About LIN Hung-Hsin's Artworks


A Fantasized World of the Contemporary Flâneur-A Reading of Lin Hung-Hsin’s Recent Paintings

by Chen, Kuang-Yi (Contemporary Art History PhD. Of Université Paris X Nanterre, Fine Arts Department Associate Professor of National Taiwan University of Arts)

    Among the young-generation artists, Lin Hung-Hsin is definitely the one who will get your attention. As long as you walk into the world of his paintings, you will soon be captured by the atmosphere of contradiction. It is a world filled with various kinds of people – the old ones, the young ones, the men, and the women – while we can barely distinguish one from another. Color does not exist in the images’ extremely realistic appearances like what it is in the so-called photorealism. The black-and-white photos express certain gloominess as if it is an existentialist monologue carrying the burden of the history. The background surrounding the characters, on the other hands, sharply adopts a totally different vocabulary as its details suggest: the splendid flat color paints and the symbolic trendy objects both please and attract viewers in a conflicting way, alluring them in the fantasized world. Their minds are occupied with the attempts to figure out the meaning of the images.

    Lin Hung-Hsin was born in Yunlin but currently lives in Taipei. Before he became a full-time artist, he had remained unknown for 15 years, making a living in the field of advertising design until he went to the graduate school, where he picked up the brushes and once again jumped into the world of painting. According to his personal statement, the experience when he first came to the big city was so different from how he spent his childhood in the country. Therefore, Lin Hung-Hsin made himself as an anonymous observer “to observe, to experience, and to fantasize while wandering about the city,” through which the artist might be able to stay self-absorbed to get away from the reality. He thus borrowed the character “flâneur” from Walter Benjamin’s works as the main subject of his paintings.

    However, does the white-face character dressed in black “created” by Lin Hung-Hsin resemble the emotionless figures in Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men In Black? In what way are they related to the “flâneur” described in either Charles Baudelaire’s or Walter Benjamin’s work? Does the “flâneur” symbolize anyone or does it merely represent the self-portrait of the artist? What is its significance?


    The term flâneur comes from the French noun flâneur – which was widely used in the 19th-century France under the influence of romanticism – to describe people who strolled along the streets with nothing to do. The “flâneur” was not an ordinary stroller, but a person who dressed in fashion, which not only showed his status but also his wealth, to spend time wandering about the arcade in Paris. Their appearances have been carefully depicted in many paintings by the 19th-century French painters, including the woodblock print Le Flâneur (1842) by Paul Gavarni, an artist highly appraised by Baudelaire.

    In the article “Le Peintre de la Vie Modern” (1863), Baudelaire mentions that the “flâneur” is both an observer and a philosopher. “Sometimes a flâneur is a poet – more like a novelist or a moralist; he is the everlasting caricaturist who symbolizes the times,” says Baudelaire. For a perfect flâneur, “the greatest happiness is to choose the places to stay within the crowd, the transition, the mobility, the ephemerality, and the infinity.” In fact, Baudelaire’s “flâneur” can be traced back to Allen Poe’s short novel Man of the Crowd in 1840. The eerie and mysterious character in Allen Poe’s novel is followed by the storyteller, day and night, until the exhausted narrator finally gives up with a conclusion that the old man “is the type and the genius of deep crime” for that “he refuses to be alone; he is the man of the crowd.”

    Later in 1929, Benjamin wrote “The Return of the Flâneur” for his friend Franz Hessel’s Walks through Berlin. He further wrote Paris, the Capital of the 19th Century in 1935 when he took a shelter in France and continued to write The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire in 1938 with “The Flâneur” as the title of its second part. In these articles, the complicated image of a “flâneur” has been visualized.


    In fact, Benjamin’s studies about the flâneur has greatly benefitted from the German socialist Georg Simmel, whose words are quoted in the article “The Flâneur”: “the one who can see but cannot hear is more likely to feel insecure than the one who can hear but cannot see – it includes the particularity of the sociology in a big city that the human relationship in a big city mainly depends on eye-related activities instead of ear-related activities.” It has something to do with public transportation. Before trains, cars, and streetcars started to dominate our lives in the 19th Century, “people can hardly look at each other more than ten minutes or even several hours without speaking to each other.” The “flâneur” is what the metropolitan city creates. He hides in the crowd to observe those who only observe without saying a word. Today, it might be a familiar scene to us – people seldom talk to each other on the metro train early in the morning. Sometimes even worse, smartphone addicts never take a look at the real world.

So we will start with eyes.

