- Mao Xuhui
- Parents Series
- oil on canvas
Mao Xuhui's Drawing Course, Shanghai People's Art Publishing House, Shanghai, China, 2008, p. 141
Farewell to Mainstream: The Art of Mao Xuhui, Culture And Art Publishing House, Beijing, China, 2010, p. 317
A Reflection on the Chinese Family
Perhaps Mao Xuhui himself did not know that his Parents series, created in 1988 when thinking of his daughter, would so greatly transform his creative output and directly influence the later Scissors series. As the renowned critic Gao Minglu has noted, "Parents began from the primary subjects of self-portraits and family portraits but then developed into completely abstraction. Mao tried to revert to a fundamental concept of 'parents', and thus did not paint 'parents' on any concrete social stratum and avoided such themes as national authority, family structure, and relationship between the sexes. Using a series of compositions centered on pyramids, Mao Xuhui 'diagrammed' the structure of modern society built on ruler-subordinate, father-son, and other Confucian relationships. The compositions became increasingly simplified and ultimately settled on combinations of chairs, scissors, and geometric shapes."1
The Parents series crystallizes the changes in an era and the marks they leave on individuals. Emerging from a period of cultural isolation in the early 1980's, Chinese society gradually opened its cultural consciousness to the influx of Western natural science and philosophy. New ideologies arose. Young people like Mao were sensitive to all this and quickly absorbed it, becoming the avant garde of that generation. They hoped to awaken their fellow Chinese' slumbering souls with advanced scientific and cultural knowledge. Mao Xuhui plunged himself into books on Western humanities, including music, literature, poetry, and art theory, and took abundant reading notes. Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Bergson, Sartre, Jung, Eliot, Kakfa, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso—this long string of names gradually penetrated and fused in his notes and thoughts, completing Mao's rendition Western modernism. Thanks to similar life circumstances, personalities, and ideals, Mao formed a social circle with Zhang Xiaogang, Pan Dehai, and other Kunming friends interested in modern art. They met frequently to discuss philosophy and art over drinks.
The Parents series debuted in the 1998 "Southwestern Art Exhibition". The parents in these works were taken from photographic portraits, at first the family portraits hanging on the artist's own living space. In 1987, Mao reluctantly ended his marriage to his first wife. The first Parents painting was motivated by his longing for his daughter and reflections on married life. In this series, Mao explores the spiritual origins of humans in family relations. Parents series (Lot 811) was created in 1989. Like the first Parents painting, it has a rare composition of a family of three. The figures are deipcted in rhomboids, and the palette is brown and green. In overall feeling, the lot on offer is very close to the first Parents painting and is a very representative work. Parents series reflected the artist's meditations on family relations. Unlike the expressionistic brushwork and dynamic colors seen later in the series, the composition here recalls traditional Chinese family portraits, with three family members en bust facing the front. The rhomboid heads show cold, eerie expressions. The parents' facial features are simplified to a pyramid akin to the head. Only the child's eyes remain lively, and they betray an innocence. Mao's brushwork is clean and energetic, restrained and forceful at the same time, charging the work with an ambiguous unease.
1989 was a crucial year in which Mao Xuhui dedicated himself fully to the Parents series. Aside from entering a Parents painting of two figures into the "China/Avant Garde" exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in February, Mao Xuhui also finished several important works in the same series. Mao Xuhui has noted that the series "contains my views on life and history and my concern for the human condition." "I have always held complex feelings towards the 'parents.' Sometimes I think they are like our fathers or even more distant ancestors, but sometimes they seem like ourselves. Sometimes they seem like an lonely image of stern authority and terrify me. 'Parents' are shadows cast on our spirits for a long time." Mao Xuhui existed in a sensitive zone: they accepted the most advanced and most open education, but could not but accommodate themselves to the 'parents.' They attempted to respond to the era's call for individual freedom, but everywhere they ran into dead ends and had to face the gulf between ideals and life. Their pain was not just concerned with the fates of individuals, but with the collective context of the parental system. Thus Mao began with his own pain over his family and expanded his vision towards the entire society. His works were thus imboued with a profound wisdom.
In Mao Xuhui's artistic career in the 1980's, the first "New Figurative Painting Exhibition" of 1985 was an important milestone. Mao expressed his artistic philosophy through his works: pursuing truths of the soul and the realities of life. In 1986, upon the invitation of Gao Minglu and Wang Guangyi, Mao represented Southwest China at a conference in Zhuhai. After returning to Yunnan, he organized the "Southwestern Art Research Group" with Zhang Xiaogang, Pan Dehai, Ye Yongqing, Zhou Chunya, and others. A series of art-related activities connected Mao intimately to the entire nation's new artistic currents. Although located in the distant Yunnan Province, these young people, united in their common ideals and pursuits, were drawn into the development of Chinese contemporary art and became its primary drivers.
In recent years, Mao Xuhui struggled consistently with the contradictions between reality and artistic ideals. His personal livelihood and the 1989 political turmoil caused Mao to shift his concern from internal subjective feelings to the external origins and causes of pain and repression. He discovered that aside from individual circumstances, profound social questions lurked in the background of his thoughts, particularly the question of authority.
China at the cusp of the 90's faced a drastic transformation. The openness to the outside world was taking shape, and certain deep issues of the 10-year-old Open Door Policy were coming to light. The shift in social system seems to have activated certain ideological elements and caused them to rise to the surface. The issue that received the most attack was patriarchy. The ancient Chinese legacy of despotism, violence, and imperial authority still shaped every aspect of society through the parental image of the Father.
The three decades of the Open Door Policy constituted also the period of the Chinese localization of Western contemporary art. Among the many contemporary Chinese artists, Mao Xuhui has internalized Western contempory art most completely and most profoundly. Traces of Munch, Giacometti, and Bacon can be found in his works. His creative vision is intimately connected to Western philosophy. The influences on contemporary Chinese artist of Nietzsche's idea of the Overman, Sartre's existentialism, Freud's psychoanalysis, Bergson's philosphy of the "stream of life," and so on all find their classical manifestations in Mao's works from this period. These Western ideas influenced an entire generation of artists represented by Mao and who laid the foundation for the post-89 fluorescence of the art world. Seen from this perspective, the Parents series may be regarded as a prelude to post-89 contemporary art.
1 Mao Xuhui 1976-2007, Hanart TZ Gallery, 2007