Journal of Diasporic Chinese Art and Literature/Haiwai Zhongguo wenyi pinglun, 1.1 (May 2007). Not to be reprinted without the permission of the author:




The Aesthetic Dimensions of Lin Chunyan’s Art

 A Case Study of Opportunity, Relocation and the Individual[1]


Mabel Lee

University of Sydney


The end of the repressive decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) in China was followed by more than a decade of intense intellectual curiosity that manifested itself in all spheres of artistic and literary endeavour. Foreign cultural influences flooded in via translations of Western writings, major European art exhibitions were held in the national capital of Beijing, and Chinese books that had previously been banned were again available. It was in this stimulating cultural milieu that Lin Chunyan (b. 31 January 1962 in Beijing) began as a teenager to explore the language of visual art by learning to paint in oils and studying the works of the French Impressionists. However, Lin’s learning took place outside the art academy structures of China; instead, he developed his own aesthetic sensibilities by untrammelled experimentation, and by scrutinising reproductions in art publications and when possible original works in galleries and museums; he also learned from ancient frescoes and statues of contained in Buddhist grottoes.


His study of art was coupled with his readings in literature, archaeology and science, and from these he gradually developed a philosophical stance that would inform and infuse his art. Central to his aesthetics is the Daoist notion of the triumvirate coexistence of heaven, earth and humanity, and this came to be manifested as his insistent projection of an iconic human representation of the subjective self of the artist (himself) into his depictions of the natural environment. This iconic figure emerges in his paintings of the natural environment in China and Australia, the two cultural and artistic sites between which he has moved several times since January 1989 when he first travelled to Australia.


This case study seeks to document the intellectual and psychological underpinnings of Lin’s aesthetics and the means by which he has sought to articulate his quest, as an oil painter, to portray the human body in various states of motion within the natural environment, and is based on a close study of a large number of his paintings and a lengthy interview conducted in Sydney on 17 January (with a few small follow up sessions), just prior to his taking Australian citizenship on Australia Day, 26 January 2007.




Lin grew up on the campus of Peking University where his family had an apartment in Zhongguanyuan.[2] The art historian Professor Wu Dazhi[3] was tutoring Lin’s elder sister in English, so, not knowing whether he wanted to learn traditional Chinese painting or oil painting, Lin asked if he would teach him to paint. Professor Wu pointed him in the direction of oil painting, and in 1978 Lin was initiated in the basics of painting in oils. Soon after, he won a place in the Youth Palace and for two years he practised painting in the open air with other art students in the grounds of the Old Summer Palace. The daily routine involved completing five paintings around sunrise from 5.30 to 9.30, and another four or five at dusk.


Around this time he began reading the Daoist canons, Zhuangzi and Daodejing, translations of Western thinkers such as Nietzsche, Freud and Sartre, and books on European and Chinese art. He recalls that it was in the year he started painting that he read Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe, and that he read it more than once; he was inspired by Beethoven’s search for freedom in the book, and he says that the book changed his life. Increasingly drawn to painting as a means to articulating his inner impulses, as the top candidate from Beijing, he sat for the entrance examination of the Zhejiang Academy of Art in Hangzhou. He scored 8% for English and was not accepted. It turned out that no Beijing candidate had been accepted, but knowing this fact did not console him. His parents encouraged him to put more effort into studying English and to try again the following year. But he was impatient and, consumed by an overweening sense of frustration, decided to escape from his predicament. Without telling his parents, he packed up a few belongings and left home. At the time he was nineteen.


The next four years were spent on a search for personal freedom, and he did so by exploring different themes and styles in his painting, with responsibility to no other than himself. He had received his school education within the cloistered campus of Peking University and his family’s friends and associates were intellectuals, who as a group had been targeted during the Cultural Revolution. Conditioned by fear of repercussions they had learned not to articulate their thoughts, even to their children. Living away from home Lin acquired a different kind of education by encountering a reality that consisted of ambiguities and uncertainties that were totally unlike the dogma and absolute truths he had been taught at school, and about which his parents had been silent.


