Lot 946
  • 946

Xia Xiaowan

2,200,000 - 2,800,000 HKD
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  • Xia Xiaowan
  • How Sad
  • oil on canvas
Signed in Chinese and dated 1990


Hanart TZ Gallery Hong Kong
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner


China, Hong Kong Arts Centre; Australia, Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art; Melbourne, Melbourne Arts Festival; Canada, Vancouver, Vancouver Art Gallery; USA Eugene, University of Oregon Art Museum; Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne Museum of Art; Kansas, Salina Art Center; Chicago, Chicago Cultural Center; San Jose, San Jose Museum of Art, China's New Art, Post-89, 1993-1997, p.125


There is an area of slight scratches to the upper left of the canvas. There is a thin crack, due to brittleness of dry paint, to the left of the right leg of the left figure, measuring no more than 7cm long. There is another thin crack to the right of the right left of the left figure, measuring no more than 5cm long. There is another thin crack to the right or the right figure, measuring no more than 8cm long. Otherwise, the work is in good condition overall.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note


Born in the late 1950s, Xia Xiaowan has always painted out of an instinctive volition. His first memory of an artistic endeavor can be traced back to 3rd or 4th grade of elementary school. With ample support from his family, Xia Xiaowan started taking lessons from a Russian painting instructor in 1975. During his apprenticeship, he gradually built for himself a robust foundation through mastering the basics of drawing and sketching. It was in the time spent at the Central Academy of Fine Art when he managed to come into his very own style. Modernism, pre- Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Xia Xiaowan bathed his eyes in all these Western classics and consequently broke free from the shackles of his strict training. Surrealism—the artist has finally happened upon his pictorial language of choice. Attracted not to its capacity to communicate dreamscapes and analyze the subconscious, he was instead enamoured with its painterly effect that embodies the absurd, chaos, near-pandemonium, perhaps the natural response of a population previously suffocated by the Cultural Revolution. The Surrealist mode of expression that explores the interior, however, wasn't in line with the sort of academic realism executed for the society, the style encouraged and prescribed by the institution. Deterred and stifled, Xia recalls, "It wasn't easy, from entering the academy and having your imagery assigned to you, to discovering that I can paint something else, to painting according to my own whim...it's all an experiment, really. No one is actually watching. I'm creating an imaginary audience, though not quite sure if I'm allowed to do so."1

In 1982, Xia Xiaowan graduated from the Department of Oil Painting from the Central Academy of Fine Art. Contemporary Chinese art was in its incubatory period and impressionable and young, the artist quickly joined the ranks of current art trends. The Surrealist inclination inherited from his schooling days was then complemented with scenic narration—expanses of land, skies and mountains, creatures that later become anthropomorphized, etc. The artist coined his entire 1980s his "Baroque period," during which he paid closer attention to the masterpieces of Goya and Munch, whose imagery mirrored his agitated psychological state at the time. Accordingly a corrosive and decaying force overcame his art—contours were being twisted, bodies deformed, colours greatly darkened so that everything has been thrust into a vortex of mystification. Xia XIaowan seemed to evolve independent of the '85 Art Movement, keeping abreast of changes and updates through the occasional correspondence with friends. To consider the works being produced by the artistic community at the time is to identify the singular countercurrent that Xia represented amongst the collectivist tendency at large. Described by critics and viewers alternately as an art of "the wilderness, the vault of heaven, the spectre and the crimson lights of the earth" or one that conveyed "the trauma of life, the romance of trauma," Xia Xiaowan's pictures have always stood apart from the rest.

Entering the 1990s, Xia Xiaowan underwent yet another transformation that distanced him from the grandiose narration and artistic philosophizing of his earlier days. Post- Baroque period, his style began to truly shine through. Most notably, his Human Series portrays human bodies that are not close to reality but that are a figment of his own imagination. They were depicted with an emphasis on the physical shape itself, not on their capacity to personify a mysticism or a heaviness. The work that best exemplifies this phase's objective is How Sad (Lot 946), "Everything is in there: disfigured forms, an anthropoid in pain and in tears, birds are flying above, their nest down below and inside a dead hatchling, figures suspended upside down are chanting hymns....all these are stories waiting to be told."2 It was during these formative years when the artist resolved to re-examine his views on Idealism and other religious doctrines, deepen his understanding of philosophical concerns, the dilemma of life and death, etc. In place of his Surrealist tone was then a more purposeful pursuit for meanings and answers, that which is being investigated and debated to a maximal degree in How Sad. Physical masses are no longer wielded as a means to narrate contents on society, but an incarnation of an earthly existence rich with experiences. One is reminded of the elongated bodies of El Greco, instilled with the artist's personal emotions and his empathetic sentiments. Wu Hung has said the following on Xia Xiaowan's work during this time, "these are paintings that carry more weight than those shown at 'China/Avant- Garde'—they provoke, they emanate tragedy." A work from the 1990s, How Sad represents a monumental moment that contributed to the lithification of the artist's inimitable style—it is in this picture that we see the prototypical distortion of bodies and spaces, elements that would become Xia Xiaowan's signature.