Liu Ye - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Friday, October 6, 2023 | Phillips
  • “I didn’t want to become an artist who portrays real life. I wanted to return to the early Renaissance, but not realism. Besides, I’m more interested in postmodernism, so I added elements of Surrealism…Regardless, I wanted to convey a certain state or feeling that was between Realism and Surrealism.”
    — Liu Ye


    The image of a ship ablaze, with its billowing smoke piling into a sky dyed orange by flames against a setting sun engulfs us in Liu Ye’s monumental The End of Baroque. Its size is formidable and rare: less than 30 works of such height have come to auction, and none of this scale has been seen on the market this year. The potency of this lone ship at sea is instantly arresting and powerful and evokes scenes of Rembrandt’s (hitherto lost) depiction of Christ on a raft amid turbulent waters, various paintings of hulking Dutch warships, René Magritte’s elusive The Seducer floating among clouds, or indeed J. M. W. Turner’s vermilion canvases of explosions, fires, and battles all come to mind. The visual lexicon of this work is undeniably rich and layered, as with the rest of Liu’s creations. Inexplicably, the view is surrealistically framed by white windows that swing out towards the vista outside. To our bottom left is a solitary figure who looks on, unperturbed by this seascape, surreal and catastrophically beautiful. Painted in 1998, a few years after the artist’s return to his native China, and the same year in which Liu Ye spent time training at Amsterdam’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, The End of Baroque signals the close of an era and the dawn of new beginnings.  


    René Magritte, The Seducer, 1950
    © 2023 C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Conduit of the Mind, Window to the Soul


    Magritte was a key influence to Liu’s early body of work. About his 1933 painting The Human Condition, Magritte commented: ‘I placed in front of a window, seen from inside a room, a painting representing exactly that part of the landscape that was hidden from view by the painting. Therefore, the tree represented in the painting hid from view the tree situated behind it, outside the room. It existed for the spectator simultaneously inside the room on the painting and in his mind outside on the real landscape. This is how we see the world. We see it as outside us even though the representation of it is within us.’ i Extraordinarily, Magritte’s summary of his work—of being both the room’s interior and exterior, simultaneously—holds true even for The End of Baroque. When considering Liu’s painting in this context, we can interpret this to one’s desire to look both forward and backward in time, and both internally and externally of oneself: a particularly fitting metaphor for the artist’s state of mind at the close of the nineties.


    Looking back on his oeuvre, Liu has once noted a distinct shift in his art form: ‘[i]t can be divided into approximate periods […] For all of the nineties, I was greatly influenced by Surrealism and metaphysical art movements. From 2000 onward, I have been more interested in Minimalism and abstract art.’ ii Painted in advance of the latter juncture, The End of Baroque thus exists as a relic of the artist’s rarer, earlier pieces.

  • The window motif has long prevailed in Liu’s works and is a symbol he has often returned to, serving as an early hallmark. It is also indicative of Liu’s penchant for lineal precision, thanks to his love for Piet Mondrian’s rigid grid compositions. The window motif appears as early as in the first entry of the artist’s catalogue-raisonné, namely in the 1991 piece Atelier, where a sideview of open windows and plush curtains guides the eye to an enigmatic scene of the artist’s own reflection in a broken mirror staring at us open-mouthed, either mid-yawn, mid-speech, or mid-scream. In all eventualities, this first work offers us a glimpse into the artist’s psyche: eyes are said to be the windows to the soul, and there is something to be said about the act of seeing, to be seen, and the forbidden fruit of voyeurism. Even in The End of Baroque, the lonesome figure appears nonplussed, either unable, or unwilling, to react to the tragedy unfolding before her. There is undoubtedly something self-reflective in Liu’s evocation of windows, which act as some kind of partition between this reality and another—that precise ‘certain state or feeling that was between Realism and Surrealism’ iii to which the artist refers.

    Liminal Realms


    In terms of transitions and thresholds, the window in The End of Baroque is undoubtedly symbolic, especially as an in-between space signaling some permeable existence between realism and surrealism. But the key is also in the work’s title, which heralds the end of an era; a definitive shift from one time to its cessation. When prompted, ‘[y]our early work was very baroque, very complex’ iv , the artist responds immediately with a description of the present work’s direct antithesis, namely Baroque: ‘Yeah, I even made a painting in 1993 called Baroque. The skies are angry—red, yellow, blue—but it’s quite Italian, with angels and a sunken palace […] It’s both baroque and surreal.’ v


    Liu Ye, Baroque, 1992-1993
    Sold by Yongle Beijing, for ¥ 23,000,000, July 2023
    © Liu Ye


    In a sense, then, to grasp The End of Baroque would be to understand, at least figuratively Liu’s fascination with Baroque, and his subsequent distancing from it. Having first been introduced to Western art history piecemeal during his youth, it was not until Liu’s studies in Berlin in the early 90s that he was fully immersed in European paintings, even once musing, ‘[a]s soon as I went there [Germany], I saw too many things in the museum [all at once].’ vi Baroquism was a stylistic movement which flourished in the 17th century in Europe, growing in tandem with the expansion of the Catholic Church and the propagation of its faith to colonies within European empires. With its ecclesiastical associations, the baroque style is often associated with being highly ornate and elaborate, allegorical and mythological, and imbued with drama. It is no wonder that Liu’s Baroque pays homage to this legacy, evoking the apostolic images of Agnolo Bronzino, mixed with the mortality of Arnold Böcklin, steeped in deep blues, reds, yellows, and greens. The result is a work that speaks to man’s impermanence in the world, with sombre and serious undertones.