Friends and their families took him in, and when he felt he was a burden, he moved on. In Hubei province he stayed in Xiangfan, Wuhan and Donghu; in Heilongjiang he stayed in Acheng and Harbin; in Shanxi he stayed in Xi’an and Baoji; and in the south he stayed in Guangzhou. He mixed with ordinary people whose instinct to survive was strong, and they had a greater resilience and toughness than the educated classes. He came in contact with elderly people who told him what it was like in pre-1949 times, and for the first time he began to develop a sense of different perspectives. He also heard stories whose unscientific nature would not have been tolerated by the educated elite on the campus of Peking University. For example, a friend’s mother told him that her brother came back to life for a few minutes and in that time said he had seen a certain person feeding a horse and another person driving a horse-drawn cart, yet these two persons had been dead for many years. She also told him about a relative who came across a fox lying by the road, so he took it home. After skinning it, he saw that the fox had two gold teeth. Alarmed, he called in a shaman who said the fox was a supernatural being, and that the man faced imminent death. The fox had come to town to visit a dentist and had assumed a human form; it had a few drinks and, collapsing in a drunken stupor by the road, had resumed its fox form. As predicted the man died a few days later.[4]


Such stories prompted Lin to ponder on the interconnectedness of all forms of life, and his interest in seeking to understand existential matters would subsequently continue to develop from this philosophical basis; they also made him wonder about the continuation of the spirit after death and, and about the supernatural. In the city of Acheng in Heilongjiang he stayed with a teacher who had been a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army: the man told him about the horrors of what he had witnessed in re-education camps during the Cultural Revolution. These were things about which he previously knew nothing.[5]


Lin returned to Beijing in 1984 as a mature young man with a large number of paintings. He continued to further his education by reading voraciously. The novelists he best liked were Wang Xiaobo and Milan Kundera, and he found the poetry of Beijing poets such as Bei Dao, Mang Ke and Yang Lian inspiring. He was also a keen reader of biographies (he lists amongst his favourites Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence that tells of the life of Gaugin and a biography of Van Gogh), scientific writings on the mysteries of the universe, and last but not least writings on the archaeological excavations that were being carried out at the Mawangdui site in Changsha, Hunan Province.


Professor Wu had a ten- or twelve-volume Japanese work called Compendium of World Art,[6] and Lin frequently visited to look at these volumes, each time further inflaming his passion for painting. For him painting had become a visceral need and he was aware of an intense discomfort that could only be alleviated by painting. He says that by expressing himself in painting he gained a better understanding of himself and life. He had developed confidence in his depictions of scenery and, having become committed to the notion that the artist as the perceiving subject was a part of the painting, he began to project representations of himself into his paintings: these representations are not realist portrayals, but abstractions. The face is never detailed because his primary concern is with the depiction of the body in motion. What he seeks to capture in his paintings is the energy of the body in motion.


His obsession with portraying the body in motion is related to two incidents in which he had almost drowned. The first occasion was when he was jostling with a classmate and was pushed into the swimming pool at secondary school. Unable to swim he sank straight to the bottom. However, he instinctively moved each of his arms in turn, as if clutching upwards for his life, and was able to propel his body upwards. The second occasion was after he knew how to swim. While in Hubei in 1981, late in the day he decided to go for a swim in the river with some friends. It was the end of summer and it was quite cool, so only he and another person went into the water. On the way back from the sandbank in the middle of the river, Lin fell behind. His arms suddenly went numb, and as the swift current carried him downstream, he succumbed to being helplessly drawn towards death. It was only when he collided with the side of a boat that he came to his senses, and grabbed the steel cable of the anchor. Clinging desperately to it, he pulled himself up the cable into the boat. When afterwards he rejoined his friends he collapsed in a fit of vomiting, totally overcome by emotion and exhaustion.[7]


That image of himself clutching the steel cable and fighting for his life has remained embedded in his psyche and is recreated in the abstractions of his self in motion that has become a motif in his paintings.


