Lot 47
  • 47

Liu Wei

5,000,000 - 8,000,000 HKD
10,240,000 HKD
bidding is closed


  • Liu Wei
  • Revolutionary Family Series: Older Brother
  • oil on canvas
  • 103 by 84 cm.; 40½  by 33⅛  in.
signed in Chinese and dated 1991.2, framed


Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong
Private Collection, Europe


China, Beijing, Wan Shousi - Beijing Capital Museum, The Painting Den: Fang Lijun and Liu Wei Oil Painting Exhibition, 21-26 April, 1992, p.10
Germany, Berlin, Haus der Kulturen der Welt; The Netherlands, Kunsthal Rotterdam; UK, Oxford, The Museum of Modern Art; Denmark, Odense, Kunsthallen Brandts Kladefabrik, China Avant-Garde, 1993-1994


China Avant-garde, Edition Braus, Heidelberg, 1993
China Avant-garde, Oxford University Press, Hong Kong, 1994, p. 266

Catalogue Note

Rise of Cynical Realism
Liu Wei

“I have always been lonely. I am not someone who follows trends, someone who does is not lonely.”

Among the many contemporary Chinese artists working today, only few have been able to stay true to their artistic beliefs and boldly progress above the waves of blinding fame and acclaim. Liu Wei is certainly one of them. Since the early 1990s, the artist, an indisputable pioneer of Cynical Realism, has continued to challenge his own aesthetic language and create some of the most iconic works that redefined the face of contemporary Chinese art history. At the age of 30, he became one of only two Chinese artists to participate in two consecutive Venice Biennales in 1993 and 1995, which further affirmed the artist’s potential and uncontested position in representing Chinese art on the international stage. Exhibited at the renowned two-man exhibition “The Painting Den: Liu Wei, Fang Lijun Exhibition” in 1992 that was famously coined as the origin of Cynical Realism, Revolutionary Family Series: Older Brother (Lot 47) from early 1991 is one of the very first works from Liu Wei’s Revolutionary Family series that gained him critical recognition from critics and curators in China and abroad. The Revolutionary Family Series was painted and finished in only three years of Liu’s oeuvre, after which he had turned to another style, making the series’ works extremely rare and precious. Among the limited number of works, the lot on offer is also an especially unique piece that features the rare image of the artist’s older brother, not only representing the beginning of Liu’s iconic artistic style in the 1990s, but also defining his skillful ability in experimenting beyond his own artistic and thematic framework across all fronts.

From the late 1980s to early 1990s, several turn of events have shifted the Chinese contemporary art scene into an unprecedented new course. Most decisively, the helplessness and disappointment felt by the local community after the political turmoil of 1989 have influenced many artists to create new symbols and images in reflecting the changing society in China. Among this spur of creations was the rise of “Political Pop” and “Cynical Realism”, the two fundamental and influential movements that fully encapsulated the entire mental outlook of the Chinese generation. While the term “Cynical Realism” first came to rise with Li Xianting’s essay “The Ennui of Today Chinese Art- Cynical Realism” in early 1992, Liu Wei and Fang Lijun had, in fact, already showcased groups of works in their first joint private exhibition at a Beijing apartment in March of 1991, exemplifying the unparalleled vision and determination of the two relatively unknown young artists. Looking back, their subsequent exhibition at the Wan Shousi- Beijing Capital Museum, in which this lot was shown, was certainly anticipated to be a major turning point in the two artists’ careers. The pair was first invited in 1991 by Enrico Perlo from the Italian Embassy and art historian Francesca Dal Lago to participate in this independent exhibition. The group only had a genuine hope of creating change in the local art scene, and without much funding, they were to rely on themselves to print, photocopy, and staple their own exhibition pamphlets in an office.

