Xia Yu - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Friday, May 31, 2024 | Phillips
  • “I’ve always been interested in portraying the relationships and states of minds of individuals, as there is a dramatic tension when the figures are placed face to face. The composition of back and front facing makes a great image.”
    — Xia Yu



    In the present lot It’s Learning Time, Chinese artist Xia Yu renders a scene that is at once familiar and enigmatic. The work depicts two individuals engrossed in action within a softly illuminated room that suggests both comfort and confinement. Xia Yu’s chosen medium of tempera, with its capacity for intricate detail and vibrant colour, enhances the stillness of the moment, turning an ordinary scene into something that is to be pondered. Traditionally associated with precision and depth, the medium allows for a meticulous portrayal of the textures of the room — the grain of the texture, the fibrous quality of the curtain, and the soft weave of the garments. Each element is rendered with utmost care, emphasising the sanctity of the domestic sphere as a site of introspection and intellectual engagement, as the title suggests.


    The artist's philosophy that ‘the figures in his work are perpetually roaming between their residence and work, city and nature, and seamlessly shifting among chores and tasks, daydream and recreation, switching between various identities and roles in the interval of one living space after another,’ i is vividly depicted here. The figures are masterfully portrayed in a state of flux, caught between the act of actioning and dreaming. It is as though they are hovering on the cusp of decisive movement, their bodies imbued with a sense of anticipation and their minds adrift in a realm of possibilities. Their dual engagement with the environment and their inner worlds suggests a narrative of continual transition, where the very fabric of their personal identities is ceaselessly renegotiated. The artist adeptly captures the essence of this profound transformation, showcasing the intricate interplay between self-discovery, growth, and the ever-shifting nature of existence. Each brushstroke and contour allude to the profound journey of self-exploration as the figures navigate the intricate tapestry of their lives, straddling the realms of action and dreaming.




    Detail of the present lot



    Re-Interpreting the Gaze


    Art critic John Berger famously observed that a woman’s presence ‘expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her,’  ii and the present lot by Xia Yu invites a re-evaluation of how the female subject is depicted in art. Unlike the traditional portrayal of women as passive recipients of the artist’s gaze, Xia Yu’s subjects are instead active, engaged in the act of learning, which is both a personal and private endeavour.




    James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1872, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
     Image: © National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Harris Whittemore Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington. D.C. 



    In this intimate setting in Xia Yu’s work, the woman is presented not as an object to be viewed, but rather as a subject who commands her own space, one who actively gazes at her counterpart. Her engagement in her own tasks suggests a narrative in which gaze and perspective can be introspective, focusing on self-reflection and communication. In the composition of the present lot, the female figure seems to be directly engaging in eye contact with the man whereas he is almost avoiding her gaze. This inward-looking gaze challenges the traditional dynamics of power and perception in art, where women are often depicted through the lens of male expectations and desires. Xia Yu thus redefines the concept of the gaze, turning it into a tool for self-expression and autonomy. The woman in his painting does not merely exist within the gaze as she transforms it into a reflection of her own identity, desire, and complexity. This shift not only speaks to the empowerment of the subjects but also invites the viewer to engage with the painting on a deeper, more introspective level.



    Depiction of the Nude: A Contemporary Dialogue with Manet and Velázquez


    When placed alongside Édouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, the present lot engages in a visual and thematic dialogue that spans centuries yet speaks to similar concerns. Radical in its time, Manet’s work depicted the raw realities of modern life by placing a nude woman alongside well-dressed men, posing a challenge to the conventions of the Parisian salon with its unidealised portrayal of contemporary social norms.



    Édouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, 1862, Musee d'Orsay, Paris. 
    Image: Peter Barritt / Alamy Stock Photo 

    Similarly, Velázquez's Venus at her Mirror introduces another layer of complexity with the subject’s back turned to the viewer, engaging with a mirror that reflects her face. This setup creates an intimate and somewhat secretive atmosphere, echoing the exchange of gazes in Xia Yu's work. The presence of the mirror in Velázquez’s composition enhances the theme of introspection and the fluidity of identity, paralleling the shifting roles and identities in Xia Yu’s depiction.



    Diego Velasquez, Venus at Her Mirror (The Rokeby Venus),  1647 - 1651, The National Gallery, London. 
    Image:  Ian Dagnall Computing / Alamy Stock Photo 



    While Manet’s focus was on the shock of the unconventional by emphasising the stark contrast posed by the figures, Xia Yu, on the other hand, focuses on the subtleties and activities of everyday life by placing the female figure inward. Subsequently, this difference in focus results in a different understanding of the relationship and power dynamic between the figures. The continuities and divergences in how artists have grappled with similar themes of gaze, presence, and social roles across time can be appreciated through Xia Yu’s works, for it not only captures a moment of quiet introspection, but also challenges the viewer to think about the ways in which art reflects and shapes our understanding of our presence in the world around us.


    In the contemporary dialogue with Manet and Velázquez, one can observe in Xia Yu’s use of a visual barrier which creates a voyeuristic experience for the viewer, making us uncomfortably aware of our role as onlookers. This sensation of voyeurism, much discussed in John Berger's Ways of Seeing, suggests that our discomfort arises not merely from the nudity itself but from the awareness of how we are engaging with it. In contrast to the secretive and intimate atmosphere in Velázquez's Rokeby Venus, where the nude is partially hidden and reflected through a mirror, Xia Yu's approach is more direct, yet sterile. The use of tempera adds a textured and fuzzy, almost screen-like quality that reflects contemporary life's mediated views of nudity, emphasising that we are not the only spectators; there are many others sharing this space and view.


    Xia Yu's portrayal of the nude is not just a depiction of the human form but an exploration of strength, elegance, and the complex dynamics of viewing and being viewed. This redefined gaze and the interplay of identities within the intimate confines of the depicted space challenge traditional views and invite a deeper engagement from the audience, encouraging us to reconsider our perceptions and the implications of our gaze.



    Collector’s Digest


    Born in Anhui, China in 1981, Xia Yu portrays glances of contemporary urban life through his signature tempera medium. The figures in his work are captured in the moments of daily life where the artist studies them in action. In the seemingly dull and mundane moments, Xia Yu aims to appreciate the unpretentious, joyous and truthful encounters. His recent exhibitions include: Glittering Light and Sunken Jade, Song Art Museum, 11 March – 16 April 2023 and Being of Evils, Hive Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, 2020 where the present lot was exhibited.



    Hive Center for Contemporary Art, artist biography

    ii John Berger on Male and Female Presence, from Ways of Seeing, On Art and Aesthetics, 12 January 2017

    • Provenance

      Hive Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing
      Private Collection
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Beijing, Hive Center for Contemporary Art, Being of Evils, 11 April - 13 May 2020


It's Learning Time

signed, titled and dated '“It's Learning Time”, Xia Yu, 2020.2' [in Chinese] on the reverse
tempera on aluminum-plastic panel
201 x 164.5 cm. (79 1/8 x 64 3/4 in.)
Executed in 2020, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by Hive Center for Contemporary Art.

Full Cataloguing

HK$500,000 - 700,000 

Sold for HK$889,000

Contact Specialist

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

Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 31 May 2024