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  • Introduction

     

    Rendered in vibrantly coloured oil on canvas, the present painting is instantly recognisable as a satiric self-portrait by Yue Minjun, whose laughing characters have become one of the foremost icons of contemporary Chinese art. With eyes tightly closed shut and grins of perfect toothpaste-white teeth reminiscent of modern advertising but also historic propaganda posters, Yue’s protagonists hysterically laugh out at us in a manner that feels simultaneously familiar and uncanny, forcing the viewer to delve deeper into the outpour of unbridled emotion confronting them. 

     

    Yue Minjun
    Yue Minjun

    Finding Peace in Laughter 

     

    Born in 1962 in China’s northernmost province of Heilongjiang, Yue is part of the third generation of artists after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), an era of political turmoil marked by uncertainty and conflict, as the country radically transformed. As an adolescent, Yue’s family lived in a state-run work commune called a danwei, conforming to a standardised dress-code and obeying a strict daily regime. Supervisors tightly monitored all aspects of the community’s activity, including restricting families from having children as the government initiated the nationwide “One-Child Policy” in the early 1980s to slow the growth rate of the country’s population. Around this time, Yue’s family relocated to Beijing and Yue worked as an electrician until when in 1985, he enrolled in the oil painting department of Hebei Normal University, graduating four years later. In the wake of the events of the late 1980s however, Yue moved away from Beijing, only returning some two years later in 1991 to join an ad hoc colony of artists who had gathered in the Yuanmingyuan neighbourhood around the old imperial Summer Palace. It was there that Yue’s trademark pictorial motif began to emerge in response to the psychological implications of this atmosphere of deflated idealism. For the artist, the only answer to the pervading ludicrousness of reality is self-mockery and laughter, as he explains:

    "The act of giving up is profoundly human. It prevents conflicts with society and allows inner peace to be preserved. By giving up, one becomes carefree and detached. All problems can be resolved with a laugh, and disappear painlessly. In this way one attains an incomparable peace within." —Yue Minjun

    Though Yue refutes the labelling of his work as falling under a movement coined by the pioneering art critic Li Xianting as “Cynical Realism”, alongside artists including Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang, whose works similarly share a satirical tone, he is widely considered as one of the defining protagonists. In combining unique pictorial and historical references of China’s evolution, it was Yue and his contemporaries who were ultimately responsible for driving art practices in the country towards its prominent secondary phase. 

     

    Looking Beyond the Surface  

     

    With an expression lodged somewhere between a manic grin and a grimace of pain, Untitled, painted in 1996, presents to the viewer the outlandish portrait of the artist himself. Holding the watermelon in Yue’s Untitled is a cackling character who gapes out at us in a candy-pink coloured dress. His grinning visage is rendered in an almost jaw-breaking hysteria that introduces a psychologically complex layer to the playful composition as we wonder whether the laughter truly is light-hearted. In his arms the cross-dressed man holds a luscious green watermelon, cradling the large striped gourd into his body like one would support a baby. The bulbous watermelon is phallic in shape with improbable striations and, as emphasised by his feminine attire, Yue’s Untitled humorously uproots the traditional associations linked to the representation of the fruit, exhibiting how the artist employs satire in his self-portraits as a cultural commentary on contemporary reality. 

     

    Ai Wei Wei, Watermelon, 2011
    Ai Wei Wei, Watermelon, 2011

    Though Yue’s contemporaries too, have explored the watermelon subject in their artworks, such as Ai Wei Wei who juxtaposes the fruit’s tough exterior in replicating its form through the medium of glazed porcelain (see for example, Ai Wei Wei, Watermelon (2011)), Zeng Fanzhi whose smashed watermelons serve as a proxy for violence and flesh (see for example, Zeng Fanzhi, The Last Supper (2001)), or even Colombian artist Fernando Botero, who gives the watermelons in his still-life paintings the same voluminous treatment he applies to his exaggerated figures (see for example, Fernando Botero, Watermelon (1989)) — Yue’s depiction feels to align more with traditional Chinese symbolism associated with the fruit.

     

    Fernando Botero, Watermelon, 1989
    Zeng Fanzhi, The Last Supper, 2001. Private Collection
    Zeng Fanzhi, The Last Supper, 2001. Private Collection
    Fernando Botero, Watermelon, 1989 

    Looking Beyond the Surface  

     

    Throughout Chinese history, there has always been a great deal of symbolism in its artwork and gifting to others or surrounding oneself with objects bearing auspicious imagery was, and still is, commonly believed to increase the likelihood of these wishes coming true. Drawing inspiration from the natural world, melons and gourds – round like a pregnant woman’s belly and full of many seeds – are poetic representations of fertility and family unity, and have been depicted as a recurring symbolic motif over various art mediums through the ages.

     

    Melon-Shaped Jar with Butterflies, Gourds, and Scrolling Vines, 1723-1795. Collection of The Art Institute of Chicago, Russell Tyson Endowment

    Dancing butterflies around ripe melons, for example, is a particularly favourable pairing, in which the butterflies represent everlasting love and the melons symbolise prosperous offspring (see for example, Melon-Shaped Jar with Butterflies, Gourds, and Scrolling Vines, 1723-1795). The poetic nature of the melon was too, favoured under the brush ben of literati artists who celebrated its form through ink and colour (see for example, Zhang Daqian, Watermelon). 

     

    Zhang Daqian, Watermelon. Private Collection
    Zhang Daqian, Watermelon. Private Collection

    With a historically rooted preference for sons to carry on the family name, many traditional Chinese folk-beliefs specifically associate gourds with male progeny, hoping to be blessed with a ‘hundred sons, thousand grandsons’ (百子千孫) to continue the bloodline. With this in mind, an ironic parody is offered in the present painting as Yue playfully punctures the idea of masculinity through his treatment of the watermelon motif.  

     

    Though Yue depicts his incorrigible, open-mouthed caricature in various guises throughout his internationally renowned oeuvre, each iteration of his painterly alter ego presents a new narrative, prompting new interpretations to emerge that reflects whatever the viewer wants to see in them. Composed of a curious web of connotations that distinctly showcase why Yue is widely recognised as one of China’s most progressive voices, the present work perfectly encapsulates how Yue’s sharp wit translates into his conceptual vision.

     "A caricature could express so much more humanity, and having decided that this would be my ultimate subject, why not create a caricature of myself to convey the stories I wanted to relate to." —Yue Minjun

    Collector’s Digest

     

    After receiving significant acclaim at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, Yue has gained international fame within both the contemporary art market and the permanent collections of museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, The Busan Museum of Art in Korea, and the Shenzhen Art Museum, amongst others. Celebrated as one of the handful of contemporary Chinese giants, Yue has left an undeniable mark as an influential painter of his generation and era. 

    • Provenance

      Galerie Serieuze Zaken, Amsterdam
      Private Collection
      Sotheby's, New York, 17 March 2008, lot 10
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Property from a Prominent European Collection

Ж14

Untitled

1996
signed and dated 'Yue Minjun [in Chinese] 96.' lower left
oil on canvas
139 x 107 cm. (54 3/4 x 42 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1996.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
HK$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 
€216,000-325,000
$256,000-385,000

Sold for HK$2,016,000

Contact Specialist

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

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

Hong Kong Auction 3 December 2020