With their characteristic artistic languages, Chinese artists often became the focus of attention in the international art world in the nineties. Fang Lijun is the representative practitioner of Cynical Realism, one of the most important Chinese artistic trends of the nineties period. His works of 1992 attracted the interest of the international art world and earned him frequent invitations to participate in exhibitions. Recognised by academia even before such artists as Zhang Xiaogang and Zeng Fanzhi, the present series has been collected by such institutions as Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany and Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan, as well as important private collectors. The importance of this series is beyond doubt. The lot on offer, Series 2 No. 4 (Lot 1035) from the collection of Baron and Baroness Guy and Myriam Ullens de Schooten, dates from this crucial period. Museum-grade works in Series 2 appear on the market very infrequently, and among them only seven are monumental works exceeding two meters, indicating the extreme rarity of Series 2 No.4. Fang Lijun’s paintings of mischievous and nonchalant bald figures, ambiguously suggestive gestures, posing in unrealistic and absurdist spaces were a profound expression of the collective mentality of the Chinese in the nineties, and made him the most important representative of Cynical Realism. Disillusionment with the idealism of the eighties led to a shift in mentality for a whole generation of Chinese, who now refused to opine, to care about anything, or to discuss any big questions, and instead were filled only with helplessness. In contrast to the confrontational stance of the ’85 New Wave, Fang Lijun prefers his self-satirical images as a means of self-redemption and survival. It is not hard to understand the rise of this mentality during China’s increasingly rapid economic liberalisation and urbanisation. The helplessness of being marginalised in society is accurately reflected in Fang Lijun’s self-satirical stance.
Fang Lijun graduated from the printmaking department of the Central Academy of Fine Art in 1988. In the following year, he submitted three sketches of bald figures to the “China’s New Art Post-1989” exhibition. These works garnered much attention and would serve as the basis for his famous series of bald figures. “After making a lot of sketches, I felt that I had a good grasp of their substance. Now I needed an attractive presentation. I could only choose the image of baldness because it had such a strong visual impact… For me, the importance of baldness lies in its cancelation of individual identity. It more strongly expresses a general concept of humanity.” Evidently, baldness had a notable impact in that context and also suited his interest in self-consciousness. In 1990, Fang Lijun began painting in oil. Within a year, between 1990 and 1991, he created Series 1, a group of seven oil paintings, for which he did a lot of preparatory work. By eliminating chromatic relations, the monochromatic Series 1 was a way through which Fang could endow his works with the flatness of a sketch.
Following the transitional stage of Series 1, in 1992 he began to create Series 2. This was when the image of the bald cynic found its full expression. In April, he and fellow artist Liu Ye organised a joint show at the Capital Museum. It was after viewing this very show that the famous Li Xianting coined the influential term “Cynical Realism” to describe their styles. “Fang chooses the incidental, mundane, and seemingly meaningless moments in life to serve as the first layer of his artistic language. Then he shaves the heads of all his human figures, a core feature in his art. What I am calling mischief is mostly found in this feature. Third, he tends to place unpoetic, meaningless images in poetic environments of blue skies, white clouds, and vast seas, thereby generating a mood of absurdity.” 1 Series 2 No.4 is an important and highly representative work in this series. Here a group of simply-dressed bald men wander aimlessly and listlessly in a grey space. The greatly reduced colour scheme further enhances the mood of indifference and listlessness. Series 2 No.4 no doubt captured perfectly the mood of Chinese society at the time. Stylistically, it continues the monochromatic palette of Series 1; although here blue is the dominant tone and colours are used, they are used singularly and indifferently to each other, creating a monochromatic effect and a timeless and spiritually absent world. In Fang Lijun’s early works, there are often many figures who resemble each other very strongly in the background, which point to another major preoccupation of his art: “The repeated figures in the background are in fact people who have had been cleansed of their individuality. Only generalities remain in them. I put these people in in the background as a warning of something so far and yet so close. It may happen very far away but still relate to you or catch up to him shortly.” 2 The figures in Series 2 No.4 are all very similar; together they seem a group without any individual identity. They are Fang Lijun’s metaphor for the Chinese people.
As the economy developed and consumer culture flourished in China, Chinese society became much more colourful. From 1993 onwards, Fang Lijun painted in bright colours and started to adorn his figures with flowers frequently, giving rise to the late-nineties trend of Vulgar Art. Existential conditions have remained the central theme in Fang’s work from the nineties until today. In a painting career spanning two decades, he has turned his attention from the existential conditions of the Chinese to those of all humanity and even all of nature. What is undeniable is that his paintings of the early nineties, while still lingering in the pregnant moment of 1989, foretold the trends that would emerge in contemporary Chinese painting and set the tone for contemporary Chinese art for the rest of the decade. In Series 2 No.4 we witness the writing of this crucial episode in art history in real time.
1 Li Xianting, “An Exhibition of Paintings by Fang Lijun and Liu Ye,” 1992.
2 Pi Li, “A Conversation with Fang Lijun,” 2001.
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