For people familiar with Liu Xiaodong’s painting style, his 1999 work The Dalai Lama and His Disciples may come as a surprise. As an oil painter, Liu has always been known for his realistic paintings of human figures, and has been consistently championed by critics as a leader of the New Generation Art movement that emerged in the early 1990’s.
Liu Xiaodong’s painting style of the early 1990’s signified this larger cultural transformation: having experienced the painful Scar Art and the soul-searching ’85 New Wave, Chinese contemporary art at this juncture began to look for a new breakthrough. It thus turned its attention to individuals in real life and focused on representing their psychological states. From the beginning, Liu Xiaodong’s painting has been explicitly concerned with this important theme. Like other New Generation artists, he intuitively turns his attention to his own life, depicting the everyday life of young people of his generation. What does distinguish Liu from other New Generation artists, however, is that his vision is not limited to his private world. From the mid-1990’s, he has increasingly cast his gaze to various mundane characters of society, drawing attention to reality through scenes of their everyday lives. Liu expresses his vision of these figures through a fulsome, robust artistic language charged with personal expression. It is precisely this positive and sun-drenched artistic language that forms a stark contrast with the realities of his mundane characters, creating in us a lingering melancholy as we reflect on their distance. In this sense, Liu Xiaodong’s painting of realism becomes the counterpoint to the system of Socialist Realist oil painting established since 1949. In Liu’s works, his personal emotions and critical stance are concealed underneath silence and nonchalance, at once hinting at the pain of everyday life and laying bare the inarticulacy of an artist. Herein lies the profundity of his art: his central concern is not only for mundane characters, but more importantly for the social realities they reflect. In an interview, Liu Xiaodong spoke of a long-held philosophy, “Artists of every era are connected to their times. It is only that some express themselves more indirectly, and some more directly. Some conduct a kind of academic research on their times, like scientists; whatever their positions they concentrate on painting their own vases. Perhaps I belong to the type who like to participate in the changing times, rather than the type who likes to study their own things every day. This is why, as I reflect on my path over the past years, I see that I have always been trying very hard to follow the present.”1
Thus, within Liu Xiaodong’s creative career, The Dalai Lama and His Disciples (Lot 716) may at first seem an anomaly. As a religious and political leader, the Dalai Lama is drastically different from Liu’s usual cast of mundane characters like workers and nightclub hostesses. Liu had never crossed paths with the Dalai Lama. The painting is based on one of his many official portraits. In this triptych, the Dalai Lama is at the center, his “official” smile rendered in rough brushwork. Framed by his glasses, his eyes are ambiguously expressive and seem to add a sense of unnaturalness to his smile. On the Dalai Lama’s left and right, Liu has placed two “disciples” who are likewise bespectacled, but unlike him their glasses reflect dense fields of candlelight. Moreover, in contrast to his usual faithfulness to objective scenarios, Liu here places the three figures in three different spaces, and through the triptych format leads the viewer into an experience akin to that of traditional religious iconography.
Nonetheless, this was not the first time Liu Xiaodong integrated political figures and political thinking. In 1991, for the “Centennial Exhibition of Chinese Art” organised by the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Liu purposefully created a new painting entitled Cooperation that departed completely in style from his earlier works. The human figures in Cooperation all originated from a photograph taken at a conference of allied Communist nations hosted by an Eastern European country in the 1960’s. According to Liu’s recollection, this was “an attempt to go beyond myself, to see whether I could handle things beyond my own vision. It was my first attempt in this direction. Before this I painted only my friends, people in my small circle, and my family.” Preparing for Cooperation, Liu Xiaodong collected much information to enable himself to view social issues from a broader perspective, and to grasp more accurately the psychological states of people at a particular historical juncture. He said, “To express my thoughts, I relied completely on a historical photograph as a symbol of the conditions of the time. I turned it intoa colourful thing, gave it a subjective interpretation, and used the historical situation to complete my painting.”2
If Cooperation of 1991 begins Liu Xiaodong’s inquiry into broad social issues and themes, then Dalai Lama and His Disciples of 1999 represents its continuation and deepening. Whereas Cooperation is the recovery of a historical photograph through painting, Dalai Lama and His Disciples is a re-creation on the basis of photography. In Dalai Lama and His Disciples we witness Liu’s maturation through experience and his attempt to realise his potential. Reviewing Dalai Lama and His Disciples in the context of Liu’s two-decade-long creative career, we see a developmental logic and an internal consistency: with both Cooperation before it and New Immigrants of the Three Gorges after it, Dalai Lama and His Disciples shares an inner spiritual affinity in its investment in historical, social, and political themes. The same period also saw Liu Xiaodong’s break from the studio. After 2000, he shifted his creative focus to painting from life in order to confront social realities and human existence directly. In the recent few years, he seems to have been programmatically completing one project after another. The studio works from the late 1990’s are thus very precious.
1 Sun Linlin, “Interview with Liu Xiaodong: ‘I just struggled and got stymied like the rest of society. So I ran away from the scene,’”New Weekly issue 381
2 Wang Jing “Liu Xiaodong’s Memories of ‘Cooperation,’” Dongfang Yishu: Dajia, 2008
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