Today's Chinese Painters: Yue Minjun - The Lost Self, Hebei, 2005, p. 169
Collected Edition of Chinese Oil Painters: Volume of Yue Minjun, Sichuan, 2006, p. 134-135
Yue Minjun's work revolves around his characteristic grinning self-image - a repeated motif throughout his oeuvre. The figures, all based on a generic self-portrait, are each rendered with an inane beaming smile - a cynical grimace that represents the artist's resignation and disdain towards the materialism and spiritual emptiness of contemporary mainland Chinese culture.
These clones of the artist, often appearing with closed eyes as in the present work, stand as a metaphor for the obsolete principles of collectivism and egalitarianism championed by the state which in fact inhibited individualism and artistic creativity. The grinning faces are reminiscent of the smiling visages of people in the propaganda posters produced in the Cultural Revolution designed to urge the Chinese people into working for the common good of the State, and are used to convey irreverent ambivalence as the only remaining defence against political oppression.
Yue is quick to admit that the lackadaisical attitude of his foolish characters who effuse a sense of laziness, boredom and indifference reflects his own character. He was raised as a child in a compound of families with little contact with the outside world. The atmosphere was claustrophobic and antagonistic, causing Yue to take a sceptical approach to life. Possibly the most profound influence on Yue however was the Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989, "It knocked me for six and saw me lose my idealism", he says. "Even though the ideals I held were not very strong, I still felt I had been cheated. I became dissatisfied with society."
Yue began to produce his laughing figures soon after Tiananmen in 1993. He recalls: "I began to work on images of people that simultaneously aroused feelings of strength and self-mockery, which fit in with my mood then and helped to relieve the happiness in my heart. Before I produced these people, I felt my art lacked power. Art should be an expression of one's particular feelings and should be direct and deep. So I drew one person, and then added another and another until there were crowds of them. Then I felt my emotions to be fully expressed."
Take The Plunge (Lot 970) is without doubt one of the most important works in which Yue Minjun uses his laughing self-images as a recurring motif. Measuring 300 by 220cm., this enormous painting portrays seven figures at the edge of a swimming pool, the water catching the sunlight as it ripples in a web of white lines.
This painting is similar to an early series in which Yue alters well-known compositions, substituting the figures with his own self-image. Taking iconic works, he throws them into discordance either by substituting the figures into a painting with images of himself or of others or by eliminating human presence altogether. He explains, "At first I thought an artist always added things to a canvas but didn't remove anything, but, if a part of a picture that is familiar to everyone is changed, it produces a special feeling. You establish a contrast. And force viewers to think about the figures." Other works in this series include The Massacre at Chios (sold by Sotheby's Hong Kong in October 2007), inspired by the original by the same name painted by the great French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix.
Take The Plunge draws parallels to the work of David Hockney, in particular his compositions featuring swimming pools inspired by the British artist's time in Southern California in the mid-1960's. In a similar vein to Hockney's possibly most famous work, The Splash, (sold by Sotheby's London in June 2006), here too does Yue Minjun portray a subject in which the time taken to make the painting is forcefully contrasted with the instantaneousness of its subject, a 'still'. Hockney's paintings of male nudes climbing in or out of swimming pools, appear to represent a return to a world of sensuality and plenty, a paradise of sorts. Yet his works always painted from the perspective of a voyeur - always maintaining a distance. Hockney is quoted as once having admitted, "I make pretty pictures that are subversive. I love that." Masking expressions of subversion or alienation behind a façade is, of course the trait of the Cynical Realists, a group in which Yue Minjun is one of the most influential.
In contrast to Hockney, who used small brushes and little lines to paint The Splash, Yue employs a minimal palette to create a much simpler, even simplified, composition. The result is a bold and striking image. This stylistic technique is characteristic to Yue's work and although possibly inspired by commercial advertising and Pop Art, the imagery undeniably taunts Communist propaganda painting and posters. In addition, the simplicity of his painting technique, use of bright colours and clean lines contrives an atmosphere of hollowness and superficiality: a jab at the prevailing political climate in China in the 1990s.
Free of the references to history, politics and violence to be found in much of Yue Minjun's oeuvre, this painting chooses to avoid the sinister quality of much of his more recent work.
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