-right habit of the Western reading eye in order to disorient and unsettle, while Lin may have wanted to exploit the reverse habit of the Chinese eye in order to enhance the impression of speed and crisis. Western and Chinese viewers, then, may have subtly differing responses to Lin's art. The Western viewer may feel more acutely the sense of unease, the Chinese viewer the sense of crisis and emergency.

If the trajectory of the bird is crucial, so too is the bird's spatial relation to the mountains. In nearly all of Lin's paintings of hastening birds, the birds and mountains have a perpendicular relation, while occupying parallel planes. This perpendicularity--the birds moving right to left while the mountains face forward--suggests a cross purpose at the heart of nature, while this parallelism--strictly defined as the impossibility of either divergence or convergence--suggests fundamental dissociation between the universal principle represented by the mountain and the particular instance represented by the bird. As the falcon fails to heed the falconer in Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" (1920), so Lin's birds fail to heed the mountain, while the apparent urgency of their mission conflicts with the still and massive grandeur of the landscape, their endeavor seeming puny, erratic, and possibly mistaken in comparison. The rhythms are competing, the effect jarring. Broken is the homology between universal and particular, embedding and embedded reality, that The Great Digest (Da Xue) posits as a first principle of cultural order:

The men of old, wanting to clarify and diffuse throughout the empire that Light which comes from looking straight into the heart and then acting, first set up good government in their own states; wanting good government in their states, they first established order in their own families; wanting order in the home, they first disciplined themselves; desiring self-discipline, they rectified their own hearts; and wanting to rectify their hearts, they sought precise verbal definitions of their inarticulate thoughts [...]. (Pound 1969, 29-30)

In their aesthetic of dissociation and fundamental disarray--that is, in their element of Western modernism--Lin's paintings contradict the spirit of Chinese painting and even of twentieth-century Chinese painting, in which elements tend to conflate and echo in token of the indissolubility of nature. The great modern instance of this dynamic is the interfusion of mountain, sky, and sea in the highly abstract later paintings of Zhang Daqian and Lu Yanshao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1909-93). These paintings seem to conceive nature as a single mystic reality and the division of elements as a fluid illusion. Lin's dissociated birds particularly contrast with other birds of the modern tradition. Pan Tianshou's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1897-1971) famous eagles, for example, are as craggy as the rocks upon which they perch--are indeed an extension of the rock. In one of Jiang Hanting's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1904-63) more charming paintings, which belongs to a private collection in North Carolina, a little bird shrieks at a nearby flower, comically miffed that it exhibits his own precise coloration. Lin's paintings of reed-like cranes wading gracefully among crane-like reeds, unlike his paintings of hastening birds, respect this orthodoxy and reinforce its spirit (see Yang et al. 1997, 329). These paintings represent Lin at his most purely Chinese, though the framing landscape is still moody and dark in token of a modern reality that Lin cannot fail to acknowledge.

If the dissociation of bird and mountain is significant from the Chinese perspective, it is equally significant from the Western perspective. The great romantics and their followers made a passionate cult of the bird in poems like Wordsworth's "To the Cuckoo" (1807), Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" (1819), Shelley's "To a Skylark" (1820), Canto 88 of Tennyson's In Memoriam (1850), and Yeats' "Wild Swans at Coole" (1917). In all of these poems, the birds mediate between human reality and human aspiration. Singing in the bower of the trees, they beckon to the human world, demonstrating the transcendence by which the poet, estranged in his self-consciousness, may likewise join the eternal order of nature (which is not to say that the poet is necessarily equal to this example). Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" (1927) triumphantly culminates this tradition. In a maneuver of enormous imaginative audacity, Yeats conceives a mechanism and energy of transformation and by dint of impossible belief in its power recreates himself as the bird, dispensing with his mortal human body altogether. Lin gestures toward this primal scene of Western romanticism, but shatters the expectations it has conditioned over some two hundred years. Lin's birds only ambiguously belong to the order of nature, and far from ministering to human spiritual aspiration by ethereal example, they seem to embody the worldly exigencies that the poet most desires to escape. The muse of romantic transcendence, in short, has become an avatar of the modern convulsion, while the mountains, which may or may not retain a transcendental implication, are at best forbidding and inscrutable.

In a series of related but thematically opposite paintings, Lin reverses his image of birds driven by desperate purpose. The birds of these paintings--sometimes owls--are soft, serene, and comfortably perched, their tufted charm just the thing to delight a child. These are birds of peace to counterbalance birds of war, nestlings to counterbalance birds of flight. The two kinds of bird--self and anti-self, as Yeats would say--seem to function as mutually dependent symbols, partial truths that become complete only in conjunction. The implication is that Lin's dismay was not absolute; it was a valid and perhaps dominant mood but was not without a reverse mood that was equally valid. Lin's qualification contrasts with the assertive absolutisms that governed Western modernism and suggests a Confucian ethic of balance and moderation. And yet there is something rigid in this strict polarity, this adamant partition. Reputedly prone to violent mood swings, Lin may not have been emotionally wired for the convergence--essence of the greatest art--by which all is represented and reconciled.

