Bridging East and West
The Chinese Diaspora and Lin Yutang
September 15, 2007–February 10, 2008
When Lin Yutang (1895–1976) moved to New York City in 1936 he immediately established himself as one of the preeminent interpreters of Chinese culture in the United States. This exhibition reflects Lin's personal involvement with some of the most prominent artists of his generation. On view are Plum, Bamboo and Rock (1942), Flying Magpie (1942), Heavenly Horse (1942), and Seventeen Letters (1938–48) by Xu Beihong, one of the towering figures in modern Chinese art, who is a leading exponent of integrating Western representational techniques with Chinese traditional brush painting. All of these works were presented directly to Lin or to his daughter Taiyi Lin Lai (1926–2003) by the artist. Seventeen Letters, a unique handscroll consisting of Xu's letters addressed to Lin, preserves an extraordinary record of Xu's handwriting over a ten-year period (1938–1948). The letters, written in a tense, angular style with no concern for charm, seek Lin's help in organizing an exhibition of contemporary Chinese painting in America in support of China's war effort. (One of the letters even mentions the Metropolitan Museum and its curator of Chinese art at the time, Alan Priest.) Indeed, in 1943 the Metropolitan held an exhibition of contemporary Chinese painting that included the above-mentioned works.
The exhibition also features six works by the painter and connoisseur Zhang Daqian that were dedicated to either Lin or his son-in-law Richard Lai. Among them are a colorful "splashed-ink" landscape, Mountains Clearing after Rain (ca. 1965), and a delightful group of works depicting humble vegetables: Radishes and Mustard Greens; Mountain Vegetables, and Mushrooms; (all ca. 1965). The latter three works reveal the two men's shared passion for Chinese cuisine. In his inscription on Mushrooms, for example, Zhang bemoans his inability to obtain the richly varied regional mushrooms of China since his move to the West.
Born under Qing imperial rule, Lin Yutang lived through the birth of the Republic in 1911 and witnessed China's subsequent split in 1949 into the rival polities of a Communist mainland and a Nationalist Taiwan. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Lin received a Western-style education in missionary schools and at St. John's University in Shanghai before he earned a Master's degree at Harvard and a doctorate at Leipzig University. In 1923 he returned to China to teach English at National Peking University and National Normal University, and in 1936—the year before the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War—he and his family moved to New York City at the invitation of Pearl Buck and her husband, the publisher Richard Walsh. Prevented from returning to China by the war, he remained in New York for nearly three decades before retiring to Taiwan in 1965. His first book in English, My Country and My People (1935), went through seven printings within four months and was translated into several European languages. His third book, The Importance of Living (1937), topped The New York Times' bestseller list for fifty-two weeks and was the most widely sold book in the United States in that year.