1989 was a turning point for contemporary Chinese art. The China Avant-Garde Exhibition held in Beijing that year as well as the historical political incident left an indelible mark upon Liu Xiaodong and many other Chinese artists. Liu Xiaodong, however, did not allow these events to dominate his subject matter; he resisted the temptation of choosing Tiananmen Square or other concrete events as his subjects, refusing to use them in luring the attention of the international public. Instead, he placed his focus on “accentuating the inner emotions of the people,”1 an aesthetic choice that marks the watershed moment separating contemporary Chinese art of the 90s from the idealism of the 80s. Art Historian Wu Hong wrote, “The early 1990s were a time filled with change, yearning, and temptation. Although the dark shadows of the past had yet to recede in the national memory, a new culture of urban consumption and entertainment was already surging in.”2 The aesthetic style captured under Liu Xiaodong’s brush is an important representative of the very tone and mood in Chinese literature, cinema, and painting during that era, and contributed to the establishment of Neo-Realism. Showered in Sunlight (Lot 1056), completed in 1990, is one of Liu Xiaodong’s important works created at this critical juncture. The painting depicts a group of youth drenched in sunlight, conveying both the younger generation’s uncertainty about the future as well as their feelings of hope. It is one of the first works of New Generation Art. The painting paved the way for contemporary China’s new era of the 1990s and served as a record of the state of the national consciousness following the events of 1989.
The New Generation Art Movement that was launched in 1984 championed the tenets of reason, philosophy, and conceptualization, and the main narrative thread of this time ran around the globe to the avant garde groups and individuals that were springing up. For an artist like the academy-trained Liu Xiaodong, a mismatch was apparent between his own sensibilities and the more radical environment of that time. When the 1990s arrived, “academy art” re-emerged with new direction, the new spirit and self-awareness of the era centered in the Neo-Realism movement of which Liu Xiaodong was a representative member. His work Showered in Sunlight (1990) was created during this very transition period. This period of change was deeply meaningful not only for Liu Xiaodong himself, but also the development of Chinese contemporary art. Art critic Fan Dian, who was then vice president of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, remarked with great incisiveness, “Liu Xiaodong emerged during Chinese contemporary art’s transition period of the 80s to the 90s. His ability to capture our attention as a new artist in the early 90s can be attributed to the fact that he – from almost the moment he stepped onto the scene – in some way, was the representation of an era of change in Chinese art.”3
Liu Xiaodong graduated from Oil Painting Studio No. 3 of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1988, an education that established a solid technical foundation upon which the artist was able to develop his distinct, individual style. After graduating, Liu Xiaodong discovered that the environment surrounding him was drastically different from the sheltered life of working in the academy studios. The realities of life began making their way into his creations, and established an important standard by which he evaluated his paintings. This marked a departure from his prior sensibility at the academy, in which “creations existed above the plane of mundane life.” The composition of Sunlit Illumination is rather unusual, six nude men arranged irregularly upon the canvas, the foreground occupied by a partial human torso, creating a mood of indomitability. The close-up perspective results in a strong “visual pressure,” as though the painting is pulling the viewer into its reality. The facial expressions of the two figures in the left foreground cannot be seen, but from the joyous expressions and insouciant body language of the others, one senses that a delightful interaction is occurring among them. The scene is perfectly frozen upon this moment of sunlit illumination. Art historian Shao Dazhen noted, “[Liu] continues to return to the naked form, his nude paintings that possess narrative regularly appearing…Showered in Sunlight is the culmination of the artist’s abilities in portraying the human figure, and in the history of Chinese oil painting, this one is perhaps the most numerous in nude figures, the most vivid, and possesses the most dynamic composition. The young, nude men are alive with vitality in body and spirit, their youthful vigor leaping across the canvas.”4 Despite the simple rendering of the background and the treatment of light, the artist’s portrayal of the young men’s mood, the surrounding ambiance, the relationship among them, and their transient internal states, has all been executed with brilliant virtuosity. In this way, the painting seems intimate, familiar, trustworthy, in a sensibility that differs from the emphasis on aesthetic beauty of “academy art.” In fact, these social realist techniques go beyond even those of the New Wave.