The earliest examples of Lin’s iconic figure I have seen are those in two untitled works painted in 1989.[8] The abstract figure has an anonymous head with a body consisting mainly of round, bulging, muscular arms and legs: the focus is on movement, and single thick brush strokes are used to stress the sinews of the human anatomy in motion. In one painting the figure is using its head to butt through a brick wall and in the other it is tumbling head over heels. Lin says he is fond of this image, and he likens it to a foetus that is in perfect harmony with the environment. That roly-poly figure in various states of motion continued to appear as an iconic figure. Another example I have seen belongs to a series of paintings all bearing the title State of Being.[9] Painted in 1993, the figure that virtually covers the entire canvas is executed in harmonious blends of light khaki and olive green, and the fluidity of the brushwork indicates that his experimentation with blending new materials into his oil colours was highly successful.


Lin had studied the human anatomy as portrayed in the murals of da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. These were beautiful but they were static representations of the human body. What he wanted to capture in his abstract depictions of the human body was the energy coursing through the body while it was in various states of motion. For this he turned to the ancient Buddhist frescoes that are scattered in various remote areas of China. Not long after returning to Beijing in 1984, he made a three-month trip to study the ancient frescoes and statues in the Dunhuang Grottoes in Gansu and the Kizil (Kezi’er) Grottoes at Bezeklik (Bozikelite) located in the Uighur Autonomous Region of southern Xinjiang. Around this time he also read in translation a number art books on the human anatomy that had been published by Shishi Publishing House.


The Western painters that appealed to him most were the Impressionists, and he learned by scrutinizing reproductions of actual works, rather than reading criticisms and theoretical writings about them. He did not undertake any training in traditional Chinese painting, but he was drawn to expressive painters such as Zhu Da (aka. Ba Da Shanren), Qi Baishi, Zao Wou-ki and Shi Tao. In hindsight Lin believes that by not having studied in an art academy he had escaped becoming entangled in the theoretical constraints of either socialist realism or traditional Chinese painting. He notes that Soviet socialist realism had exerted a powerful influence on Chinese art for many decades: it was the official style, and was what was still being taught in the art academies during the 1980s. However, many new styles had been progressively introduced and the situation was gradually changing. His exposure to many different styles made him conclude that art is a process based on freedom, and that all styles of painting are valid.


In Beijing, Lin saw original works by Matisse, Munch, van Gogh and Picasso in major exhibitions. His understanding of art had begun with the Impressionists, particularly the works of Monet, Cézanne and van Gogh. He also read about Francis Bacon and Munch, and a few years later he saw Bacon’s paintings in Australia. He says he was drawn to Bacon because of his famous statement that painting begins with the artist: that the artist is the main subject. In other words, painting is subjective, a means to expressing the artist’s own ideas and feelings, a confirmation of Lin’s own thoughts on painting. He maintains that although he paints what he as the artist thinks and feels, his themes are of universal relevance. His reading of Sartre resonates in his statement about his art: “It starts and finishes with me.” When at times assailed by feelings of desolation and frustration he was conscious of “his mind running amok”: it was only through expressing himself in painting that he was able to calm himself down.




Lin had returned to Beijing in 1984 with almost 100 paintings, and he was keen to exhibit them. His application to hold an exhibition at the China Art Gallery was rejected, so he recruited Li Tiejian[10] and Huang Beiling[11] to exhibit their works alongside his in the grounds of the Old Summer Palace. They strung wires between trees and quickly hung up over 100 works. Peking University was not far away, and a large crowd of students and teachers gathered. But they had not sought permission from the authorities, and officials from the Public Security Office told them to remove the paintings immediately. Lin says sardonically that it was his first exhibition, but it had lasted for only one hour.[12] He subsequently held solo exhibitions at the Old Observatory in Beijing (1986) and at the Heilongjiang Provincial Museum (1987). In 1986 his painting Northeast Chimney (1981)[13] was selected for the China Youth Exhibition and hung at the China Art Gallery in Beijing. During 1987-1989 two of his untitled paintings were included in a group-exhibition that travelled to New York and Boston as part of a cultural exchange program between Beijing and New York,[14] and in 1988 his State of Being (1987) and Self Portrait (1986) were included in the Autumn Salon Exhibition held at the Grand Palais Salon in Paris.[15]


