Liu Ye - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Thursday, March 30, 2023 | Phillips

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  • “I have equal passion for fairy tales and philosophy. Fairytales are full of imagination and sensitivity whereas philosophy requires strict and rational thinking. Fairytales and philosophy represent two extreme poles of thinking. My paintings roam between these two poles, at times more towards one pole and at other times towards the opposite pole.”
    — Liu Ye

    Whimsical and theatrical are words that come to mind when approaching Liu Ye’s bewildering yet charming oeuvre. As one of the most important living contemporary Chinese artists, Liu Ye’s most recent solo exhibition—fittingly entitled Storytelling—took place at the Fondazione Prada in Milan in 2020-2021, the second leg of an exhibition that began in Shanghai in 2018. The present work, Flagship No.1, the first piece from a series exploring astounding scenes in which tiny sailors peel back hefty velvet stage curtains to reveal hulking warships, was part of this thought-provoking show in Italy. Having remained in private hands for nearly a decade, Flagship No. 1 rejoins the auction stage this season as a signature work by the artist.



    The present work on view in the exhibition in Milan, Fondazione Prada, Liu Ye: Storytelling, 10 January 2020 – 10 January 2021


    Behind the Crimson Curtain


    Often heavily imbued with references to legendary painters throughout art history, Liu’s works draw on a vast multitude of influences, all the while creating a distinctive painterly style that is unique to him. He cites his greatest inspiration to be Piet Mondrian, most known for pioneering the De Stijl movement with his abstract geometric paintings, composed of quadrilaterals rendered in primary colours and bold outlines. For those familiar with Liu’s oeuvre, this comes as no surprise, as the artist has explicitly referenced Mondrian in numerous works, and yet the artist also pays tribute to his role model in subtler ways, such as in the present work. The artist’s captivation with Mondrian translates seamlessly onto the current canvas through a well-balanced composition and a bold use of the primary colour red, such as can be seen in the strict linear preoccupation in the crimson curtain’s folds, and the deliberately placed, central circular stage light, as well as the rectilinear balance one detects in the execution of the warship.


    For all its angled perfection however, Flagship No. 1 powerfully evokes the dreamy influences of Surrealism, at deliberately great odds with the rigidity and compositional equipoise the painting demands. Liu’s use of the curtain in the present work invokes a device employed by the great Surrealist René Magritte, but also artists from a longer art-historical lineage, such as the Old Masters: as can be seen in Rembrandt’s The Holy Family with a Curtain, the curtain serves as a powerful trompe-l’oeil, drawing the viewer into the depths of its composition, signaling the artifice of the scene we are witnessing, and yet also showcasing great skill in rendering drapery. The overall effect is one that recalls a stage and make-belief, juxtaposing with the verisimilitude of the Virgin Mother and Child.

    Having famously stated, ‘[w]e are surrounded by curtains. We can only perceive the world behind a curtain of semblance. At the same time, an object needs to be covered in order to be recognized at all,' René Magritte is an illusionist posing as a painter, whose presence can be felt in Liu’s pieces. In works such as The Nocturne, 1925, the viewer plunges into an unlikely scene: burgundy theatre curtains rise to reveal a nightmarish scene of a lone totem resembling a cello, rising out of a cracked earth. Beside this is a framed canvas depicting a house ablaze, and a monotoned red bird flutters inexplicably across the painting. A vast aqueous wall of blue rises behind this scene; a tsunami threatening to engulf the scene. A precursor to a longer series of later works in which Magritte paired landscape with theatre curtains, the thematic concern at hand is inextricably tied to the historical backdrop of the years of uncertainty between the two world wars, lending a somber tone to the painting, and undeniably hinting at the theatricality and perhaps absurdity of the epoch. 



    René Magritte, Nocturne, 1925
    The Menil Collection, Houston
    Image : Photothèque R. Magritte /Adagp Images, Paris, / SCALA, Florence, Artwork : © 2023 C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Liu’s own works are a culmination of a lifetime tinged by close brushes with fairytales. The son of a children’s book writer and playwright, Liu’s childhood was literally both fantastical and theatrical. In the mid-nineties, this nostalgia would emerge in the form of curtain and stage motifs in the artist’s work, and one can identify such key elements in Flagship No. 1. Depicted in this work is a world steeped in red, a colour that has layers of meanings to Liu: a hue associated with his childhood, a unique Chinese symbol referencing Communist China in a modern time gone-by.


    One of the artist’s most endearing and iconic subjects, the pairing of the miniscule sailor and the looming warship such as in Flagship No. 1 is a visual lexicon that combines the influences of Chinese propagandist posters a young Liu would no doubt have encountered in his childhood, mixed with Western imagery the artist would have experienced in his adult life, having travelled to Germany for his studies. Drawing together such divergent poles of inspiration is akin to the contraries held in tension in the artist’s conflation of ‘philosophy and fairytale’—an unlikely union that effortlessly coalesces at Liu’s gentle touch.  “I grew up in a world that was covered up in red—the red sun, the red flag and red scarves.”
    — Liu Ye

    Phillips sold the second work from the same series, Flagship No. 2, 1997 in November 2021.
    Sold by Phillips Hong Kong for HK$ 5,922,000, 30 November 2021


    Collector’s Digest

    • Liu’s paintings are held in numerous prominent collections, including but not limited to that of the Long Museum in Shanghai, the M+ Sigg Collection in Hong Kong, and the Today Art Museum in Beijing. The artist, who is currently represented by David Zwirner, was recently the subject of an international solo exhibition, titled Liu Ye: Storytelling. It was first presented at Prada Rong Zhai in Shanghai (2018-2019), then travelled to the Fondazione Prada in Milan (2020-2021). Undeniably at the forefront of Asian contemporary art, Liu’s powerfully eloquent works are widely praised by critics and highly sought after by collectors.

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    • Description

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    • Provenance

      Mingjingdi Gallery, Beijing
      Christie’s, Hong Kong, 29 October 2001, lot 1
      Private Collection
      Borobudur Auction, Singapore, 18 May 2008, lot 1108
      Private Collection
      Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 6 April 2014, lot 895
      Private Collection, Hong Kong
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Milan, Fondazione Prada, Liu Ye: Storytelling, 10 January 2020 – 10 January 2021, p. 30 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      'I’ve Earned a One-Hundred-And-Sixtieth', Hi Art, July-August 2009, p. 65
      Christoph Noe, ed., Liu Ye Catalogue Raisonne 1991-2015, Berlin, 2015, no. 97-03, p. 272 (illustrated)


Ο ◆ Ж33

Flagship No. 1

signed and dated '97 Liu Ye Ye [in Chinese]' lower left
acrylic and oil on canvas
29.2 x 22.2 cm. (11 1/2 x 8 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1997.

Full Cataloguing

HK$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

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Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 30 March 2023