Modern Chinese artist and educator Lin Fengmian is known for his paintings of Chinese opera figures with distinct geometric shapes. One of the Four Great Academy Presidents, Lin is one of the most recognisable names in the modern Chinese art world. Despite using Western visual language, Lin’s style reflects a deep appreciation for Chinese culture.
Born in Guangzhou Province in 1900, Lin was considered a child prodigy. When he was 20, he left for France on a work study programme. He learned French and initially paid his way by making signboards. Lin then attended art institutes, including the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He later moved to Berlin in 1923. He returned to China in 1926 and became director of the National Beijing Fine Art School. In 1928, with encouragement from Cai Yuanpei, he helped found the precursor to the prestigious China Academy of Art, becoming its first principal.
Lin’s works are rare and highly valuable, as many were destroyed over the years. In his pieces, it is apparent how the West influenced his style. Notably, his paintings of Chinese opera figures, especially in the way he painted faces, take reference from Matisse and Modigliani. These paintings display a quiet and lonely beauty. However, even though many of his pieces seem to be influenced by the West, Lin wrote that his greatest inspiration came from figures on Song-dynasty ceramics and primeval cave paintings. The square format seen on many of Lin’s paintings is also one that was popular during the Song Dynasty.
As an educator, he nurtured several internationally renowned artists, including Li Keran, Wu Guanzhong, Wang Zhaowen, Ai Qing, Zhao Wuji, Zhao Chunxiang and Zhu Dequn. Each one of them took Lin’s passion and spirit and brought their art to more innovative heights.
In 1977, Lin moved to Hong Kong, where he devoted much of his energy to recreating his destroyed works. He remained there until his death in 1991 at 90 years old.