    Lin Hung-Hsin apparently depicts the eyes of the characters in his paintings with extreme delicacy. Is it appropriate to categorize Lin Hung-Hsin’s works as a kind of portrait paintings? If it is the case, artists will definitely pay extraordinary attention while depicting the eyes and the expression through the eyes like the convention in most of the portrait paintings. Has Leonardo da Vinci not once said that eye is the window of the soul? Eyes, indeed, reveal the spiritual essence and the psychological condition of a person. The trilogy works – Queen of the Night, Restealth, and Blooming Alone– of Lin’s series works Flâneur are the best examples. Through the eyes of the characters, viewers might perceive their complicated emotions: their suspicion, their confusion, or their helplessness. Although their faces painted with white powder and their costume both strongly imply that life is a staged play, their eyes still show the soul of the truth. It is impossible for us to know whether they are listening or not, but the closed lips prove that they refuse to start a conversation. What are they looking at? The characters in the series Map are imprisoned in an electronic-board maze. They are like monsters with more than two eyes, but the extra ones fail to improve the vision. The off-focused eyes without the pupils inside deprive them of the ability to see.

    The closed eyes and the eyes covered by sunglasses or eyeshade are the reoccurring themes in Lin Hung-Hsin’s paintings, reminding viewers of the popular subjects in the paintings of the late 19th-Century Symbolist artists, including Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s Beata Beatrix, Gustave Moreau’s and Jean Delville’s Orphée, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’s Recuillement, and Odilon Redon’s Yeux clos. Why did these artists intentioanlly capture the closed eyes? What the closed eyes symbolize might be found in Baudelaire’ poems. In his prose poem Windows (1864), the poet/artist states that “looking from outside into an open window one never sees as much as when one looks through a closed window. There is nothing more profound, more mysterious, more pregnant, more insidious, more dazzling than a window lighted by a single candle... In that black or luminous square life lives, life dreams, life suffers."

    A closed eye is a closed window, allowing us to shut down to the world and to be absorbed into the self. It is an area which separates the obscure and the clear, the imagined and the real, the spiritual and the material, the emotional and the rational – in one word, the internal and the external.


    For the people strolling around the city, does the city belong to their external world or their internal world?

    In the article “The Flâneur,” Walter Benjamin mentions the widespread interest in the 19th-Century city life. A new literature genre “physiology” was thus created, in which writers carefully described each corner of the city as if they were psychologist. However, a flâneur was not a dull physiologist. What he did was even more than the truthful description of a city.

    During that time, Walter Benjamin was fully absorbed in surrealism. The urban scene staged for the flâneur was both the internal world and the external world “the flâneur’s incident look and the inspector’s intentional gaze.” The city was rendered in front of the fictional figures with alluring solitude as if it was a room offering a safe but yet constricted shelter to them. The arcade in the 19th-Century Paris was a space like this. When Walter Benjamin wrote “Paris Passage,” the writer seemed to intentionally turn it into a phantasmagorical space of surrealism.

    Flâneurs came into being because of the architecture change in the 19th Century Paris. The fledgling capitalism changed the cityscape by covering streets between buildings with glass top and paving the ground with marbles, creating a space which was both the inside and the outside. “Inside the arcade are the most elegant shops, which have made the arcade itself a city – or we might say, a microcosmic world.” In the arcade, flâneurs found the way to get rid of the worries – they strolled around to observe the commodities, the crowd, and the buildings without hurry. “The one who looks out through the café window has sharp eyes,” while the mysterious language of the city entertained and enriched his spiritual world. In the space which was both the inside and the outside, he almost felt that he was inside a family house – where he could hardly separate the inside and the outside of his personal world: “The streets become the residence of the flâneur, who makes himself at home within the space secured by the outside walls just like how the ordinary citizens have their homes secured by the inside wall.” The flâneur was active and smart. He lived in the present, but he read the past of the city, coloring the cityscape with his souls. He was as transparent as a ghost, while the reflection of his lonely silhouette could be found everywhere in his “the outside-is-also-the-inside” world. The flâneur was always a lonely figure, who enjoyed the solitude within the crowd. A space like this gave birth to the flâneurs, and the death of the arcade also marked the death of the flâneurs.

    The works of Lin Hung-Shin are full of city images. The personified images of the city seem to have some surrealist touch to me. It is not his intention to describe or to document the cityscape. Instead, he wants to turn into a flâneur to stroll around the Taipei streets, being captivated by the urban atmosphere from the inside to the outside. In the series works – the Flâneur and the Dialogue Box or A Place to Turn Around, the crowds in the city, the skyscrapers, and the amusement park disguise themselves as the accessories which decorate the figures in the images, the flat and thin background which help express the emotions of the figures, or the revealed implication of the story narrated. Nevertheless, they are more than the accessories or the backgrounds, while the city is the sole main focus. We can even say that Lin Hung-Hsin denies a physiological way to depict the city. In a space where the inside is also the outside, the artist tells the stories from the soul of the urban atmosphere.

