Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Chinese Art (Part II)

Hong Kong

Yue Minjun B. 1962
B. 1962


signed and dated 1994

oil on canvas
250 by 364cm.; 98 1/2 by 143 1/4 in.
Read Condition Report Read Condition Report


Schoeni Art Gallery Ltd., Hong Kong.
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner.


China!, Kunstmuseum, Bonn, Germany, 1996
China!, Kuenstlerhaus, Vienna, Austria, 1997
China!, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 1997
China!, Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1997
China!, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany, 1997-1998
China!, Zacheta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, Warsaw, Poland, 1998


Lu Peng, 90s Art China 1990-1999, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, Hunan, March 2000, p.102.
Zhang Qunsheng, Today's Chinese Painters, Yue Minjun, The Lost Self, Hebei Education Press, 2005, pp.80-81.
Feng Boyi, Reproduction Icons: Yue Minjun Works, 2004-2006, Shenzhen, 2006, p.12.
Jim Supangkat, Collected Editon of Chinese Oil Painter Volume of Yue Minjun, Beijing, 2006, pp.48-49. 
Oriental Art, Master, August 2006 (issue no. 115), p.143.

Catalogue Note

A wealth of artistic schools flourished as the Chinese art world re-made itself in the early 1990s, and artists moved beyond the heady conceptual debates of the 1980s and into a new world of creation based on the deflated idealism and rampant consumerism of the post-Tiananmen society taking shape around them. Certainly the youngest and most energetic, and perhaps the most important of these schools, were the Cynical Realists, who through their work subtly and subversively mocked the society in which they lived. Yue Minjun is one of the most influential artists of this group which also includes Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, and Liu Wei.

Yue Minjun's work revolves around his characteristic grinning self-image-a repeated motif throughout his oeuvre, which includes both painting and sculpture. 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. It is often remarked that the Chinese are a smiling nation. More often than not, however the smile is not an indication of happiness, but rather a mask which hides an uncertain and nervous nature.

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 and biography. He was raised as a child in a compound of families who all belonged to the same work-unit, 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."

The Massacre at Chios is without question one of Yue Minjun's most important paintings. At 250 by 360cm, this unique painting is the largest by the artist to have come onto the market in recent years. Executed in 1994, it stands as one of the earliest works in which Yue uses his laughing self-images as a recurring motif.

This painting is from a rare early series in which Yue alters well known compositions, substituting the figures with his own self-image. Taking iconic works from both Chinese and western culture, 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 Lin Biao's Capturing Luding Bridge, Dong Xiwen's Founding Ceremony of China, Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, Monet's Dejeuner sur l'Herbe and Vermeer's The Lacemaker.

Yue Minjun's The Massacre at Chios appropriates the early 19th century masterpiece by the same name executed in 1824 by the French painter Eugène Delacroix, (1798-1863), the most important of the French Romantic painters. The original, which now hangs in the Louvre, depicts with great vividness of colour and emotion the horrors that occurred during the infamous massacre of the Greeks on the island of Chios by the Ottoman Turks in 1821.


Delacroix's inspiration came chiefly from historical or contemporary events and literature. The Massacre at Chios in particular expressed a popular French sympathy for the Greeks in their war of independence against the Turks. Indeed, just as Delacroix appropriated the massacre of the Greeks at Chios as his subject matter, using contemporary national sentiment to ensure interest in his piece, so here Yue Minjun appropriates Delacroix's image, drawing parallels to a self-contained Chinese massacre, likely Tiananmen, while relying on popular global sympathy for the plight of the Chinese people. In contrast to Delacroix, who used expressive brushstrokes in a technique that was later adapted by the Impressionists, 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 further jab at the prevailing political climate in China in the 1990s.  

A diversion away from the original theme of Delacroix's painting is Yue's addition of eight Red-crowned Cranes. Images of the crane often appears in Yue's work (see Lot 669 for further discussion on the Red-crowned Crane). The crane has auspicious meaning in Chinese art and is often used to symbolize longevity. It was also traditionally used as a symbol of nobility: it being the first rank badge for civil officials. One can deduce that Yue's use of the crane carries on this tradition, and is symbolic of the first rank of current Chinese society: the Chinese Communist Party.


The physical appearance of the crane is also cause for discussion: the crest of the crane is bright red; the rest of the body white and black. Is the crane used here to metaphorically represent Chinese culture in general? The colours red, white and black are paralleled in the appearance of the laughing figures.


The number of cranes must also be significant. In traditional Chinese art, the presence of eight cranes is symbolic of the Eight Immortals. A popular motif in ancient Chinese art, these eight Gods of Longevity, are revered by Taoists and are also a popular element in Chinese culture, and are considered to be signs of prosperity and longevity.

It is unclear why Yue Minjun included eights cranes in this painting. Perhaps he is emphasizing the omnipresence of the influence of the State, or perhaps he is highlighting the survival of Chinese culture through the State's oppression.  Yue can always claim that his painting is simply a reworking of the original Delacroix that carries no subversive message, there seems to be little doubt that it was inspired by the Tiananmen protests of 1989, which ended in a tragic military crackdown five years prior to the execution of this work. Where the Delacroix painting depicts an obvious difference between the invading Turks and the innocent Greeks, Yue's version draws no such distinction between friend and foe: all of the figures take on the form of the artist's own beaming self-image. Just as in Delacroix's painting the aggravators, who are in the minority, are portrayed standing, one riding a horse and brandishing a scimitar, another wielding a baton, and another standing close-by, while the majority of those pictured - those subjected to the brutality of the minority - sit and lie in the lower half of the painting, almost resigned to their fate.

By directly referring to the Delacroix's painting, Yue Minjun adapts the message of that work to contemporary Chinese history and culture, in the true vein of a Cynical Realist. And yet typical to Yue's repetoire, there is an undertone of self-mockery in his version. Although unsettling, the depiction of gleeful men engaged in shooting and killing sprees is an important theme within his oeuvre. He explains, "There is no end to killing in the human race - aliens from outer space probably regard us as the Earth's laughing stock. My compositions are full of mock shooting and killing, carried out in full laughter. This is a form of ridicule at those who try to solve conflicts through violent means."

Yue Minjun's The Massacre at Chios was part of the exhibition, China!, which showed 170 pieces by 31 Chinese artists in the KunstMuseum Bonn in 1996, and later toured to Vienna, Singapore, Copenhagen, Berlin and Warsaw between 1997 and 1998. Having been conceived and organised from as early as 1994, the exhibition was one of the earliest to present work by Chinese artists from the post-1989 period to the world outside China. The inclusion of this work in this pioneering exhibition highlights it as one of the most important paintings produced during the fledgling years of contemporary Chinese art.

Contemporary Chinese Art (Part II)

Hong Kong