Contemporary Art

The Virgin Olympia: Wang Xingwei

By Michele Chan

W himsical, bizarre and playfully cryptic, Recruit is a mischievous take on Edouard Manet’s canonical Olympia from 1863 and epitomizes the best of Wang Xingwei’s trademark unpredictable wit and versatile painterly skill. The nude female figure of Olympia is substituted with a young male recruit clad in the uniform of the People’s Liberation Army, and while the postures per se of the figures are the same, the orientation of the portrait is rotated – such that the recruit is in effect standing to attention rather than lying down. Where Olympia’s gaze was confrontational and masculine, the recruit’s face, modeled after a photograph of the politician Hu Yaobang, is delicately effeminate, sporting a mysterious Mona Lisa-esque smile.



Other contrasts include the recruit’s bare mattress vis-à-vis Olympia’s lavish Oriental sheets, the absence of the figure of the maid, and the bright campy colors of Wang’s tableaux versus Manet’s more brooding, somber palette. The key to the painting, however, lies in the unobtrusive kettle situated at the bottom right hand corner. More than just a random substitute for the black cat in Olympia, the kettle plays two important roles: first, to indicate the intended vertical orientation of the work; and second, in reference to how water jugs or pitchers symbolized virginity in 17th and 18th century European paintings, the kettle here coyly signifies the young recruit’s purity and virginity – a final juxtaposition against Olympia’s prostitute identity.


The fun-loving jester of Chinese contemporary art, Wang’s acclaimed oeuvre is defined by a notorious subversive humor that is kitsch, nonsensical and gently absurd, yet which belies a staunch commitment to continuously expand the very possibilities of realism and the language of painting itself. Borrowing and appropriating liberally from Eastern and Western pictorial motifs, and referencing copiously from pop and literary culture, established traditions in classical art history as well as his own works, Wang has amassed a prolific and diverse body of irreverent creations that mocks, delights in, and ruptures the canonical respect for art history. In his masterful weaving of influences that stretch from medieval European and early Renaissance art to Dada and Surrealism, and from Western Pop to China’s own Cynical Realism and Political Pop, Wang constructs pictorial assemblages that are in equal parts cheeky and shrewd, nonchalant and discerning.

Such an intelligently artful legacy was rightfully honored in Wang Xingwei’s grand large-scale retrospective at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in 2013; in the catalogue text, Philip Tinari observes: “In Wang’s world, the most basic tenets of painting undergo a thorough questioning […] His work ultimately suggests that there is still a place for the delights of figuration and narrative, even in a world, and a context, where greater structures of meaning and belief can seem dubious” (Philip Tinari, cited in Exh. Cat. Wang Xingwei, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2013, p. 10-11). Mischievous and impertinent, the mysterious virginal Recruit epitomizes Wang’s refreshing and far-reaching influence on the ongoing development of painting and art.

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