“You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting”, is how Mary Oliver starts off Wild Geese, a short, heart-warming poem about coming home to oneself, the same way wild geese return to their nesting grounds after long and tiresome journeys.
Across the ocean, to the East, wild geese fly in abundance in Lin Fengmian’s 1950s works, too, as symbols of freedom lusting for adventure. Often greeting the skies in flocks, for no long journey should be undertaken alone, they push forward through clear and misty scenery alike. On the rare occasions when they do fly alone, like in Wild Goose Flying Across Lotus Pond, they look achingly lonely and out of place without the shield of companionship.
Sometimes their silhouettes are profiled clearly like black stamps on an envelope, and other times they’re barely visible at all. At times they soar to great heights in a push of eagerness and wanderlust, though often they fly steadily and patiently, lined up in formation like well-behaved children on a school trip.
There’s much to be said about these wild geese, and yet not much at all, due to their simplified form and a prevailing sense of repetition permeating Lin’s works. There’s water, there’s mountains, there’s tree tops and bowing reeds. There are endless skies, watery and misty, dark skies with dimmed hopes and morning skies with slopes of milky light. And yet, there they are, a constant presence, the wild geese marching forward. They’re the contradiction that Chinese modern art came to embody — in no small part thanks to Lin — of mixing traditional Chinese art motives and media with Western techniques. Wild geese are the familiar and the unknown, the discovery and the rediscovery.
There’s something infinitely reassuring about their mere presence, even when it’s hinted with subtlety like in Wild Geese by the Pine Landscape. Struggling through layer upon layer of unwelcoming, mountainous landscape — menacing clouds, towering mountains, veils of mist and light, crooked scarecrow-pines flailing in the wind — three geese can be spotted flying low on the horizon, bracing for what lies ahead. With their silhouettes launched across the sky like obstinate arrows and their contours obscured by fog, there is a promise, or even an expectation, that they will make it through their journey and defeat the elements; that hidden beneath the gray and white brushstrokes of atmospheric uncertainty their flock is still with them, and they are not alone in their quest.
It’s by no accident that I mention the layer upon layer of landscape, for that is a Western technique that Lin used here, creating depth and the illusion of vastness stretching wide before our eyes — chiefly with the intensity and use of color. Lin also favored a square format for his paintings, forgoing the more traditional horizontal one.
Despite all this, Lin’s art still feels traditional, echoing not only the timelessness of nature, but old Chinese paintings, as well. But whereas traditional Chinese works reveal precise details and are often laden with symbolism, Lin’s murky paintings are expressionistic, brewing with the emotional intensity of a melancholy that cannot be contained, nor defined.
Take a look back in time, for instance, at the twenty cranes flying with poise in the 12th century scroll painting Auspicious Cranes, attributed to Emperor Huizong. These god-like birds, symbolizing the bearing of good news and gracing the sky with their presence as if performing in a ballet, are far removed from our low-flying, mist-fighting wild geese.
One can see the cranes clearly as they dance above a roof, suspended in air like skillful acrobats. Across this well-choreographed display of movement the dominant feeling is one of optimism. The scroll, once unfurled, emphasizes this first impression through its accompanying poem:
Just as the sky grows light, rainbow-hued clouds brush the roof ridge.
Immortal birds, proclaiming good news, suddenly appear with their measured dance.
Soaring windborne, truly companions of the isles of immortality,
Two by two, they show their noble forms.
— from the poem inscribed on ‘Auspicious Cranes’
In Lin’s paintings , on the other hand, even if we were to view these wild geese as good omens — and I encourage you to do so, for they breathe life into otherwise desolate landscapes — the overall feeling conveyed is one of ambiguity, at best, a restlessness that flows throughout the composition. As a viewer, you are left wondering — maybe with apprehension, maybe with doubt, maybe with cautionary excitement — about what lies ahead.
It is precisely this contemplative mood that Lin achieves masterfully, a mood anchored in the flight of the wild geese which, like Mary Oliver points out, call out “harsh and exciting —/ over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things”. Whether the birds are returning home, or setting off towards the unknown, it makes no difference. There’s beauty in their flight, a reassurance that between the familiar and the unfamiliar a whole world of possibility unfolds, one layer after another.
My dear readers, like the wild geese I, too, have returned to the family of things after a long absence, and I will be posting here, again, every week. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter where I’m being more active. Thank you for your love and patience, you’ve been wonderful throughout this time.