Lin had grown up with Ah Xian, and later met Guan Wei:[16] all three were young artists at the beginning of their careers, nevertheless they associated with the artists of the Stars group (active in Beijing in the years 1978-1981) who were up to a decade older. It is Lin’s view that their art had been produced as acts of protest and resistance, and he saw this as a negative attitude that did not reflect true artistic freedom. Nevertheless he acknowledges that these older artists played an important role in paving the way for a new generation of artists.


Lin’s analysis of China’s art world in the 1980s is insightful. There were two distinct groups of artists: those who were state employees and those who were not. The former were either art teachers in the academies or the editors of art publications, whereas the latter were unemployed and depended on the rising numbers of foreigners in Beijing to buy their works. Foreign patronage was a form of endorsement, a confirmation for the young artists that their paintings were worthwhile. Lin comments on the irony of the situation: the state-employed artists had to work and had little time to paint, while the unemployed artists had no financial security, but they lived freer lives and had the time to paint. However, unemployed artists were excluded from exhibiting at the China Art Gallery in Beijing and such venues. In this period private galleries came into existence as moneymaking ventures, but to be exhibited at such galleries and to enjoy large sales did not mean recognition for the unemployed artist in the official art organizations or their publication networks. The unemployed artists had no option but to rely on friends and foreigners to promote and publicise their works, and it was to this category of artists that Lin belonged.[17]




The appointment of Nicholas Jose[18] as Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing, 1987-1990, was to change the destinies of a number of unemployed Beijing artists, including Lin. Fluent in Chinese, Jose’s passion for art and literature meant that his apartment in the Embassy compound became a regular gathering place where young Chinese artists and writers mixed freely with Australians who were resident in Beijing or passing through. Lin became friends with Jose, and other Australians with strong connections to the dynamic Beijing cultural scene of the time such as Madeline O’Dea (now Director of 798 Factory, a part of Red Gate Gallery in Beijing), and China experts such as Geremie Barmé, Linda Jaivin, Bruce Doar and Susan Dewar. It so happened that Lin’s paintings and those of Guan Wei and Ah Xian were amongst those exhibited in Jose’s apartment in 1988 when Geoff Parr, Professor of the Central Academy of Arts and Design and Head of the Tasmanian School of Art at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia, visited Beijing.


Parr invited Lin Chunyan, Guan Wei and Ah Xian to Australia on Visiting Fellowships to the University of Tasmania (25 January to 13 March 1989). Unlike Guan Wei and Ah Xian who returned to Beijing soon after their fellowships terminated, Lin went to Sydney where he attended an English language college during April.[19] Later that year, a three-month fellowship in Melbourne allowed him to carry out concentrated studies of Australian painters. He says that Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Brett Whitely resonated with him. For him Nolan’s work characterised the spirit of the Australian people, and was linked to the history and the land; Arthur Boyd portrayed the natural environment but at the same time his paintings are infused with his ideals and intellectual concerns; the younger Brett Whitely portrayed both the natural environment and the urban environment, but his main concern was the restraints on the self in modern society.


Lin maintains that the artist is particularly sensitive to the natural environment, the land itself and the geographical space: the starting point of art is total or partial involvement with the surrounding environment. The Australian environment generated strong feelings in him that impacted upon his aesthetics: the red earth of the land and the bush with its endless varieties of eucalypts is set against a brilliant blue sky, and the strong sunlight produced bright colours of amazing purity and intensity. He observes that the Australian fauna is unique: there is an absence of savage animals, and he also found the people to be good, kind and generous.[20]


In 1992 Lin returned to Beijing for two weeks on the death of his mother, and in the following year he enrolled in the BA Honours Program in the Visual Art Department of the University of Western Sydney. Dr David Hill was his supervisor, and he was awarded the degree in 1994 on the basis of his research thesis on the Australian artist Sidney Nolan (1917-1992)[21] and his research project of ten oil paintings that were hung at his graduation exhibition.


