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Liu Wei began The Revolutionary Family Series soon after graduating from the Printmaking Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1989. The Chinese art world had just experienced the end of the ’85 New Wave. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping in his “Southern Tour” promised the continual development of the Chinese economy, with the attendant rise of commercial society, urbanization, and popular culture. As the negative image of economic liberalization, the Tiananmen Incident of 1989 proved that the government’s hold on the political process remained as firm as ever, and that society would not be easily be reformed by utopian artistic experimentations like those of the 1980’s. Disillusionment and nihilism pervaded the Chinese art world. As Fang Lijun, Liu Wei’s classmate and good friend, recounted, “Only idiots would be fooled again after being fooled a hundred times. We would rather suffer depression, ennui, and crisis, be playful, or lose ourselves than be fooled ever again. Don’t try to educate us using the old methods. We’ll add ten thousand question marks to every rule, and then negate it and throw it away as rubbish.”2
Changes in the social environment led to artistic transformations. The quotidian subject matters and irreverent painting styles of Liu Wei, Fang Lijun, Liu Xiaodong, and others gradually dissipated the lofty, intellectualized, and humanistic artistic practices of the 80’s, alongside the heroism of socialist realism. Liu Wei’s most immediate experiences originated in his military family, and his life in the communal quarters of the military inspired The Revolutionary Family series. He often playfully deformed his parents and intimates in these paintings; his uniformed father in particular is shown without any authority or solemnity, and instead becomes a cartoonish figure. In the present triptych, the father reappears in profile on the right, his body concealed by a dense shrub of peonies. He appears lost, as if stymied by the rather surreal scene unfolding around him: before him, three actors immersed in a Beijing opera performance in a suspended Chinese-style hall, and behind him, on a wall, a poster for the Cultural Revolution-era “model play” Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. The scene is infused with metaphors: traditional Beijing operas represented the Four Olds to be destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and only ideologically correct model plays were supposed to suit the purposes of national propaganda. In the painting, the soldier-father is trapped between two value systems, symbolizing the dilemma of the artist held hostage by politics. With this image Liu Wei subtly gives voice to a helpless resentment shared by artists of his generation, who were deeply marked by their time.
In April 1992, the Italian art critics Francesca Del Lago and Enrico Perlo organized the “Fang Lijun and Liu Wei Oil Painting Exhibition” at the Beijing Art Museum, which showcased Liu’s “Revolutionary Families” alongside Fang’s bald mischievous figures. The two artists’ sensitivity towards contemporary existence and personal expressionism, which differed markedly from the grand narratives and metaphysical styles of the 1980’s, incited a strong reaction from the academic and art-critical community. Li Xianting identified Liu and other artists as belonging to a category he called “Cynical Realism.” Cynical Realism and Political Pop, the latter represented by Wang Guangyi especially, formed the basic picture of Chinese contemporary art in the 1990’s. Li writes: “In his group portraits of so-called honourable soldiers and revolutionary families, Liu Wei turns their supposed solemnity and confidence into something humourous and even a little silly. He has created his own visual vocabulary of bad apples and black sheep.”3 This comment is perfectly accurate in the case of The Revolutionary Family Series triptych, in which Liu Wei sarcastically approaches twisted realities as a way to question a hegemonic political system and its values.
A leader of Cynical Realism, Liu Wei submitted the Revolutionary Family series to “China’s New Art, Post-1989,” the exhibition organized by Johnson Chang and Li Xianting in Hong Kong in January 1993. In June of the same year, Liu Wei cemented his international reputation at the Venice Biennale curated by Achille Bonito Oliva. The present triptych gathers the symbols that frequently appear in Liu’s earlier works: an operatic stage; emotionally stilted and physically isolated soldiers; and everyday details like insulated water bottles, enamel cups, and broken egg shells in planters. More importantly, the peonies seen here prefigure the pink, luscious renditions of bodies in Liu Wei’s later You Like Pork? and Smoking No Smoking series, which will set the tone for his creative output through the late 1990’s, in the second phase of his stylistic exploration. The Revolutionary Family Series triptych thus can be considered the summation of the first illustrious phase of Liu Wei’s career.
1 “Liu Wei: Fated to be an Artist” (interview), Art Bank, October 2012.
2 Note by Fang Lijun, cited in Li Xianting, “The Ennui and Deconstructionist Sensibilities of Post-90 Art,” What is Important is Not Art, Jiangsu Fine Art Publishing House, 2000, p. 291.
3 Refer to 2.
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