Lot 7
  • 7

Jia Aili

250,000 - 350,000 GBP
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  • Jia Aili
  • Untitled
  • signed and dated 2009
  • oil on canvas
  • 220 by 180cm.; 86 5/8 by 70 7/8 in.


Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner


Colour: The colour in the catalogue illustration is fairly accurate, although the colours are more saturated in the original. Condition: This work is in very good condition. No restoration is apparent when examined under ultra-violet light.
"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

Jia Aili’s cultural background is inseparable from his artistic output. Using his Old-Masters-inspired oil-painting style, he deftly engages with the socio-economic development of China and its wider implications. Hovering between the figurative and the abstract, fraught with loneliness and terror, and completed on a grand imposing scale, this work is as virtuosic in style as it is chilling in mood.

Jia was born the year after the one child policy was introduced, and raised as part of a sibling-less generation in Dandong, a seaside border town that suffers bitterly cold winters. The evidence of these lonely frosty juvenile years abounds through the present work. The composition is characterised by jagged white and grey tendrils that jut across the surface splitting into diagonal shards and filling the picture plane with glacial fractures. In their stretched horizontal strata they imbue the work with an arresting sense of agonising elasticity, as if the entire scene were being pulled apart with immutable force. Three conical forms, with deep black circular bases, add the implication of noise to this impression of bleak pain with their amplifying outlines, making it seem as if the very work itself is screaming. In the icy palette of greys, blacks, and whites, Jia offers no relief from this sense of solitary melancholic suffering.

Out of these frosty apocalyptic abstractions emerges a single face, encased in the unmistakable dome of an astronaut’s helmet. The launch of China’s first astronaut in to space in 2003 was a symbolic and inspirational event for millions of Jia’s generation – representative of the birth of their new capitalist country and an affirmation of its meteoric rise towards global superpower status. However, this cosmic glory had not yet spread to the entire country. At the time, Jia was still studying at the Luxun Academy of Art in Shenyang province: an area that had once been an industrial stronghold and a shining example of China’s socialist economy, but in the new capitalist environment had become bankrupt and jobless. JIa shows the astronaut’s face as pale and distorted with eyes shut and brow furrowed; the champion of the new age of China is here shown here entirely alone, helplessly subject to earth-shattering cyclonic forces. Untitled appropriates the figurehead of China’s technological progress, to illuminate the disparities elsewhere, and compound the melancholic mood.

Jia is often referred to as a contemporary romantic for his painterly work in oils that seems to imitate such nineteenth-century greats such as Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix; indeed the present work shares compositional affinity with Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic The Polar Sea (1824) and is furthermore redolent of the literature of that age. In the solitary bleakness of Untitled we are reminded of the work of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Balzac; that the melancholic struggle is eternal and infinite, and that, in many cases, human nature is not destined to triumph. While it would be tenuous to suggest any nostalgia for the old China in Jia's oeuvre, in the agony of the present work, he defines the plight of his lonely generation, raised without siblings and abandoned by the state for a relentless pursuit of technological progress.