After an absence of fifty-four years, Lin Fong-mien returned to Paris in 1979 to celebrate his 80th birthday with a large retrospective exhibition. He was glad to show to people of the West how knowledge of their art had affected a painter of China.
Very young Lin Fong-mien commenced in the traditional Chinese manner. At eighteen he went to Europe to travel and study. Instructions and numerous visits to great museums rooted in him a dream of associating, harmonizing, the aesthetic qualities of these two parts of the world. He has spent the intervening years creating and teaching his vision.
Extensive researchers into the art of ancient and modern China resulted in his concluding: "During recent centuries, Chinese artists have been quite generally copiers and imitators of their predecessors; in neglecting personal observation of life and nature, they have lost the principal sources of artistic creation."
As artist and professor, Lin Fong-mien has assiduously avoided this procedure. He frequently related to his students this parable:
"The true artist is like a butterfly which at first is no more than a small caterpillar. Before being able to fly, he must weave a cocoon and confine himself in it, undergo a great change restructuring his body while achieving the molting season. At last, and this is the most important, he must have the force to break the cocoon and discover the free air. The cocoon of the artist is the long period during which he elaborates a technique while still following influences of others."
Lin Fong-mien is a realist. He wants to stir up in the viewer of the painting an echo of the emotion aroused in him, the artist. Nature he carries in himself. He wrote:
"I was born in a very beautiful mountain village in the province of Kwangtong in southeast China. When I was young, I had the habit of walking and playing at the edge of the torrential stream in the valley, in the forest. Those happy moments are engraved on my heart. Even though I have never returned to my native village, I have not forgotten its trees, its cliffs, the smooth round pebbles that paved the bottom of the streams, the clouds that floated in the sky , the odors of the vegetation, the murmur of the water. For ten years, I lived near the Lake of the West and have wandered over most of southwest China. These recollections ceaselessly evoke in me new forms, fresh images; they constitute my material. Perhaps I am a painter who creates by drawing inspiration from his memories."
The pictures by Lin Fong-mien are distinguished for serenity, lack of affectation, and a perennially young spirit, which admits the shyest traces of a tender humor. He has retained the rhythm of the Chinese line. The spirit of antiquity, the greatness of the past, remain alive in him; at the same time, he uses lighting, perspective, color, or special effects more common to Western art.
Included in the Paris show was "The Passage of the River," a celebrated scene from the opera of Peking. Here a beautiful young woman implores the old boatman to transport her across the river so that she can follow her sweetheart. It is timeless fare, as familiar to modern Chinese opera as it ever was in the past.