It is not surprising that Lin had chosen to write on Nolan’s paintings: they are imbued with the colours and pulsations of the Australian outback. In the middle of the 20th century Nolan won local and international acclaim for his paintings that captured the spirituality of the land. For Lin Nolan’s composition and use of colour and the different brush techniques he had employed over historical time were of great interest, but it is likely that of even greater interest was Nolan’s projection of his iconic representation of the famous bushranger Ned Kelly into his Australian scenes, particularly in his Ned Kelly series. In other words Lin identified with Nolan’s work because it was akin to, and was an affirmation of, his own aesthetic objectives.


In his Research Project Outline (1993), Lin states that he wanted to:


(1)    Examine various unconscious states of the human body, including those… influenced by religious concepts and spiritual ideas, for example the state of death, the state of weightlessness, the state of the floating body and the state of the erect human figure.

(2)    Explore specific differences in composition and technique between oil painting and traditional Chinese ink and wash painting, in order to evolve new relationships and expressive means in the painting surface that would reflect a synthesis of the philosophical/religious ideas underlying (Western) oil painting and Chinese ink painting.


These objectives were already fundamental to his work from the mid-1980s in China. However, during Lin’s two-month fellowship in Tasmania he learned about mixing beeswax and turpentine with oil colours, a practice used by some Australian painters. While undertaking tertiary art training for the first time in his life he had the opportunity to explore the possibility of using this technique to further his objectives in painting. He found that by adding beeswax to his oils he was able to obtain the required transparency in the tail end of brush strokes, as found in traditional expressive Chinese ink painting. By being able to adapt this Chinese ink painting effect in his oil painting it would be possible to enhance the sense of movement in his depictions of the human body in motion. During his six-year stay in Australia (1989-1995) Lin participated in a number of group-exhibitions, and in 1990 he held a solo exhibition at the EMR Gallery in Sydney.


Lin returned to Beijing in 1995, and then spent six months painting at Badaxian in Hubei Province, where friends had provided him with a studio. Back in Beijing, later in the year, he held a solo exhibition at the Panorama Gallery of the Hilton Hotel. In early 1996 he returned to Sydney but by July he was back in Beijing where he remained for the next nine years until September 2004, apart from a two-week trip to Sydney in 2000.


In 2001 Lin travelled to Ningxia to make the documentary film An Artist’s View of Ningxia for Channel 4, China Central Television. At the Yinchuan Museum he saw a small gilded copper sculpture with two heads and he was told the story of two brothers who did not have enough money to present two separate statues to a local monastery, so they placed two heads on the one body. He liked the notion of having two heads on the one body, and two-headed figures later at times began to appear in his paintings. Perhaps at a subconscious level he believes that reality is ambiguous and that there are different ways of viewing things. In the process of making the film, he had ample time to closely examine the large numbers of ancient Buddhist sculptures in the Xumishan Grottoes, many of which had been badly damaged by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. He took part is several group exhibitions in Beijing and held solo exhibitions at Tuancheng Gallery in Beijing in 2000, and at Pen Pal Art Gallery in Guangzhou in 2000 and 2005.




On 4 September 2004 Lin returned to Australia, and in early October he ensconced himself in the small township of Bundeena 32 km south of Sydney. Bundeena is located within the Royal National Park that extends on the east to the Pacific Ocean and has the Hacking River running through it. Established in 1879 as a nature reserve,[22] the Park contains vast forests of eucalypts as well as a diverse range of ecosystems. It was here that Lin lived a solitary life devoted to painting. The river, the ocean, an abundance of eucalypts and other bush flora could be observed at dawn, in bright sunlight, at dusk or at night, and provided a limitless range of settings or scenes for his paintings. He produced a large number of paintings, a part of which was hung for his solo exhibition at Gallery HM (8 February-4 March 2006) in Sydney. Art historian and critic John McDonald, who has over the past decade and a half established his credentials as a leading authority on contemporary Chi, nese art in Australia, made some perceptive observations about Lin’s paintings:


