1993 / 2月
Chang Ching-ju /tr. by Christopher Hughes
Lin Yu-shan, 87 years old this year, loves to paint birds. His retrospective exhibition at the age of 85 featured more than 20 different species of Taiwan's indigenous wild birds. Although travel difficulties which meant he was unable to go deep into the mountain forests to observe birds might have left his range of species somewhat less rich than that of the new generation of bird artists, the spirit of Lin's bird painting is by no means inferior to theirs.
Lin is particularly fond of painting sparrows. So as to understand the habits of the sparrow, he would often build a hide in the fields out of rice stalks, where he would conceal himself so as to get a close view of birds pecking at discarded husks, squabbling, hovering and singing. He would watch so often to try to get into their spirit that it seemed he was hopping about with the flock. He also wrote a bird diary out in the wilds, containing ecological observations, such as at what times certain birds shed their feathers and how their plumage changed color between winter and summer.
For the principles of his own painting from life, Lin organized what he calls a tripartite epistemology. His three theories of knowledge include knowing the sky, knowing objects and knowing the ground. "Knowing the sky" involves following the changes of the seasons and weather: The objects in the sphere of nature cannot avoid producing different manifestations according to these changes and the bird artist should thus observe the different colorings and shapes that occur in birds and flowers through the four seasons.
What Lin calls "knowing the earth" involves becoming familiar with different geographical environments. High mountains, rivers and marine islands all have their different appearances and their own special types of plants and animals; tropical, temperate and frigid zones have their own natural conditions that cannot be confused. Finally, "knowing objects" means that when you are painting, you must do detailed in-depth research into the physiology and movements of plants and animals.
Lin Yu-shan has a set of very Chinese ideas about painting. He once said that when the ancients did flower and bird painting, no matter whether it was outline filled in with colors or impressionistic splashes of ink, all had to be rooted in observations of nature and did not permit off-the-cuff depictions. Lin might well advocate impressionistic painting that does not pursue likeness, but what he means by "no likeness" is actually a kind of superseding of reality through a likeness to spirit that goes beyond form, and is not to be confused with fantasy painting that takes nature lightly.
Lin thinks that the aim of painting from life is not to be found in accurate realism. It should be to depict the relationships of things to nature, their life and to catch their poetic grace.
When making nature your teacher you must look deep into the natural world, on the one hand looking at the outside, and on the other getting nourishment from the inside. What is often called getting to the source of your inner self can only be possible through such a coordination of the inner and outer.
Senior Taiwan artist Lin Yu-shan loved to capture natural vitality in his work, and was particularly fond of the sparrows that are so common in farm villages. (courtesy of Lin Po-ting)