Cynical Realism
Chinese Contemporary Art Movement, Political Pop.

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Cynical Realism (1990s)


What is Cynical Realism?
Famous Cynical Realists
- Yue Minjun
- Fang Lijun
- Zhang Xiaogang
Related Articles

For a guide to the evolution of painting, sculpture and other artforms in China and the rest of Asia, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).

What is Cynical Realism?

In Chinese art, the term "Cynical Realism" - a name first used in 1992 by the art critic Li Xianting (b.1949) - refers to a famous style of contemporary art practised in the 1990s by a group of Beijing painters, in the aftermath of the Deng Xiaoping's 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and the enforced closure earlier that year of the "China Avant Garde" art exhibition, at the National Gallery in Beijing. Seen as a parody of Socialist Realism, the only form of officially approved figure painting in China at the time, Cynical Realism has impressed Western art collectors, although it is viewed with ambivalence by Chinese art critics, who resent its Western focus. Top contemporary artists associated with the movement include: Yue Minjun (b.1962), well-known for his "smiling" self-portraits, like those in his "Hat" series; Fang Lijun (b.1963), famous for his images of "bald headed young men"; and Zhang Xiaogang (b.1958), noted for his "Bloodlines" series. These artists are among the most successful contemporary painters in the whole of China, and some of their works rank alongside the most expensive paintings in today's international art market. The Cynical Realist movement is closely related to "Political Pop" - a late-1980s form of Chinese Pop art that questioned the political and social assumptions of the Chinese mainland in the wake of the Cultural Revolution (1966-70) and the death of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976).




Cynical Realism emerged in Beijing in the early 90s, during the post-1989 gloom that followed the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. The abrupt closure of avant garde art exhibitions, such as the "China Avant-Garde" exhibition at the National Gallery, allied to a frustrating political climate, left many artists fearful, causing them to go underground. There were no more public exhibitions, no market for their painting, and no mainstream forum in which to express themselves. But amazingly, the lack of money and opportunity, served to sharpen their creative edge and stimulate creative discussion. As a result, artists like Yue Minjun, Yang Shaobin, Wang Jinsong, and Song Yonghong bonded together in groups such as the Yuanmingyuan Artist Community and the East Village, holding illicit art exhibitions and sharing ideas. It was in this underground arts milieu that the highly influential critic and curator Li Xianting - editor of Fine Art Magazine (1978-83), organizer of the "Stars Exhibition" (1979) and editor of the authoritative China Fine Art Newspaper (1985-89) - first came up with the name "cynical realism". Li was a very important contact and source of knowledge, for foreign art collectors and curators, and an equally important promoter of underground artists. In this way he played an important role in helping to shape the emerging Cynical Realist trend.

Sadly, the merits and aesthetics of Cynical Realism have been somewhat sidelined by a wider controversy, stirred up by certain Chinese intellectuals and artists, about whether the movement has been manipulated by the West: these critics say that Western enthusiasm for the movement is related to the latter's dissident nature and its criticism of Chinese society. Furthermore, they say, the vast majority of public showings of works by Cynical Realist artists were on foreign soil. Of course, during the 1990s and 2000s, most of the buyers of Chinese contemporary art were from the West, thus a Western "influence" is undeniable. And, given the lack of authorized art exhibitions and contemporary art festivals in China (the internationally acclaimed Cynical Realist Fang Lijun was not allowed a one-man show in China until October 2006) it is also true that most of the movement's works were exhibited abroad. But the suggestion that some kind of malevolent Western influence is at work, has more than a whiff of paranoia. (But see the views of younger Chinese artists, below.) A more mature reaction is to see Cynical Realism as an essential stage in the development of Chinese painting, and an important contribution to post-Tiananmen Square society.


Broadly speaking, Cynical Realism takes a critical look at contemporary Chinese society, but its use of humour and satire tends to soften the criticism. Indeed, Cynical Realist painters often adopt a self-mocking attitude. As well as borrowing stylistic elements from the Socialist Realist movement, they have their own devices - clown-like figures and make-up, as well as symbolism and surrealism imagery - through which to convey their message. One of their most powerful themes is the idea of the "powerless individual". This is a feature of numerous paintings, in which figures are portrayed as "helpless", "masked", "confused" or "screaming in silent laughter". Whether or not this was an accurate portrayal of conditions in China at the time (1990s), it was certainly consistent with the attitude of most Westerners, who saw China as a society in which the interests of the individual are wholly subordinated to those of the state.

Famous Cynical Realists

Yue Minjun (b.1962)

Trained at Hebei Normal University (1985-89) and influenced by the work of Geng Jianyi (b.1962), a leading member of the '85 New Wave movement, Yue Minjun's work has been exhibited at numerous galleries in Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing. His most valuable painting is "Gweong-Gweong" (1993), which sold at Christie's Hong Kong in May, 2008, for $6,932,517. Perhaps the most famous member of the group, Yue is best known for his self-portraits in which he appears in various settings, frozen in laughter. In his popular "Hat" series, his grinning head is depicted wearing a variety of hats - the helmet of a British policeman, Catwoman's mask, a chef's hat, and so on. The paintings attempt to convey the absurdity of the bureaucratic protocols and social customs surrounding hats. On a more sinister level, the series highlights the use of "uniform" to control the population.

Fang Lijun (b.1963)

A graduate of the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (1985-89), Fang's paintings have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, as well as numerous venues in Hong Kong and Beijing. His most expensive work is "Series 2 No. 4" (1992) which was bought at Sotheby's Hong Kong in October, 2014, for $7,664,849. Fang is best-known for his "bald-headed" figures. Using baldness to de-personalize the pictured individuals, and/or to disempower them, Fang shows them in a variety of poses - standing, swimming, yawning, smiling, and so on. The overall impression given by Fang's figures is that they are confused or disorientated, and they are meant to symbolize the uncertainty felt by young Chinese people after 1989. Alternatively, the confused "bald-headed" figures may represent the artist's view of how Chinese individuals have to behave in order to hide their real thoughts from the authorities.

Zhang Xiaogang (b.1958)

A victim of the Chinese Cultural Revolution - his mother and father were taken away for 3 years for re-education - he studied at the Sichuan Academy of Fine arts (1977-82). His influences include Gerhard Richter, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. His most expensive painting is "Bloodline: Big Family No. 3" (1995) which sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong in April, 2014, for $12,144,809. Zhang is best-known for his "Bloodline" paintings ("Bloodline: the Big Family"), a series of mostly monochromatic, stiffly-posed portraits of Chinese people, whose faces appear calm but whose insides are churning with emotion. They illustrate how Chinese people should protect themselves, by keeping their feelings and experiences locked away inside them, so as to survive as a member of China's big family.

Cynical Realism was one of the first contemporary art movements in China to achieve an international reputation. However, despite - or, more accurately, because of - its (ongoing) success in attracting foreign buyers, Cynical Realism was viewed more negatively by the younger generation of postmodernist artists, associated with the famous art exhibition entitled "Post-sense, Sensibility, Alien Bodies and Delusion", held in 1999 at Shaoyaoju, Beijing. Heavily involved in conceptual art - the dominant style of early 21st century art in China - these artists used new forms, including performance art and installation, along with video art, and photography, to create a type of postmodernist art (comprising an extreme statement of irrationality and improvisation) that would not be "controlled" by Western buyers.

Works reflecting the style of this art movement can be seen in some of the best galleries of contemporary art in the world.

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