His recent paintings are full of space, light and joie de vivre. His preferred motif is a loose-limbed figure with a bouquet of wild flowers or gum blossoms for a head. This blossom man may be found levitating through a forest or by the sea. Lin shows not the slightest regard for drawing or anatomy–his is an art of pure feeling. His floating figures are symbols of ecstatic freedom….[23]


The scenes that emerge in Lin’s Bundeena paintings are identifiably Australian. What is striking about these paintings is the total transformation of Lin’s iconic abstraction of his self: it no longer bears any resemblance to the roundish, heavy, muscular figures of the early 1990s, or with the later comparatively thinner versions with grotesque arms and legs spread out in ugly, awkward, clumsy states of falling or floating in the air that characterise works painted while still in China such as Old Summer Palace in Autumn (2003: 130 x 160 cm) in which the figure has two turnips for a head, Pond (2004: 130 x 160 cm) in which the head of the figure is a pumpkin, or Pond in Summer (2004: 130 x 160 cm) in which the head is a turnip.


The Bundeena figures have lithe slim bodies, and considerable elegance as the float through air or in water. But what is noteworthy is that these iconic abstractions of the human body, despite having Australian bush flowers instead of a head, as detected by McDonald above, are clearly able to convey the emotions of the subjective self of the artist: this degree of clarity is not achieved in any of his previous work. Lin’s Bundeena paintings represent a higher level of artistic achievement, and it would seem that this was because he had finally reached a state of psychological harmony in his personal life that, too, constitutes a part of his total perceived environment.


The “joie de vivre” and “ecstatic freedom” detected by McDonald is due to a single factor: during his stay in Bundeena Lin spent much time chatting, laughing, relaxing and swimming with his twelve-year-old daughter, Eileen, of whom he had seen very little for many years. Serenity, contentment, and sometimes even a playful mood permeate the Bundeena paintings, and this can be seen most clearly in his works Swim (2005: 148cm x 148cm) and Exceed (2005: 144.5cm x 133.5 cm).


Swim captures the textures, colours, different lights, and the movement of the rippling water that fills the entire canvas, and only the feet of the submerged swimmer and half of the flower that replaces the head protrude from the surface of the water. Here is Lin’s iconic abstraction of his self in perfect harmony with his environment, floating suspended in the water. The feet are not the grotesque feet of Lin’s early paintings, and it is the portrayal of these feet alone that uncannily conveys a spirit of supreme happiness and contentment: he has succeeded in realistically conveying the energy coursing through the swimmer’s entire submerged body, simply by painting the feet.


Lin’s abiding interest is in depicting the body in various states of motion while suspended in air or water, and he notes that the feet are in fact essential for projecting the body into space or water. In Xinjiang he had examined many ancient Buddhist frescoes of figures in various states of motion: their bare feet were not realistically depicted, but it was their bare feet that conveyed the sense of the surge of energy that created the impression of the body in motion.


In Exceed the feet have propelled the abstract body upwards and backwards from a stretch of rocks on the seacoast, and the dynamic energy coursing through the body, too, can be sensed. The head in the case of Swim and Exceed, as is the case of all of the iconic figures of the Bundeena paintings are bush flowers. This is because the human head is of little relevance for Lin’s art. He believes in the equality of the individuals of the human race. As it is the head that identifies race, class or gender, Lin is intent on maintaining the anonymity of his iconic abstraction of his subjective self to ensure the universality of its observation of the surrounding environment. His practice has been to portray the human head as a turnip, a pumpkin or a cauliflower in China, and as various recognizable Australian bush flowers in Bundeena.