    Jean Honoré Fragonard, The Swing, circa 1775/1780
    Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
    Image: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.17


    The End of Baroque also alludes to its own namesake—though in stark contrast to its 1992-1993 predecessor. The end of the Baroque period quite literally points to the Rococo era, the free-spirited offshoot (if not offspring) of its liturgical counterpart. Flamboyant, characterised by pastoral motifs and curved asymmetry, Rococo was a veritable medley of pastel free-spiritedness. It is this essence that is maybe most compelling about Liu’s work, and a burst of energy can be felt in the present piece through the vibrant and raucous plumes of smoke and fire, more unleashed than in any other work.


    “Thick cloud masses gather in the sky, and wave crests glinting blue and yellow undulate across the sea’s surface. There is grand beauty in the rendering of this vista, and at the same time it is filled with inconceivable dreaminess. In this picture, the warship as a hard-edged shape of social memory has been partly effaced, so that it serves as an embodiment of the ‘magnificent world.’ Its lofty shape is like a solemn cathedral or an ageless mountain range, summoning us to merge with it, to enter into boundless explorations.”
    — The art critic Zhu Zhu on Liu Ye’s oeuvre

  • Leaping to New Horizons: Starboard


    One of the oft-remarked upon elements of Liu’s works is his fascination with battleships: a remnant from films of his childhood, but also a recurring subject in adulthood, having become fascinated with Russian avant-garde art by artists such as Aleksandr Rodchenko, who included warships and aircrafts in his graphics. Liu’s works of the nineties are immersed in and question the symbolic nature of the vessel. Apolitical and open to interpretation, the vessels and unfurled sails in the artist’s body of works serve as metaphors for journeys travelled, underway, or ended prematurely.

  • In The End of Baroque, one can easily detect a particular nod to Liu’s time in Amsterdam in 1998: with the Rijksmuseum housing various maritime pieces, it is not hard to imagine a young Liu becoming captivated by older iterations of modern-day battle ships, seen on a fortuitous trip to the museum. The present work draws thought-provoking parallels to a variety of objects in the museum’s repertoire, infused with Liu’s signature style. And yet, what is most endearing about the piece is its distinctive ability to convey an emotion utterly indescribable—a mixture of sorrow, nostalgia, excitement and vigour that seems to typify much of the artist’s earlier works.


    In the Arts, ships have long served as potent vehicles through which to explore the human consciousness. Coupled with the sea—both calm and chaotic—ships are conduits of the self, travailing through life’s challenges. This is aptly captured in Friedrich’s The Stages of Life, where various ships sailing into an auburn-tinged horizon are matched compositionally with characters in youth, adulthood, and old age. In Lorrain’s painting The Trojan Women Setting Fire to Their Fleet, now housed in The Met, the artist captures a moment of pure elation as Trojan women set fire to their fleets to end years of wandering after their city was seized by Greeks. In this act of apparent destruction lies unblemished bliss: alas, nomadic days are over and finally one has come home. It is a combination of these sentiments that live on in The End of Baroque: A home-coming of sorts.


    It has been said that ominous clouds, soon to crash planes, warships, sinking ships all point to the weight of history, ironically gesturing to declining empires. Looking out onto such a scene, we can therefore see the solitary figure in the present work as an evocation of the artist himself: ruminating upon his journey, both his and his country’s past, European influence: all the while poised on terra firma, contemplating times yet to come and a sea of possibilities.

  • Collector’s Digest


    • Having exhibited extensively across the world, Liu Ye has been the subject of several museum shows including Mondrian and Liu Ye at Mondriaanhuis, Amersfoort (2016), and Window on China at Kunstmuseum Bern (2007). His upcoming solo show titled Liu Ye: Naive and Sentimental Painting, will take place at David Zwirner London from 10 October — 18 November 2023.

    • 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.

    i René Magritte, quoted in Alain Robbe-Grillet, (René Magritte), La Belle Captive: A Novel, 1995, p. 178
    ii Liu Ye, quoted in ‘Liu Ye in Conversation with Philip Tinari’, Christoph Noe, Liu Ye: Catalogue Raisonné, 2015, p. 50
    iii Ibid.
    iv Liu Ye, quoted in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Zhu Zhu, Hans Ulrich Obrist, eds., Denis Mair, trans., Liu Ye: The Book Paintings, 2021, p.168
    v Ibid.
    vi Liu Ye, quoted in Zhu Zhu, ‘Zhu Zhu: Inverview with Liu Ye’, September 2012, online

    • Provenance

      Galerie Serieuze Zaken, Amsterdam
      Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 7 October 2007, lot 641
      Private Collection
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Christoph Noe, ed., Liu Ye Catalogue Raisonné 1991-2015, Berlin, 2015, no. 98-16, p. 283 (illustrated)

Property of an Esteemed American Collector


The End of Baroque

signed and dated ‘98 Liu Ye’ upper left
acrylic on canvas
200 x 170 cm. (78 3/4 x 66 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1998.

Full Cataloguing

HK$18,000,000 - 28,000,000 

Sold for HK$22,230,000

Contact Specialist

Danielle So
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2027

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 6 October 2023