Details & Cataloguing

Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art


Ai Xuan
B. 1947
executed in 1987
signed in Chinese and English, framed; Hefner Galleries and The Modern Museum of Art, Santa Ana labels affixed to the reverse
oil on canvas
76.3 by 61 cm.; 30 by 24 in.
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Hefner Galleries Ins., New York
Sotheby's, Beijing, 5 June 1988, lot 14
Acquired by the present owner from the above sale


USA, California, Santa Ana, The Modern Museum of Art, Contemporary Realist Paintings from the People's Republic of China, 12 December 1987 - 10 March, 1988
China, Beijing, Workers' Cultural Palace, Chinese and Western Contemporary Art and Design exhibition, 27 May - 4 June, 1988

Catalogue Note

1987 marked an important year in Ai Xuan’s creative journey. Ai Xuan was a visiting scholar at the University of Oklahoma, and it was during this time that the artist was inducted into the gates of the international art world with no shortage of fanfare. Not only did his partnership with Hefner Galleries prove to be a commercial success, he brought Chinese native realism, a movement that evoked the mood and circumstance of a specific generation, to American shores. In Ai Xuan’s painting, a solitary figure stands in the distance of a vast landscape, rendered small and insignificant, the overbearing desolation of the scene adding undertones of mystery and emptiness to the mood of estrangement. Chinese native realism, heavily influenced by the style of Andrew Wyeth, evokes the same generational sadness and quality of inner solitude. The movement quickly garnered attention from across the Atlantic, and it was within this context that Lonely Marshland (Lot  32) was born.

Within the painting, a slight figure bundled, bundled in a Tibetan jacket, treads upon the wild marshland. Absent is the image of the Tibetan landscape, solemn and sombre, with snowflakes fluttering in the wind, yet even under the blinding, burning sunlight, one still hears the shrill whistle of harsh, bitter wind across the open plains. The young girl, bent at the waist by the forces of enormous loneliness and quiet, and the bamboo basket, has her back against the blue skies of the heavens. Under the punishing living codes and severe enforcements of social order in the Tibetan region, the young silhouette appears before the viewer, clear, backlit, like a wild flower scattered to the wind.

On June 5, 1988, Sotheby’s hosted a charity auction event at the Forbidden City in Beijing, titled ‘The Return of Marco Polo,” with proceeds going to the benefit of the safeguard of Venice and the Great Wall of China. With this event, Sotheby’s became the first international auction house to host such an event in Mainland China. It was then that Ai Xuan’s Lonely Marshland first appeared in auction alongside the works of Picasso, Rauschenberg, and those of other masters. The next day, The China Daily devoted front-page coverage to the event, garnering the intense interest of readers at home and abroad. A photo of two youths holding up Ai Xuan’s painting has since become a historical symbol in the journey and development of China’s art auction market. China’s native realism has grown from the mud of the era’s sediment. In its attitude of reverence and awe towards reality, the movement gained direction and clarity. After 26 years, Lonely Marshland has returned to Sotheby’s, embodied in it both memories of scars as well as comfort and relief from them. Ai Xuan’s focus on the native land still runs in his poetic blood, a passion towards which the artist will remain ever faithful. It is undeniable that this painting is a critical milestone in the artist’s career, carrying with it special historical significance.  

Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art