The Crisis of the Land

The terrain of the middle-ground has two particularly intriguing variations. In an arresting minority of paintings, the middle-ground is blanketed in water lilies rendered in lucent green smears, a forthright allusion to Monet's water lilies at Giverny. In light of this allusion, a spatial correspondence between Lin's mountains and Monet's Japanese footbridge suggests itself, transforming Lin's paintings into an ingenious and complex homage. Lin's paintings never adopt the springtime pastels that typify Monet's paintings, but their dramatic contrast of black and green has a precedent in less characteristic versions of Monet's scene, like the dark-hued and vaguely louche rendering in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (see Moffat and Wood 1978, plate 33). If, in the spatial formula of Lin's paintings, the middle-ground represents disjuncture, the water lilies assume an important symbolism. At once evoking Monet and marking the divorce of mountain and bird, the water lilies intimate that these dual meanings have something to do with each other--that Westernization comes at the cost of personal or cultural division, that liberation from tradition is never without its aspect of repression and self-betrayal. On one reading, Lin's bird paintings might be considered case studies in the return of the repressed, as Monet's dominant influence manifests itself but only to suffer the dissolvent of an irrepressible Chinese element. In some paintings, Lin depicts his lily ponds without reference to his hastening birds (see Lin 2005, 113, 311). The mood of these paintings is likewise brooding and sometimes literally stormy, as if to indicate, once again, the modern reality, but also possibly to indicate the fraught relation between the modern Chinese artist and the Western tradition that both attracts and worries him. With ironic symmetry, Monet felt something of the same fraught relation. As Michael Sullivan observes in The Meeting of Eastern and Western Art, Monet's lily paintings are themselves indebted to Japanese screen painting, though not painlessly: only after many years of unsatisfactory experiment and slow absorption did Monet finally manage an appropriate integration of his Japanese influences (Sullivan 1989, 224).

If the middle-ground tends to divide bird and mountain, it also divides mountain and viewer, implicating the world at large--the world to which we belong--in the crisis and dislocation of the scene. This dynamic harks back to Ni Zan's work and helps make sense of David J. Clarke's insightful general observation about Lin's landscapes: "Lin's works seem to be telling us [...] that tradition is no long available to us in any direct way, that the momentous changes which have occurred in Chinese society have caused a rift with the past which cannot be unproblematically healed over. Traditional Chinese art seems visible in his work, but through a modern, and partially Western, filter--as something which can be obliquely alluded to only" (Clarke 1996, 232). The inaccessibility of the mountains, traditional loci of spiritual elevation and communion with nature, is a metaphor for the "rift" that Clarke describes.

In another version of Lin's scene--including what I consider the magnum opus of the hastening bird motif--the middle-ground is a denuded wasteland (Lin 2005, 338) that recalls the treeless, muddy desolation of the Great War and establishes a faint kinship with countless photographs of one of the war's defining tableaux: files of soldiers trudging laterally across a blasted landscape, often with mountains or banks of smoke rearing in the background and large trench puddles in the foreground or middle-ground. The celebrated Australian photographer Frank Hurley (1885-1962) was preoccupied with this spatial configuration and many of his photographs precisely anticipate the spatial configuration of Lin's paintings (see also Hurley 1986, 29, 37, 47, 51, 59, 67, 77, 137). Lin's attraction to gradations of black, grey, and silver--the lovely luster of vintage photography--reinforces the association with the photography of the war. This association may be coincidental. Alternately, Lin may have consciously found in the tonal palette of contemporary photography a mournful precision that served his purpose, as well as a comforting consistency with the tonal traditions of Chinese ink brush painting. Photography, then, may have been an inspiration for Lin's fusion of Western modernism and Chinese traditionalism.

Numerous Western painters adopted spatial arrangements that similarly echo the war photography and correspond with Lin's paintings, as removed from the war as Lin's paintings may seem. Notable among these are the World War I paintings of Paul Nash (1889-1946), whose most famous works, The Menin Road (1918-19), The Ypres Salient at Night (1918), and the ironically titled We are Making a New World (1918), might be called anti-landscapes: testaments not to the beauty but to the defilement of the land (see Viney 1991, 47-49; for thematically related paintings, see 60-61, 63). The Menin Road and The Ypres Salient at Night, like Lin's paintings, combine lateral movement, a blasted landscape, and a rearing backdrop (of smoke and bursting shells rather than mountains), while We are Making a New World depicts the same landscape against a backdrop of a jaggedly rearing, luridly ochre mountain range. Colin Gill's Evening, After a Push (1918) echoes the same configuration while verging on Lin's poignancy of fading or dampened light, the sense of existential twilight (Viney 1991, 60). In their basic pattern of lateral movement across a rearing or blighted landscape, Lin's paintings are also referable to any number of paintings by C.R.W. Nevinson, including Returning to the Trenches (1914), Column on the March (1914), La Guerre des Trous (1915), The Strafing (1916), On the Road to Ypres (1916), and The Harvest of Battle (1919), and to the series of four paintings titled The Roads of France, 1917-1918 (Nevinson 1999; for The Harvest of Battle and The Roads of France, see Malvern 2004, 96, 58-59). Nevinson's depopulated landscapes, like Flooded Trench on the Yser (1915) and After a Push (1917), meanwhile, are the kind of moody, monochromatic anti-landscapes to which Lin would later bring a particular finesse (Malvern 2004, 7, 61).