Lin has not deviated from the objectives he had articulated in 1993 in his Research Project Outline at the University of Western Sydney. In his oil painting he remains interested only in capturing the dynamic movement of the human body as it propels itself jumping, diving and springing into the air or into water, with the aim of achieving a synthesis between Western oil painting techniques that he employs and Chinese expressive painting traditions that are embedded in his psyche.




Based on his recent reading, Lin has been turning his thoughts to painting new images, of exploring the disappearance of boundaries between plants and humans. This is already apparent in Welcoming Spring (2004: 130 x 160 cm) that was painted in China. Here the person’s head is a yellow flower, and the body that is the same yellow is largely concealed by the green leaves of the blossoming plant: the person has become a part of the plant. Amongst his Bundeena paintings this is apparent in Romantic (2005: 117 x 118 cm) in which the bodies of two persons share the one flower for a head, Worry (2005: 104 x 86) in which the person’s head has been planted into a hanging basket and the arms and legs are a part of the plant, Branch–1 (2005: 150 x 148) in which human arms and legs extend from the blossoms on a branch that are at the same time the person’s head, and Reborn (2005: 201.5 x 168 cm) and Groves (2006: 200.6 x 180 cm) in which the figure has assumed the textures and colours of the tree trunks, and vice versa.


Lin maintains that as humans are a part of nature, they should be concerned for the natural environment. For him, humans, plants and animals are equal: they are simply different forms of life.[24] Furthermore, he believes that while it is widely known that humans have the capacity to change plants and animals, plants and animals too have the capacity to change humankind. He says that the head is for thinking, and that one’s perceptions and understanding and that which is articulated in words or visual images is about the natural environment.


As to why Lin uses plants to replace the human head in his paintings, he says that when you see a plant, you are the plant, and that this is a psychological state in which the environment and the self each observes the other. Whereas traditional Chinese philosophy refers to “the unity of heaven and humanity” he prefers what he himself has coined: “the unity of humanity and the environment”, or better still “the unity of the environment and humanity.


Lin still reads a great deal on archaeology, science technology (especially works on DNA and genetic engineering), historical writings, poems and novels. His new phase in painting is informed by recent readings that include: Chinese translations of J. M. Pelt, M. Mazoyer, T. Monod and J. Girardon, La Plus Belle Histoire des plantes (2004) and Matt Ridley, Genome: the Autobiography of a Species in Twenty-three Chapters (2001); English publications such as Margaret Baker, Robin Corringham and Jill Dark, Native Plants (1985), Keith Williams, Native Plants of Queensland, Volume 2 (1988), Helen Griffin ed., Flowering Shrubs (1999), and Dick Chadwick, Australian Native Gardening (2003). His reading of Chinese authors includes Jiang Rong’s novel Wolf Totem (2004) and Gao Xingjian’s book of essays The Case for Literature (2001).


Lin states that he is not religious, but that for him painting is like a religion.



[1] Most of the paintings discussed in this paper are available for viewing on Lin Chunyan’s website:

[2] Lin’s father worked as an administrative official in the Meteorology Department of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. His mother was a teacher at the kindergarten attached to Peking University, and the family lived in the apartment that had been allocated to her. Lin was born there, and he has an elder sister and a younger sister.

[3] Wu Dazhi taught at the Central Industrial Art Academy that has been renamed Qinghua Art Academy and is now a part of Qinghua University.

[4] Cf. Claire Roberts, “Lin Chunyan Interview” (unpublished transcript), 14 July 1989. Roberts is Senior Curator of Asian Decorative Arts and Design at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

[5] Cf. Roberts, “Lin Chunyan Interview”, 14 July 1989.

[6] Lin recalls that it was a Japanese publication with the title: Shijie meishu quan ji.

[7] Cf. Roberts, “Lin Chunyan Interview”, 14 July 1989.

[8] Painted in Melbourne, these two paintings (both 1989: 36 x 36 in) were exhibited at the Second Biennial Conference of the Chinese Studies Association of Australia, held at the University of Sydney 1-4 July 1991. Reproductions of the paintings are included in the exhibition booklet produced by Archibald McKenzie and Mabel Lee, Twelve Contemporary Chinese Artists (Sydney, 1991), with an introduction by Nicholas Jose.

