Lot 1060
  • 1060

LIU WEI | Revolutionary Family Series: Travel Time (diptych)

15,000,000 - 20,000,000 HKD
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  • Liu Wei
  • Revolutionary Family Series: Travel Time (diptych)
  • oil on canvas
  • each: 150 by 100 cm; 59 by 39⅜ in.overall: 150 by 200 cm; 59 by 78¾ in.
signed in Chinese and dated 1993.2


Private Collection, Rome
Babuino Casa d’Aste, Rome, 2005
Acquired by the present owner from the above sale


XLV Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte, Marsilio ed., Edizioni La Biennale di Venizia, Venice, Italy, 1993, p. 541, no. 3

Catalogue Note

Charging Through History: Liu Wei’s Revolutionary Legacy
Liu Wei

Time in Liu Wei’s variant of reality provokes and makes mischief with time everlasting. – Chia Chi Jason Wang

Monumental and majestic, bizarrely provocative and resplendent in saturated exuberant hues, Revolutionary Family Series: Time Travel from 1993 is the second largest masterwork from Liu Wei’s most celebrated Revolutionary Family series – the only larger painting being the auction record-holding triptych executed in the following year. This magnificent chef-d’oeuvre, featuring Liu Wei’s father and mother astride two stallions, was inspired by a historical photo of Premier Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China. Liu Wei took Premier Zhou’s iconic horseback pose and appropriated the posture onto his own father and mother; the work is thus highly autobiographical and exceptional, as according to the artist’s memory he only made four works in the Revolutionary Family series that feature both of his parents. The extraordinarily striking diptych deeply impressed Achille Bonito Oliva, Artistic Director of the 45th Venice Biennale, when he visited Liu Wei at his studio; accordingly, the Italian critic and curator personally selected the work as one of three Liu Wei paintings to be shipped to Venice for exhibition at the Biennale in 1993. Charged with biting political satire, playful provocation as well as personal elements, this remarkable work fully epitomizes Liu Wei’s era-defining oeuvre that merges impertinent cynicism and deeper contemplations on history and societal transition.

Liu Wei began his Revolutionary Family Series in 1991, a short while after graduating from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Amidst the heaving tides of conflicting energies coursing through the nation at the time, what emerged in the early 1990s was what Li Xianting called the “cynics”: a new generation of young artists who came of age in the post-Cultural Revolution (or post-1979) era. Liu Wei belonged to this generation – a group of young artists “born in the 1960s and graduated from university in the late 1980s, and whose works reveal a striking sense of malaise or a cynical humour”. While the idealistic and aspirational ’85 New Wave artists aspired to “reconstruct a new culture” with utopian conceptual approaches that “took the Maoist model and its value system as their target of opposition”, Liu Wei and his colleagues espoused a drastically different mind-set – one defined by nihilism, satire and playful cynicism. The term ‘Cynical Realism’ was coined by Li Xianting in 1992 with its artists nicknamed ‘rogues’; Li referred to Liu’s unique brand of Cynical Realism in particular as ‘Rogue Realism’. He stated: “The ‘rogues’ are fundamentally different from the 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).

The emergence of Liu Wei’s Revolutionary Family series in the early 1990s earned him instant recognition as one of the two strongest proponents of Cynical Realism alongside Fang Lijun. The critical acclaim reached rapidly beyond China: in April 1992, Francesca Dal Lago, a young Italian art researcher, attended a joint exhibition featuring works by Liu Wei and Fang Lijun at the Capital Museum; it was through Dal Lago that developments in Chinese contemporary art came to the attention of the Italian art critic Achille Bonito Oliva. Consequently, Oliva arranged a tour of China following his appointment as Artistic Director of the 45th Venice Biennale, during which he visited Liu Wei’s studio and selected the present work as one of three paintings to be shipped to Venice for the 1993 Biennale.

Singularly outlandish and magnificently bizarre, with its two subjects astride gigantic horses, literally riding forth into revolution, Revolutionary Family Series: Travel Time presents the very quintessence of Liu Wei’s era-defining Revolutionary Family series. The diptych is unique and outstanding in multiple aspects – it is, according to published literature, the only painting in the human-centric series to feature animals, and with a central prominence equalling that of the human figures. Second, it is also the only canvas in the artist’s entire career that features horses – a historically significant trope in both Eastern and Western art. Third, whereas most other works in the series incorporates photographic portraits within their compositions, this painting actually recreates the historical photo of Premier Zhou Enlai astride a horse. As the second largest work in the Revolutionary Family series, with the only larger painting being a triptych, this museum-worthy masterpiece from 1993 is also one of the very last paintings of the short-lived series, as well as a rare one that features both of Liu Wei’s parents.

When interviewed about the painting, Liu Wei recalls coming across a photo of Premier Zhou and finding the pose “amusing”. He then thought it would be even more amusing – “hao wan” – to put his father on a horse, adopting Zhou’s pose, and double up the composition with his mother as well. As in other works in the series, Liu Wei’s father is clad in full military uniform complete with ranking stars and medals of honour – ostensibly a figure of authority and power. Almost instantly, however, we observe off-kilter features, a vague deer-in-headlights gaze and an unshaven face, with the three medals pinned in a haphazard manner on a rumpled and unkempt uniform. With a cigarette between his fingers (a cheeky touch by Liu Wei, a well-known chain-smoker), General Liu appears lost, confused and comical – absurdly ridiculous in his military tails of lurid green – a far cry from the stern heroic disposition of Premier Zhou. Turning to Madam Liu, we see an archetypal portrayal of the artist’s treatment of women and his unflinching rebellion against traditional notions of beauty. Like her husband, Madam Liu is depicted with a comically confused and vacant expression, with her murky complexion, cropped hair and gender-neutral posture placing her as far away from the traditional ideal image of femininity and womanhood as possible.

In stark contrast to such farcical dispositions of the two figures, the two great horses appear dignified and noble, staunchly steadfast in their undertaking as mankind’s designated chariot since the beginning of time. While the rest of the painting is saturated in exaggerated lurid hues that recall the bright garish colours of Cultural Revolution propaganda posters, the two stallions are depicted in neutral dark brown with no hyperbole or preposterous distortion; it is almost as if Liu Wei is stating his conscious or unconscious preference for the humble and silent beasts over his fellow human beings. Horses have found their way into paintings for centuries in military art and hunting scenes, including those created by French masters Theodore Gericault and Eugene Delacroix during the emergence of Romanticism. Rarely, however, have horses served a composition or artistic message in the manner of the present diptych by Liu Wei – one in which the stallions are depicted not to heighten the heroism of their riders, but in which their own heroism shines through.

According to the artist, the painting was originally untitled until Italian Francesca Dal Lago saw it and almost instantly titled it Tempo di viaggi, Italian for “Travel Time”. The poetic title encapsulates the glorious momentum of the stately horses, the vivid pulsing aesthetic of Liu Wei’s unique technique and brushwork, as well as the throbbing social and psychological energies of a nation in critical transition and flux. With its exuberantly ironic, boldly non-conformist aesthetic, the work is an epochal artistic statement that fully captures the ethos of 1990s China whilst being inherently timeless in its brazen impudence and rebellion. As Wang declared, in Liu Wei’s works, “Time in [his] variant of reality provokes and makes mischief with time everlasting”. Teeming with wild irreverence, Revolutionary Family Series: Travel Time transports us into a bizarre alternate reality in which, even if just for a moment, we are moved to mock and laugh at ourselves without any regard for reckoning or deliverance. Such is the heroism of Liu Wei and the pulsating, festering magnificence of his timeless Revolutionary Family series.