The Rogue Revolutionary
Executed in 1991, Revolutionary Family Series epitomizes Liu Wei’s era-defining oeuvre that merges playfulness and provocation, the personal and the political, impertinent cynicism and deeper contemplations on history and societal transition. The painting hails from Liu Wei’s signature Revolutionary Family series from his early Cynical Realism period that received critical acclaim from the international art world in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Featuring Liu Wei’s own father, who was a senior general in the military, posing in front of a formal portrait of Zhu De – an early revolutionary widely considered as the founder of China’s Red Army, the painting teems with irreverent connotations and elusive political undertones whilst brimming with lurid colours that evoke the garish palette of Cultural Revolution-era propaganda. One of the earliest of Liu Wei’s works to feature figures in uniform, the current lot is a penetrating example of the artist’s distinctive aesthetic that mocked, satirized and critically reflected on the psychosocial consciousness of China’s rapid urbanization during that period.
Liu Wei began his Revolutionary Family Series soon after graduating from the Printmaking Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1989. The Chinese art world had just experienced the end of the ’85 New Wave, and society was recently rocked by the Tiananmen Incident of 1989. In contrast to the utopian artistic experimentations by artists in the 1980’s, disillusionment and nihilism pervaded the Chinese art world; as Fang Lijun, Liu Wei’s classmate and good friend, recounted, “Only idiots would be fooled again after being fooled a hundred times. We would rather suffer depression, ennui, and crisis, be playful, or lose ourselves than be fooled ever again. Don’t try to educate us using the old methods. We’ll add ten thousand question marks to every rule, and then negate it and throw it away as rubbish” (cited in Li Xianting, 'The Ennui and Deconstructionist Sensibilities of Post-90 Art', in What is Important is Not Art, Jiangsu Fine Art Publishing House, 2000, p. 291). Li Xianting, an active curator with close connections to artists since the 1980s, called the new generation artists who emerged in the 1990s as ‘rogues’, even referring to Liu's brand of Cynical Realism as 'Rogue Realism'. He stated: “The ‘rogues’ are fundamentally different from the two preceding generations of artists. They believe neither in the governing system of meanings nor in any effort to construct new meanings through resistance. Instead they pragmatically and realistically confront their own helplessness. If they can rescue anyone, it is themselves. And a sense of boredom is the rogues’ most effective means to undo all shackles of meanings.” (Li Xianting, 'Apathy and Deconstruction in Post ‘89 Art: Analyzing the Trends of ‘Cynical Realism’ and ‘Political Pop'', in Coming Out of National Consciousness, 2010).
Liu Wei’s most immediate experiences originated in his military family, and his life in the communal quarters of the military inspired his Revolutionary Family series. He portrayed his parents and close friends and family in cheeky distortions, and his father in particular is often depicted in a manner lacking of any authority or solemnity. In the present work, Liu’s father is clad in full military uniform complete with ranking stars and medals of honour – on the surface, a figure of authority and power. Upon closer inspection, however, we observe off-kilter features such as asymmetric eyes, a vague gaze, a crooked nose and comically parted lips. The three medals are pinned in a haphazard manner, while his uniform is shown to be rumpled and unkempt. Compared to the powerful, resolute gaze of the lager-than-life Zhu De, whose features are firmer, smoother and more substantial, Liu’s father appears lost, unfocused and confused, posing vacantly like a cheesy tourist in front of a landmark or a celebrity sighting – a statement on brainwashed loyalty and ambiguous fidelity. The authority of Zhu De himself is also undermined: Liu Wei replaces the blank studio background with a gaudy scene of green hills and flowering shrubs against a tacky blue sky. With such juxtapositions, Liu Wei appropriates the long tradition of figurative portraiture to suit his artistic and critical stance, offering a biting commentary on a society in flux that is laden with empty ideologies and broken promises.
The present lot was created when Liu Wei was at the cusp of widespread international acclaim. In 1992, one year after the painting was executed, the Italian art critics Francesca Del Lago and Enrico Perlo organized the Fang Lijun and Liu Wei Oil Painting Exhibition at the Beijing Art Museum, which showcased Liu’s Revolutionary Families alongside Fang’s bald mischievous figures. The two artists’ sensitivity towards contemporary existence and personal expressionism, which differed markedly from the grand narratives and metaphysical styles of the 1980’s, incited a strong reaction from the academic and art-critical community. Li Xianting writes: “In his group portraits of so-called honourable soldiers and revolutionary families, Liu Wei turns their supposed solemnity and confidence into something humourous and even a little silly. He has created his own visual vocabulary of bad apples and black sheep.”(Li Xianting, 'The Ennui and Deconstructionist Sensibilities of Post-90 Art,' in What is Important is Not Art, Jiangsu Fine Art Publishing House, 2000, p. 291). One year later in 1993, Liu Wei submitted works from his Revolutionary Family series to China’s New Art, Post-1989, a pivotal exhibition organized by Johnson Chang and Li Xianting in Hong Kong in January 1993; and finally in June of the same year, Liu Wei cemented his international reputation at the Venice Biennale curated by Achille Bonito Oliva.
With its exuberantly ironic, boldly non-conformist aesthetic, the current lot is an epochal artistic statement that fully encapsulates the ethos of 1990s China whilst being a profoundly courageous and individualistic artistic act. Liu Wei once commented: “The time before 1993 was very trying, to a large extent psychologically. I was troubled not only by worries about the future, but also by solitude in artistic creation. I have always been lonely. I am not someone who follows trends. Someone who does is not lonely.” (Liu Wei, Red Bridge Gallery, p. 40). Liu Wei’s insistence on the painterly aspect of his work eventually turned him away from the mainstream of symbols-laden painting in the mid-1990’s, and his later works also strayed away from Cynical Realism. Under this light, Revolutionary Family Series not only represents the best of Liu’s early painting style but also the pinnacle of Cynical Realism.