Yue Minju's The Execution, 1995. © Yue Minjun.

- I was in Paris yesterday and so I stopped by the Fondation Cartier to see the Yue Minjun exhibition L’Ombre du Fou Rire curated by Grazia Quaroni, which finishes on 17 March. Yue Minjun is one of the leading artists of the 1990s generation in China of whom we have seen a lot at auction, and in group exhibitions, but this is the first exhibition in Europe dedicated to his work.

Grazia was quick to point out that the artist made the selection of works to be included in the exhibition himself and all but a few had been tracked down. It was interesting to see so many works from the 1990s, a decade of seismic political, economic and cultural change in China. Following the events of 1989 and subsequent clampdown, it was not easy being a freethinking artist in China, and consequently there were few that made up the avant-garde. Closed to the outside world, external stimuli were limited and the avant-garde’s knowledge of western art history was restricted to a few books and postcards.

Yue Minju's AD 3009, 2008. © Yue Minjun.

At the centre of the Cartier exhibition are two paintings that Yue Minjun made after western masterpieces: The Execution from 1995 based on Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximillian and Freedom Leading the People from the same year, based on the eponymous masterpiece of French history painting by Eugene Delacroix. Both paintings depict the zeitgeist of the 1990s – the simple T-shirt a symbol of the onslaught of Western culture, the grin-and-bear-it attitude of the protagonists symbolises the feeling of helplessness in the face of authority – and both thinly veil a subversive criticism of the authoritarian regime behind the icons of western art history painting.
These two paintings reveal just how far the market for Chinese Contemporary Art has come in the last two decades. In the 1990s, there was no domestic market for these artists. The Execution was purchased by a young trader at Barclays in London, straight out of university, who was doing a stint in HK in the mid-1990s. He bought the painting with his bonus for approximately USD10,000 and kept it uninsured in a warehouse in Wembley until we brought it to auction in October 2007. It was sold for 500 times the purchase price. Freedom Leading the People was bought at the time by Uli Sigg, a Swiss Businessman and Ambassador who was the first to start an encyclopaedic collection of art from this period in China. Last year Sigg donated this painting, along with the vast majority of his collection (some 1,500 works, valued at over USD160 million) to the new M+ Museum in Hong Kong. This gift and exhibitions like this at the Fondation Cartier will do a lot for the on-going understanding of this fascinating moment in art history.