As a Chinese expatriate during the 1920s, Lin may have been inattentive to the European geopolitics that had played out in the trenches but he could hardly have escaped the emotional vortex of the war, having resided in France during an era of intense wound-licking and having twice married European women: a German chemistry student in 1924 and, following her death and the death of their child, a French art student in 1925 (Sullivan 1996, 77; Huang and Liu 2002, 57, 62-63, 69). Nor could Lin have escaped the modernist tendency to construe the war as the dominant symbolic event of the age. This is not to say that he borrowed from Nash, Nevinson, and others of their school as he almost certainly borrowed from Monet, or to say that he wanted to comment on the tragedy of war in the manner of a trench poem or a newspaper editorial. Lin's enterprise was more subtle and ambiguous than this. He seems to have culled from the zeitgeist--from the vast miscellany of the historical moment--a visual formula that expressed his own sense, arguably his very Chinese sense, of modern cataclysm, of something awry in the pattern of twentieth-century reality.

"The Solitary Journey of Human Life"

Lin's birds are trapped within a web of circumstance and dispatched upon what may be a misguided errand, but they are sympathetic. Breasting the storm of modernity, they display a heroic determination and poignant fragility as they strain to redeem their imperfect and mistaken context, though we do not know the rationale of their flight. In these respects, they remind us all too readily of ourselves. Lin makes all of this explicit in the most uncharacteristic and intricately ironic version of his own scene, in which the sage of Chinese tradition, rendered as a disconsolate cartoon figure, contemplates the passage of a single bird against the familiar mountain backdrop (Lin 2005, 405). The painting is titled "The Solitary Journey of Human Life." The sage knows himself in the image of the bird, comprehends the lonely fight against exigency. The cartoonish rendering registers the comedy of the scene--the folly of our labor, the pretense of our purpose--but the sage cannot bring himself to smile. Thus Lin models the encounter with his own art, teaches what it means to view his birds with the eye of the sage.

David A. Ross

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


(1) Lin studied at the Ecole Superieure des Beaux Arts in Dijon and then, under Fernand Cormon (1845-1924), at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris (Sullivan 1996, 76). Cormon, a naturalist with a flair for historical melodrama, had tutored Emile Bernard, Degas, and Van Gogh during the 1880s. Xu Beihong (1895-1953) also studied in France, but his embrace of Western art was more tentative. He approved the classical tradition but looked askance at much modern art. See for example his editorial "I am Bewildered" (1929), reprinted in Danzker 2004, 373-74.

(2) Between 2007 and 2009, Christie's auctioned nine paintings by Lin in this style. The paintings fetched an average of $225,000; at the high end, a painting of Peking opera performers sold for $403,982 on November 26, 2007, in Hong Kong (including the buyer's premium). One reason Chinese paintings fetch less than comparable Western paintings is that Chinese painters were so prolific. At age eighty-six, Qi Baishi (1864-1957) lamented to a young friend, "I am getting old; when I was your age, I could paint scores of pictures in one morning without being tired" (Lai 1982, 162). Lin's biographers recount that he once completed ninety horse paintings in a single morning, though he discarded most of them (Huang and Liu 2002, 124).

(3) Because Lin's paintings are rarely dated, determining the chronology of these works is difficult or impossible. Lin's decision not to date his paintings possibly reflects an attempt to create an eternal or timeless vision. It might be said that Lin's paintings derive much of their fascination from the paradox of their timelessness and their timeliness.

(4) Lin revered the Western cultural tradition, at least as a young man. This reverence climaxed in a 1923 work, now lost, titled "Groping." It depicted the heroes of Western intellectual history: Homer, Jesus, Michelangelo, Galileo, Goethe, Tolstoy, Ibsen, and Van Gogh (see Huang and Liu 2002, 61; see also Li 1992, 21). Lin eventually abandoned his Western subject matter but, as David J. Clarke notes, he retained certain fundamentals of technique and approach: occasionally vibrant coloration, blanket treatment of the painting surface, a proclivity for square and rectangular composition (in opposition to the traditional vertical scroll), and a general tendency toward lateral movement (Clarke 1996, 229-32). I would note another crucial break with Chinese tradition: Lin disavowed the poetic inscription that had been integral to Chinese painting since the Southern Song period.

(5) The original archetype of the "Savage God" may be "Demigorgon" in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound (1820). Demigorgon is not figured as a mountain, but emanates from within the earth. Shelley's "Mont Blanc," meanwhile, may have facilitated the association of god and mountain in the Western tradition.

(6) Osvald Siren notes that of the sixty-odd extent paintings attributed to Ni, "hardly more than a dozen can be unhesitatingly accepted as works by the master" (Siren 1958, IV: 80).


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Author:Ross, David A.
Publication:Southeast Review of Asian Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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