Liu Ye - 20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Sunday, June 6, 2021 | Phillips

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  • “I have an equal passion towards both fairy tales and philosophy. Fairy tales are illusioned and sensational whereas philosophy is about strict and rational thinking.  My paintings ramble between these two opponent spheres.”   ̶ Liu Ye 

     Rene Magritte

     René Magritte, La Décalcomanie, 1966


    Contemporary Chinese painter Liu Ye is known for a singular body of work rich in aesthetic, historical and literary meaning, his dream-like imagery inspired by his childhood love of fairytales and formative education in Europe. Distinguished from his fellow Chinese painters by a prevailing love of wonder and mystery, Liu Ye’s bold and meditative paintings challenge viewers to participate in a world liberated from the concrete and the present.

    “In my earlier days, my art was more about the imaginary.”  ̶ Liu Ye 

    Born in Beijing two years before the Cultural Revolution began, Liu grew up in a society rigidly controlled by the state. Liu Ye's father was a famous children’s playwright, and although many Western books were banned at the time, his parents secreted a trove of Western story books in a large black chest under his bed, including the works of Hans Christian Andersen and Tolstoy. Liu Ye was an imaginative child, and this quality combined with the manner of his upbringing in China would later prove a key source of his inspiration and way of seeing: ‘In my earlier days, [inspiration] came from my imagination, childhood memories, and the societal background’. [1]


    Matisse Goldfish and Palette

    Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Palette, 1914

    Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York


    Liu Ye’s knowledge of Western cultural history took shape during the late 1980s and 1990s, a significant part of which he spent in Europe. Graduating from his studies in mural painting at Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1990, Liu Ye continued his studies for another four years at Berlin's Universität der Künste, and later took up a six-month residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 1998. Interested in psychology and philosophy, especially the works of the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, during these years Liu Ye also became influenced by European artists such as Piet Mondrian (whose grid-based paintings he considered ‘a balanced, graceful and pure picture that projects a sense of serenity’), Johannes Vermeer, as well as René Magritte, the Belgian Surrealist. Explaining why he was drawn to these artists, Liu Ye elaborated: ‘In my earlier days, my art was more about the imaginary. At that time, I was influenced by Italian Metaphysical Art and Surrealism; René Magritte is one of my favourite artists’. [2] 


    Dream world: Magritte & Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams


    Painted during the first year of his return to Beijing after studying in Berlin, The Second Story flies between reality and Surrealism, paying tribute to Magritte and some of Liu Ye’s most formative influences. Two men stand in a large, open-windowed room on the upper story of a house, a depiction of Liu Ye’s Beijing studio in the 1990s and its environs in an alley near Xidan. A goldfish bowl sits atop a stool, an allusion to the artist’s fondness for raising goldfish at the time, and the paper on the floor carries the artist’s signature. Light pours in through the window, gently illuminating the space with an intimacy reminiscent of Vermeer’s richly atmospheric interior portraits.


    Johannes Vermeer. Woman with a Lute

    Johannes Vermeer, Woman with a Lute, c. 1662–1665
    Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


    Standing in the foreground of this surreal tableau is a taller man clad in shirt and slacks, a self-portrait of Liu Ye himself, with feet firmly planted on the ground. He watches, somewhat warily, a diminutive bowler-hatted man standing on the ceiling. The ‘villain’ to the artist’s sober protagonist, he gazes out the windows to the rooftops beyond. Carrying an unopened yellow umbrella and wearing Magritte’s most iconic motif, the bowler hat uniform of the Belgian fonctionnaire, the silhouette was used by Magritte as a cipher for the generic, bourgeois everyman of his day and was often deployed as an alternative symbol for the artist himself.


    A mute struggle between the artist and his disruptive alter-ego plays out, the second instalment of the narrative which began with The First Story (painted by Liu Ye in 1994). Both works utilise the same subversive humour and absurdity, featuring the same protagonist waging endless silent war with himself, a juxtaposition between a man and the desires of his unconscious mind, which remain tantalisingly out of reach. Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) famously introduced his theory of the unconscious with respect to dream interpretation. Dreams, according to Freud, are formed as the result of two mental processes: the first process involves unconscious forces that construct a wish which is expressed in the dream, and the second is the process of censorship that forcibly distorts it. In The First Story Magritte-esque bowler-hatted cherubs with the face of the artist roll into the room atop stones, disrupting the interaction between the artist, wearing a Mao suit popularised by Chinese party cadres and symbolic of national sovereignty, and an anonymous female on the opposite side of the room. Gazing into the distance through binoculars and clad only in a striped Western business shirt, she rests in the contrapposto pose of Graeco-Roman classical sculpture. 


    Liu Ye, The First Story

    Liu Ye, The First Story, 1994


    The Second Story also heralds a wider societal shift from collectivism to individualism coinciding with China’s transition into a market economy in the mid-1990s, which signaled greater artistic freedom but also ‘the arrival of a new era concerned with individualism and the self’ according to the art historian Pi Li. It is at this critical juncture caught between the artist’s past and future, East and West, national and individual identity, that Liu Ye’s artistic masterpiece The Second Story must be seen and understood.

     Collector’s Digest


    The artist was recently the subject of a solo exhibition ‘Liu Ye: Storytelling’ at Prada Rong Zhai, Shanghai (2018 - 19), which traveled to the Fondazione Prada, Milan, where it was on view in 2020 - 2021. His works are held in numerous public collections, including the Long Museum (Shanghai), M+ Sigg Collection (Hong Kong), and Today Art Museum (Beijing). The artist is represented by David Zwirner.


    [1] Liu Ye, quoted in Cheryl Zhao, ‘Artist Liu Ye on His New Catalogue Raisonné and the Rise of Chinese Collectors’, Jing Daily, 10 December 2015, online 

    [2] Liu Ye, quoted in Cheryl Zhao, ‘Artist Liu Ye on His New Catalogue Raisonné and the Rise of Chinese Collectors’, Jing Daily, 10 December 2015, online


    • Provenance

      Galerie Taube, Berlin
      Private Collection, Berlin
      Galerie Taube, Berlin
      Private Collection, Europe
      Christie's, Hong Kong, 1 December 2008, lot 805
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Berlin, Galerie Taube, Liu Ye: Bilder 1993-1995, 7 April - 10 June 1995, no. 15, n.p. (illustrated)
      Beijing, Mingjingdi Gallery, Liu Ye, 1997, p. 32 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Veit Stiller, Heimweh nach China, Berlin, 1995, p. B2 (illustrated)
      Leng Lin, Start Again, Wuhan, 1996, p. 12 (illustrated)
      Christoph Noe ed., Liu Ye: Catalogue Raisonné 1991-2015, Berlin, 2015, no. 95-02, pp. 71, 262 (illustrated)

Property from a Prominent Asian Private Collection


The Second Story

signed and dated ' 95 YE [in Chinese and Pinyin]' lower right
oil on canvas
45 x 45 cm. (17 3/4 x 17 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1995.

Full Cataloguing

HK$4,500,000 - 6,500,000 

Sold for HK$13,076,000

Contact Specialist

Danielle So
Associate Specialist, Head of Day Sale

20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 7 June 2021