Yue Minjun's Learning from Comrade Red-crowned Crane is perhaps one of the artist's most unusual works. Yue has captured each of his protagonists, engaged - as the title suggests - mid-impersonation of the red-crowned crane.
The crane is traditionally an important motif in Chinese art, and frequently appears in Yue Minjun's work (see Lot 617, Yue Minjun, The Massacre at Chios). Specifically the Red-crowned Crane (Grus japonensis), is one of the most endangered species of bird in the world. In the spring and summer, the bird lives in Siberia; in the autumn it migrates for the winter in flocks to the countries of East Asia.
It is in this geographical area that the bird often features in myths and legends. It is known as a symbol of luck and fidelity. In Taoist thought, it is a symbol of longevity and immortality; the ancient Chinese believed it could live for one thousand years or more. White hair is a sign of old age thus birds with white feathers are used as longevity symbols.
In traditional Chinese art and literature, immortals are often depicted riding cranes. Early use of the crane as an artistic motif are found in Shang dynasty tombs and Zhou dynasty ceremonial bronzeware. As a longevity symbol, cranes are closely associated with immortals and are portrayed carrying Immortals on their backs. The crane-and-immortal motif was used to decorate the celadon green Yaozhou porcelains of the Northern Song and Jin dynasties. Later in the Qing dynasty from the 18th century onwards, pairs of cranes were used in throne rooms as candle stands or incense burners as an auspicious sign conveying wishes of longevity for the emperor. Perhaps most relevant to this painting howver is that the crane is also a symbol of nobility; among the nine rank badges for civil officials, the crane represents the first rank.
The reason why the crane is such a common motif in Yue Minjun's oeuvre is debatable. As perhaps the greatest Cynical Realist, Yue is undoubtedly conveying a subversive message here. The figures stand one-legged just as cranes stand. The bright reddish pink colour of their skin makes the figures more resemble flamingos than the white-feathered crane. The contorted and uncomfortable state of their grotesquely-naked bodies suggest that the pose is forced, although the ever-present smiling face suggests otherwise.
The implied meaning one might draw is that the crane, just as in ancient Chinese tradition, represents the first rank of Chinese society: here, the Chinese Communist Party. This makes more sense if one considers the colour of the crest of the Red-crowned Crane. By portraying his figures in this ridiculous manner, he shows that a human cannot be a crane; it simply doesn't work, and one looks ridiculous to attempt it. Yue statement is obvious: if one forces something to be something it is not, one will simply end up as a laughing stock.
Paintings with hidden nuances are not rare in Yue Minjun's oeuvre, however the message this painting conveys is slightly more politically charged than the norm, qualifying this piece as a very important work by the artist.
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