Yue Minjun - 24/7: Online Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, July 20, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Catalogue Essay

    “I have always been living in an indescribable state, I gave myself the privilege of laughing, cursing, and controlling things, and I have seen everything in the world. I can find comedic factors in them. Sometimes, behind the smile, there is a hidden illness: an involuntary, uncontrollable and compulsive smile. People don't think when they laugh; in a sense, I am painting these people who are being happily controlled. ” —— Yue Minjun

    Renowned for his seminal protagonist's frozen, over the top, jaw-breaking laughter, Yue Minjun's satirical self portraits are rendered with a gaudy colour palette and graphical compositions, bringing an alternative aesthetic experience to the canon of Chinese contemporary art. With their identical large heads, wide open mouths, tightly shut eyes and white teeth, Yue's signature grinning men exemplify the artist's distinctive visual lexicon rooted in an exaggerated, weird, cynical and ironic style, establishing a theatrical context for his entire oeuvre. Yue Minjun, along with Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang and Fang Lijun, are the four forces that drove the Chinese avant-garde art market to its success at the turn of the century. 


    The current lot includes the complete set of 28 Smile-ism lithographs by Yue Minjun, encompassing an agglomeration of the artist's signature laughing caricatures situated in various scenes, illustrating a sense of forced optimism. The artist employs similar techniques seen in socialist propaganda; the clear outlines and saturated colours combine to form a strong visual impact. The bright pink faces and disproportionate mouths of these laughing figures occupy the majority of space on their faces, juxtaposing their tightly shut eyes.


    Yue Minjun was born in 1962 in Da Qing, Heilongjiang Province. Ever since he was young, Yue frequently moved around the country with his parents. He began working at an offshore oil rig right after his high school graduation, and continued to work in this secluded environment isolated from the rest of the world for five years. In order to escape his misery, Yue revisited his childhood hobby of art and went on to study painting at Heibei Normal University in 1985, graduating in 1989.


    Yue’s iconic manic character first appeared in his work in 1991. Initially, Yue still painted with slight expressionist influences and thicker impasto; by 1992-1993, the current image of the hysterical self portrait had fully emerged. This archetype with a twisted laugh can be traced back to inspiration from works such as Geng Jianyi's The Second State, painted in the late 1980s. After visiting the famous China Avant/Garde exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in 1989, Yue Minjun was inspired to create his own version of a rather foolish, grinning man. However, the characters in Geng Jianyi's originals appear to be more grimacing than laughing, representing a deep, internal anguish. In their works, both artists have chosen to give the smile a juxtaposing message different from its usual day to day meaning.


    Geng Jianyi, The Second State, 1987, M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong © Geng Jianyi

    Geng Jianyi, The Second State, 1987, M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong © Geng Jianyi


    “Red, light, and bright" are typical traits found in early Chinese propaganda posters that depicted workers, peasants and soldiers, which are also shared by the protagonists in Yue's work. The people portrayed through these contrasting techniques share the same bright smile that is characteristically Chinese. However, Yue adds an extra dash of subtle awkwardness and helplessness in his work; as art critic Hu Yongfen elaborates: "The reason why this image has so much resonance and extension in artistic creation is because it is able to precisely outline the unspeakable inner monologue in the hearts of all Chinese people (which has been unspeakable for a long time, even until now) in a simple and direct, yet complicated and ambiguous way." i  Yue Minjun’s hysterical grin is a solution for people to break their feeling of powerlessness, allowing them to find relief from unresolvable difficulties.
    “My work is to do with the fundamental agony of being human and the sense of confusion that comes with living in our society.” —— Yue Minjun

    Yue Minjun in his Studio
     The artist in his studio


    i  Yongfen Hu, 'Dissecting the "Idol's" Idol —— On Yue Minjun's Work', Joking —— Yue Minjun Art Archive, Beijing, 2012, p. 40

    • Provenance

      Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Arario Gallery, Yue Minjun: Smile-isms, 29 October 2009 - 16 January 2010 (another example exhibited)


Untitled (Smile-ism No. 1-28)

each signed ‘Yueminjun' lower right; numbered '3/45' lower left
lithograph on archival paper
No. 1-6, 16, 23: 110 x 80 cm. (43 1/4 x 31 1/2 in.)
No. 7, 9, 24: 80 x 110 cm. (31 1/2 x 43 1/4 in.)
No. 10-14, 17, 18, 20-22, 26: 110 x 90 cm. (43 1/4 x 35 3/8 in.)
No. 8, 15, 19, 25, 27, 28: 90 x 110 cm. (35 3/8 x 43 1/4 in.)

Published by Art Issue Editions, New York in 2006, each work is number 3 from an edition of 45.

Full Cataloguing

HK$400,000 - 650,000 

Sold for HK$567,000

Contact Specialist

Hin Hin Wong
Associate Specialist, 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Hong Kong
+852 2318 2013
[email protected]

24/7: Online Auction

Online Auction 21 - 30 July 2021