Lot 1051
  • 1051

Liu Xiaodong

5,000,000 - 7,000,000 HKD
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  • Liu Xiaodong
  • Relaxing in Spring
  • oil on canvas
signed in Chinese and dated 1993


Private Asian Collection
Acquired by the present owner from the above


China, Beijing, The Palace Museum, A Selection of Calligraphy and Paintings from the Collection of Mr and Mrs Ullens de Schooten of Belgium, 2002, pp. 144-145, and 179


Works of Liu Xiaodong 1990-2000, China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, China, 2000, p. 53
Jean-Marc Decrop, Red Flag Collection: Liu Xiaodong, Map Book Publishers, Hong Kong, China, 2006, p. 17

Catalogue Note

A Moment of Warm Memory
Liu Xiaodong

Liu Xiaodong, one of the most representative artists of Chinese contemporary art, has never departed from his everyday life when it comes to choosing subject material. His depictions may not be realism, but they achieve a sense of reality that realism cannot attain. His masterful skill lies not in craftsman-like detail but in capturing a slice of life that expresses the mindset of Chinese people. In recent years, Liu has become increasingly fond of on-the-scene painting in order to capture societal change; in contrast, in the early 1990s, he took his own friends and loved ones as his primary creative subject material. One of the most important of these subjects was Yu Hong, his wife and classmate, and an important Chinese contemporary artist in her own right. Featuring his lover Yu Hong, Relaxing in Spring (Lot 1051) is one of Liu Xiaodong’s early works which is very secretive and personalized.  The piece was painted in 1993, a year of extraordinary significance for Liu.  In this year, he was to marry Yu Hong in the United States, culminating their nine-year courtship. At the same time, Relaxing in Spring proved uniquely attractive to the collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens, who decided to make the painting the first Chinese contemporary artwork in their collection—an indication of their future as major collectors of Chinese contemporary art.

Amidst the trends led by Political Pop and Cynical Realism in the 90s, Liu Xiaodong has never changed his goal of aiming at the ordinary people in society. The friends surrounding him are also important subject matters in his works. Through painting them, Liu seizes the ephemeral light on and silhouettes of physical bodies in the world of mortals, solidifying time with his remarkable brushstroke. Chasing after the traces of living on his tableaux, Liu endeavours to present the energy within that solidifies life. “I particularly hope that my paintings can be more solidified. What is the basis of solidification? It is my in-the-moment feeling, which may be solidified after lengthy polishing and refining.” This energy of life reflects the Zeitgeist. In Relaxing in Spring, cooling off in the shade on a rattan chair in a vegetable farm, Yu Hong smiles at the artist / viewer. Liu Xiaodong solidifies this emotionally moving instant. Bathing in the evening twilight, the painting is full of warm colours, expressing the artist’s tender love for his lover. Painted before the wedding of Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong in the States, Relaxing in Spring is a witness of the couple’s pledge of everlasting love.

Born in 1963 in Jincheng, Liu Xiaodong arrived in Beijing as early as 1981 to attend the affiliated high school of the Central Academy of Fine Art. In 1984, along with Yu Hong, he won admission to the Third Studio of the CAFA’s Oil Painting Department. When he graduated 4 years later, he was sent to teach at the affiliated high school. Campuses were infused with idealism in the 1980’s, when the ‘85 New Wave swept art schools large and small across the whole country. But for Liu Xiaodong, many trends and behaviors of the New Wave were “excessive and immature.” He was a little uncomfortable in a jingoistic, conceptualist art world. In the 80’s, he also tried to use his body as a medium, for example by spreading ink on his body and rolling around in trash. It was only later that he rediscovered the creative drive in painting. “So I just followed a natural path and did what was most familiar and natural.”1 To be sure, the ‘85 New Wave had made everyone who wanted to paint seem passé and old-guard. “I wanted to do things honestly, but also to paint explosively.”2

In 1989, Liu Xiaodong was invited to the controversial landmark exhibition, “Chinese Avant-Garde.” His submissions Smoker and Resting were impressive first attempts, but these paintings of his friends smoking and resting, with their realist documentary vision, were at odds with the highly conceptualist and aggressively idiosyncratic tone of the exhibition. Following the student political movement of 1989, Liu Xiaodong’s works became more clearly in tune with the times. In 1990, he organized his first solo show, “Liu Xiaodong’s Oil Paintings,” which generated a tremendous response. Although he did not participate in the “New Generation Art” exhibition of 1991, his painting style had already begun to influence painters of the 90’s, such that he was in fact the earliest of the “new generation.” At the time, the famous critic Li Xianting, who articulated the influential notion of Cynical Realism, thought that Liu Xiaodong, like other realist artists of his generation, felt helpless and lost in the face of insurmountable powers. “[Your, i.e. Liu Xiaodong’s] concern for individuals was a coming down to earth from the high vantage of the ’85 New Wave, a turning towards the everyday, incidental moments in your life and your surroundings.”3 Liu Xiaodong himself has said, “From then on, I tended to trust only what I could see with my own eyes. Other kinds of history I couldn’t understand and didn’t have time to learn, but I didn’t trust them. This has influenced my painting style. I still like to paint on the spot, to interact with these people in person. I don’t look at anyone else’s photographs, but only my own. I only refer to the world I myself see.”4

For his mastery of psychological states and his painting style, Liu Xiaodong is often compared to the British artist Lucien Freud. Both create emotionally compelling scenes with nudes. But the two are also very different in creative approach. Whereas Freud painted hired models hermetically in his studio, Liu Xiaodong wanders out and about. Liu Xiaodong also emphasizes the need of a true connection with his subjects and hopes to sublimate their individuality into more general emotional truths. Relaxing in Spring is a prime example.


Li Xianting, The meaning of the fragment of life: Interview with Liu Xiaodong

2 Refer to 1

3 Refer to 1

4 Art Bazaar, November 2012, p. 95-96