Showered in Sunlight embodies the same spirit as the one illustrated in director Jiang Wen’s 1993 film In the Heat of the Sun, which was awarded the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival. The film tells the coming-of-age story of a group of youngsters during the era of the Cultural Revolution. The film downplays the political backdrop, and instead draws its focus upon the personal stories of the characters. Yet the larger historical context still looms, in a balance of foreground and background that mirrors Liu Xiaodong’s Showered in Sunlight and his choice to emphasize the human figures in the painting. In China, sunlight carries with it political connotations, often symbolizing Mao Zedong; and whether during the Cultural Revolution or the post-1989 era, this symbolic sunlight was everywhere, saturating everything, a constant presence. In the depression of the post-1989 era, Liu Xiaodong, like the sixth generation Chinese film directors, gave up directly illustrating the socio-political climate and instead honed his focus onto the individual. With his brush, the artist conveyed the inner spirit that was at once repressed and brimming with hope.
In July of 1991, art critics Yi Jinan and Fan Dian, among others, organized and curated the New Generation Art Exhibition, held at Beijing’s Chinese History Museum, serving as a collective debut of the neo-realist artists. Although Liu Xiaodong did not participate in the exhibition, he has always been considered as one of the representative figures of Neo-Realism. It is not only because Liu Xiaodong’s paintings have incorporated many of the definitive characteristics of Neo-Realism, but as early as Liu’s solo exhibition at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in May of 1990, the first bells of Neo-Realism were already chiming. The solo exhibition featured twenty paintings completed between 1988-1990, including Showered in Sunlight. The uniform style and content across these pieces created the structure for the face of Neo-Realism: It was a return to everyday life, directing the gaze from the hero and philosophical conceptualization to friends and relatives, or the every day people in the community, observing their real life and circumstances. As noted by Fan Dian, “What brought so much attention to the work of Liu Xiaodong from the art world was the fact that his paintings conveyed a new reality. He was not interested in being isolated in his innovation, nor in using the tools of theory. Rather, in the process of revealing reality, he displayed a state of self-fulfillment. This was the reason his paintings arrived as a breath of fresh air in the early 1990s…Starting with Smoker in 1988; to Father and Son, Shephard’s Song, and Story of Youth in 1989; to Showered in Sunlight in 1990; this series of paintings show the artist revealing himself, and also, through the relational interactions between he and the people around him, endowed the intent of the new art movement with a clearer and more thorough manifestation.”5 The emergence of Liu Xiaodong and New Generation Art marks a departure from the idealism and the grand narratives of the 1980s, and conveys the residual confusion and void following an era of social movements; what is beckoned to is a social attitude of self-reliance in the pursuit of happiness. Showered in Sunlight is a monumental painting that connects two epochs, a realistic record of the complicated emotions and circumstances of the times.
1 Richness of Life: Revisiting 20 Years of Life Recorded in Personal Photo Albums with Liu Xiaodong, Richness of Life: Photo Albums of Contemporary Chinese Artist Liu Xiaodong 1984-2004, Timezone 8 Limited, 2007, p.105
2 Liu Xiaodong’s Artistic Journey, Editor Wu Hong, Painting in Action: The Notes of Liu Xiaodong, Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 2014, p.19
3 Fan Dian, Liu Xiaodong, His Generation and Our Generation, An Era of Criticism: Late 20th Century Chinese Art Criticism Digest, Volume 2, Guangxi Fine Arts Publishing House, January 2003, p.236
4 Shao Dazhen, Liu Xiaodong and Neo-Realist Oil Painting, Chinese Contemporary Art Critique Series: Liu Xiaodong, Hong Kong Modern Press, May 1993, p.13
5 Refer to Footnote 2
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