By the late 1990s, I did not need to use my childhood photos anymore; the boys in my soldier paintings looked exactly like my childhood portraits.
Created in 1999, I am a Soldier manifests as a quintessential self-portrait of Liu Ye. The round-faced little boy, rendered in obvious likeness to the artist, is clad in a sailor’s outfit complete with cap and tally. Striking a dramatic pose, the boy wields a rifle affixed with a bayonet – the deadly weapon measuring almost two-thirds his height. The boy’s aspirational stance, combined with the theatrical background of a flaming sun against a saturated red background, evokes the imagery of Cultural Revolution propaganda posters in which workers, peasants, and soldiers were celebrated in parallel to industrial progress. These images pervaded all aspects of everyday life during Liu Ye’s childhood, reproduced not only on posters but also on household objects such as matchboxes. The predominant colour of such imagery was red; in its echoing of this iconic hue, I am a Soldier arouses a collective memory – one which holds supreme significance for Liu Ye and which resonates with an entire generation. I am a Soldier (Bjork) thus manifests as a definitive self-portrait that bridges the personal with the collective, and private remembrance with social history, constituting a supreme paradigm in Liu Ye’s critically acclaimed oeuvre.
Liu Ye was born in Beijing in 1964, two years before the commencement of the Cultural Revolution. Chinese society subsequently underwent a decade of conformity symbolized by the colour red; as Liu Ye remarked: “I grew up in a world that was covered in red – the red sun, the red flag, the red scarves ” (the artist cited in Zhu Zhu, 2015, in Christopher Noe, Ed., Liu Ye: Catalogue Raisonné 1991-2015, Germany, 2015, p. 23). Growing up in an era of censorship, Liu Ye was nevertheless allowed to receive lessons in drawing from the age of ten, which equipped him with conventional training from an early age. In 1980, Liu Ye gained admittance to the Beijing College of Art and Design at the age of sixteen. The artist recalls: “This period of education was very influential because what I learned wasn’t art, but design, second-hand Bauhaus design […] Piet Mondrian was taught not in the context of art history, but as design” (the artist cited in “Liu Ye in Conversation with Phil Tinari, in Ibid, p. 46). Liu Ye subsequently enrolled in the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1986, in parallel to the dramatic opening up of Chinese society and the concurrent influx of influence from the Western cultural world.
Extremely receptive to the myriad of external styles and influences, Liu Ye developed his own visual lexicon that drew on artists as diverse as Piet Mondrian, Johannes Vermeer, and Paul Klee. In 1989, Liu Ye travelled to Germany to continue his studies and became infatuated with surrealists René Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico as well as art from the early Renaissance. All through the 1990s, whilst studying in Germany and subsequently in Amsterdam while undertaking an artist-in-residence, Liu Ye continuously refined his style, unceasingly seeking to resist the past whilst also acknowledging its value. As early as the 1990s, intertextuality became a core defining facet of Liu Ye’s corpus of paintings, which feature dreams within dreams, paintings within paintings, and plays within plays. By integrating defining motifs and characters from various sources recurrently into his paintings, at times overtly and at times surreptitiously, Liu Ye enters into profound dialogues with artists such as Mondrian and Balthus and even – as in the present painting – with his past and future selves.
I am a Soldier is a superlative example of such intertextuality, being part of an extended series of red-hued paintings featuring our endearing little sailor hero. The naval context harkens to the tradition of maritime art, which began with Dutch Golden Age painting in the 17th century – a trope that Liu Ye would no doubt have been exposed to during his artist residency in Amsterdam in the late 1990s. As an exemplary self-portrait from 1999, I am a Soldier furthermore epitomises the conceptual strength of Liu Ye’s lexicon, accentuating what is arguably the artist’s most powerful strategy: his employment of childhood as a double-edged sword, which on the one hand heightens the emotional and imaginative potency of the tableaux, and on the other hand functions as a distancing tool shielding deeper and darker themes. By invoking childhood memory – a commanding force in subjective consciousness often said to shape an individual’s character – Liu Ye presents a world “neither tainted by ideology nor crushed by history” (Zhu Zhu, “Only One Gram”, in Ibid, p. 23). This purified vision of innocence nevertheless befalls on imagery harbouring lurking ominous undertones – a psychological effect that magnifies the implicit (albeit unintended) social commentary. As Paul Moorhouse observes: “Presenting himself as a child was an effective device. Thus transformed, Liu was able to inhabit the imaginative situations he created and indeed to test and express his own feelings in certain contexts” (Paul Moorhouse, “Encrypted Self: The Art of Liu Ye”, in Ibid, p. 40). Moorhouse continues: “Liu’s inclusion of children functions as a distancing device. It permits exploration of certain ideas while also forming a barrier, a screen that alerts the viewer to the artifice of the situation presented. As a result, Liu’s images have an expressive ambiguity that is entirely his” (Ibid). Toeing the line between enchanting whimsicality and veiled revolutionary, I am a Soldier ranks amongst the most striking and captivating of Liu Ye’s oeuvre.