The opening of the exhibition in April 1992 ultimately became a core milestone within the history of Chinese contemporary art, marking the beginning of Cynical Realism. It was in this exhibition’s pamphlet where notable art critic Li Xianting commented, “I call the new realistic current that has emerged in Beijing since 1988 and 1989 ‘wanshi’ realism which in English means cynical, due to its mocking, ironic, sarcastic way of looking at reality and at life. It expresses a new cultural leaning of rebellion against the modernistic trend of the 1980s.”1 Though it was held for only six days and without the aid of signs in front, the powerful implication of the works on view, and especially the lot on offer, was enough to capture the attention from the local and international art world. Among them was the Hong Kong gallery-owner Chang Tsong-Zung, who invited Liu Wei to participate in the exhibition “China’s New Art Post-89,” which toured internationally in 1993. Afterwards, the artist was invited to other major international events, such as the 1993 and 1995 Venice Biennales and the 1994 São Paulo Biennial, becoming a leading figure of contemporary Chinese art on the international front. This can all contributed to the birth of the Revolutionary Family series, illustrating Liu’s determined stance in moving away from all preexisting academic framework, and in doing so, successfully developing his own visual language that would exude an endless influence in the later generations of Chinese artists.

Liu Wei began the Revolutionary Family series immediately after graduating from Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1989. Although the series was exhibited internationally many times, it lasted only three years — from 1990 until 1992 — and is thus very rare on the market. Painted from his home while he was awaiting employment at the time, the series is strongly autobiographical, mostly featuring people from the painter’s life. Liu’s family members, in particular, bear a strong presence in the composition of the series. In technique, Liu Wei boldly departed from the official aesthetics of the time, abandoning socialist realism for an insouciant figurative style that renders his subjects bizarre or even ugly. Comparing Liu Wei’s early and late works, we find that his style, beginning in an almost complete adherence to realism, gradually became loose and free, indicative of sensibilities unusual among his contemporaries. To understand closely, in contrast with most contemporary Chinese art of the 1980s, Liu Wei’s works are free of ideological baggage or an artist’s responsibilities. Rather, they essentially reveal the artist’s irreverent mischief attitude in life and art alike. Finished in early 1991, Revolutionary Family Series: Older Brother is a key departure point to understanding not only the lineage of the series, but also Liu Wei’s eclectic and carefree artistic practice.

Comparing to many other works from the series that illustrate his aging father in PLA uniform, the lot on offer is especially precious as it features a rare appearance of Liu Wei’s older brother. In this work is a portrait of his brother holding a toddler against a scenic backdrop. In many ways, the wavy hairstyle and casual attire of the brother certainly allude to a greater sense of the everyday than the solemnity of the PLA uniform, serving as a portal for the viewer to trace back to the artist’s life before his rise to fame. It is clear to find early traces of contorted facial features, most notably in the eyes of the child, and slightly exaggerated brushwork in the rendering of the two figures. These would later become one of the most prominent and distinctive features in Liu Wei’s entire oeuvre, manifesting fully in his later works such as Who Am I? and I Like Meat series. The comic and surreal appearance of the toy deer on the right alsoplays out to the rascal manner of Liu Wei and his refusal to comply with the strict rule of realism, at once blending softly into the composition of the portrait, yet arousing a sense of eccentricity unique to the artist’s oeuvre. Interestingly enough, the composition of a parent holding onto a child, along with the presence of an animal is not at all an unfamiliar subject matter in the Western works of art, especially within the realm of Italian Renaissance and Greek mythology. In the marble sculpture Herakles and Telephos, Herakles, the Greek hero, is seen holding his son Telephos in his left arm, while a doe, what was known in the mythology to be the feeder for Telephos, stands to his side. It is certainly difficult to find such similar framework within contemporary Chinese art.

Within Liu Wei’s practice, in many ways, the lot on offer has stood apart from other pieces as it reveals a touch of sentimentality that is uncommonly found in the composition of the series. Instead of placing individual figures within the same canvas, there is an apparent interaction between the two figures in this work. The older brother is shown in a frontal posture affectionately embracing the baby in his right arm. His casual gaze towards the upper left corner of the canvas and a half opened smile further reinforce the signatory motif of ordinary life that crucially ran parallel to Liu’s mindset at the time. It is this motif of the nonchalant attitude cleverly presented in this work that would be the emblem to the Cynical Realism current, dominating the course of Chinese contemporary art throughout the 1990s. As evident in the later works, the image of his brother would remain to be a rare subject matter in the artist’s oeuvre, furthermore affirming this work’s unique position within Liu Wei’s career.

1 Li Xianting, The Painting Den: Liu Wei, Fang Lijun Exhibition, 1992