Mythologies Quotidiennes

    Every day, everyone living in the city has one’s own story about the city. Through the eyes of the the flâneur, these stories are visualized with brushes. We should not forget that the flâneur in Baudelaire’s world was a “modern painter.” Like Lin Hung-Hsin, he painted the pigeonhole dweller, the pill swallowers, the dreamer, and many others.

    There is some pop-art spirit in Lin Hung-Hsin’s works. His inspiration mainly comes from the daily life. After spending fifteen years in advertising design, he has polished the skills to adopt the mundane vocabulary we are so familiar with to deliver the strongest visual effect, to combine digital image and painting, and to bring in the technology of computer rendering. Briefly speaking, he uses contemporary tools to capture the contemporary spirit of the contemporary age. However, what makes him different from pop artist is how he goes beyond the pure objective observation. He does not collect the fragments of life to create a collage. Instead, he blends in his personal perspective and unique personality while he weaves the fragments into a narrative. Such the spirit and the process of art-making are closer to a group of French painters who were regarded as the practitioners of “narrative figuration” in the 1960s. These artists, including Rancillac, Emile Aillaud, Henri Cueco, Peter Klasen, and Antonio Recalcati, embraced extremely detailed figurative paintings as a strategy to stand against the avant-garde. The flat painting skill was greatly used, while they also used projectors to project images onto the canvas to sketch. They returned to the realistic expression but enriched the process of art-making with appropriation, juxtaposition, mix-and-match, and de/trans-formation. They borrowed the ordinary vocabulary from the daily life (including comic books, commercials, photographs, or movies) to open up a new way for painting. Meanwhile, they returned to the narrative which had been rejected by the avant-garde for many years with an attempt to declare war against pop art which dealt with the popular culture and the consumer society in a very different way – it goes without saying that what they adopted was not an academic way of narrative but a complex structure which was open to various potentialities. Although pop art reflected the modern life and the consumer society, according to their belief, it was so formalized that the form had already lost the spirit to criticize the society. Influenced by the Left-wing politics, these artists attempted to initiate a political and social reformation through art and actual movement.

    I believe that Lin Hung-Hsin must adopt similar strategy while dealing with the situations of the modern life. He started his artistic practice with realistic painting, through which he continuously explored the true meaning of realism and the future of it. Finally, he successfully creates a unique narrative, in which he combines the complicated narrative elements transformed from the daily life, the atmosphere of anxiety, and the edgy subjects. The background and the details are represented with the advertising design skill while the figures are represented as photographic images. The painting thus creates a staged scene with the “décaler” effect which is both fantasized and realistic, offering viewers with new visual experience. The artist indeed builds up an unsettling contemporary maze and narrates an epic/myth about the daily life in the contemporary age.

In Conclusion

How does today’s art influence the future world?

    In fact, Walter Benjamin regarded Baudelaire as a “lyric poet in the era of high capitalism,” who also made “flâneur” an important icon with social and political significance. The flâneur hopelessly resisted “the fanatic rhythm of material production,” while Allan Poe made him to spend an hour and a half in the market “neither saying a word nor asking the price, but only gaze at everything with absent mind and primitive eyes.” Benjamin further conceptualizes flâneur as the one indulging himself in commodity fetish, since he is “someone abandoned in the crowd by Baudelaire, sharing the similar situation with commodities.” Living in an age manipulated by capitalism, the flâneur realized that his way of life has been imposed on him by the production system, in which his body as a person and his labor both became commodities – and there was no other way around. Therefore, he found a way to get away from the reality by looking for pleasure at his leisure time, although he “remains conscious of the scary social phenomenon while he is absorbed in the pleasure.”

    Lin Hung-Hsin does not live in the 19th Century Paris. Instead, he lives in the 21st Century Taipei. He regards himself as a flâneur – a contemporary flâneur. Through the appropriated images and the advertising skills in the paintings, the artist questions the media’s self-judged objectivity and the propaganda-like strategy. Paintings become a way for the artist to criticize the contemporary life and to reveal the cruel truth of it. As what Baudelaire mentions in “Windows,” the window can be the frame of the painting described by Leon Battista Alberti. If so, the burden of a painter is to create myths and epics, to tell the tragedy of the human world.