[9] 1993: 140 x 140 cm. This is one of ten paintings submitted as part of his BA Honours degree at the University of Western Sydney (1993-1994).

[10] Li Tiejian specialised in woodcuts; he now lives in the USA where he continues to work as an artist.

[11] Huang Beiling has lived in the USA since the 1990s. He is founder of the Chinese-language literary magazine Tendency and the Independent PEN Center, and is known for his translations into Chinese of authors such as Vaclav Havel and Wole Soyinka.

[12] Some of his paintings from the exhibition are held by his friends Mang Ke and Duo Duo, both poets of the Today group of Beijing poets (others include Bei Dao, Jiang He and Yang Lian) who were highly influential in China during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

[13] Lin Chunyan’s Northeast Chimney is listed in Gao Minglu ed., History of Contemporary Chinese Art (Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 1991), and it now belongs to a private collector in the USA. In Lü Peng and Yi Dan eds, History of Contemporary Chinese Art (Wuhan: Hunan Art Publishing House, 1992), a reproduction of Lin’s painting State of Being (1987: 140 x 147 cm) appears as Illustration No. 423, but with an incorrect title and without the dimensions or the date.

[14] The two untitled paintings (both 1987: 30 x 20 cm) were subsequently sold in the USA.

[15] In Paris his State of Being (1987: 240 x 160 cm) was damaged, and his Self Portrait (1986: 120 x 120 cm) was lost.

[16] Ah Xian and Guan Wei both travelled to Australia in January 1989, but returned to Beijing after a two-month stay. Ah Xian (b. 1960 in Beijing) is a self-taught artist. He relocated to Australia in the early 1990s, and in recent years has won acclaim for his porcelain sculptures. In 2001 he won the National Sculpture Prize in Australia. See Linda Jaivin, “Ah Xian: Recent Works in Porcelain”, Art Asia and the Pacific, 33 (2002): 28-30. Guan Wei (b. 1957 in Beijing) graduated in Fine Arts at the Beijing Capital University in 1986 and began teaching art in a high school. Since relocating to Australia in the early 1990s he has won recognition for his work, much of which is concerned with migration and cultural identity and has an ironic focus on Australia-related topical issues. See Dinah Dysart, Natalie King and Hou Hanru, Guan Wei (Fishermans Bend: Craftsman House, 2006).

[17] Cf. Roberts, “Lin Chunyan Interview”, 14 July 1989.

[18] Nicholas Jose left an academic position at the Australian National University to teach English at East China Normal University in 1986, and was appointed to the Australian Embassy in Beijing in the following year. The author of numerous novels and essays, Jose was the President of Sydney PEN (2002-2005), and now holds the Chair of Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide. Jose acted as curatorial advisor to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney for two exhibitions in 1993: “Mao Goes Pop” and “ArtTaiwan”.

[19] Lin also began his first paid job in Australia, cleaning refrigerators for $239.90 per week. See Roberts, “Lin Chunyan Interview”, 14 July 1989. The difficult circumstances of Lin’s life (as well as that of four other artists) is described in Diana Giese, “Australia Offers a Rich Palette to Chinese Artists, Migration (January/February 1991): pp. 11-12.

[20] Cf. Roberts, “Lin Chunyan Interview”, 14 July 1989.

[21] Nolan was a member of the Heide Circle near Melbourne that included Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval. Nolan is best known for his powerful images of the iconic Australian bushranger Ned Kelly that he painted at the end of the Pacific War.

[22] It is the second oldest national park in the world, following the Yellowstone National Park in the USA that was established in 1972.

[23] The Sydney Morning Herald, 4-5 February 2006. McDonald is familiar with Lin’s earlier works.

[24] Lin had painted Hawkman and Spiderman in 1988, but to develop further in that direction would have deflected him from the primary concerns of his art: the depiction of the movement of the human body within the environment.