If the Cynical Realist school, spearheaded by Yue Minjun, is considered to be the most vocal artistic expression of the shattered idealism that followed in the wake of the Tiananmen square demonstrations in the summer of 1989, then Execution, painted in 1995, is arguably the most vehement, candid and politically loaded delivery of the principles that underpin that movement. Monumental in scale, it is also a monument to the resilience of a generation of progressive Chinese artists who, despite repression and the curtailment of the freedom of expression, used the visual arts as a vehicle for registering dissent. Laced with carbolic bite and sardonic wit, Execution is Yue Minjun's wonderfully subversive masterpiece, the single most iconic painting of the Cynical Realist school by its leading practitioner.
Bought by the original owner from Manfred Schoeni's Hong Kong gallery in 1995 on the strict condition it was kept hidden from public view due to its politically dangerous subject matter, its appearance at auction is the first time it has been seen in public since its creation more than a decade ago. Today, with the benefit of distance and desensitisation afforded by history, Execution is like a time-capsule recording not only the political climate of the day but also the spirit of revolution that it engendered among freethinking artists. No painting before, or since, exhibits a more pertinent satire of China's transformational context.
The excellence of Execution stems from its mature, pure and powerful aesthetic, and from the exacting precision of its intellectual critique. Honing and refining his mature style, Execution invests the humour of his early works with a cogent and expressive urgency which makes this his crowning achievement. Drawing on his own socio-political and economic environ for subject matter, Yue Minjun's genius lies in his iconography which mines the rich seam of art history, couching his polemic in an overtly Western idiom. In Execution, he confronts three towers of Western painting: Francisco de Goya, Edouard Manet and Pablo Picasso. The configuration of the firing squad and the line of the condemned originated in one of the most infamous and politicised history paintings in the Western canon: Francisco de Goya's The Third of May 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, 1814. Goya, a court painter and chronicler of his epoch, sought to perpetuate by the means of his brush the heroic actions of his countrymen in their insurrection against the violent Napoleonic invasion. Half a century later, Edouard Manet used the same subversive imagery in his painting The Execution of Maximillian, 1867-68, in order to condemn Napoleon III's severance of political aid to the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian, whom the French Empire had installed as puppet emperor of Mexico and later abandoned to certain death. At the epicentre of the Twentieth Century Pablo Picasso, famously a vehement pacifist again returned to this salient format with Massacre in Korea, 1951, to renounce the slaughter of civilians during the Korean War. Fifty years later in another part of the world, Yue Minjun uses Manet's painting as his direct source for Execution, trading on its political potency to speak in lucid terms of his own generation's political struggle and the onslaught of Western capitalism. In an arena tightly controlled by State censorship, the Western art historical paradigm provides Yue Minjun with the ideal vehicle with which to encode his political message, which is no less sonorous for being encrypted in Western guise.
Lined up against the ornate red wall of the Imperial Palace, Yue Minjun locates his drama in Tiananmen Square, the stage for one of the most audaciously authoritarian demonstrations of political might in modern history. Since the demise of Chairman Mao in 1976, reformist policies introduced by Deng Xiaoping and a gradual opening up to the West created the Economic Miracle that saw the seismic transformation of China's previously moribund economy into a capitalist model which was nonetheless still underpinned by utopian Communist ideals. It also engendered increasing liberalisation in artistic circles: as the influence of the State-prescribed Socialist Realist mode of painting waned, previously proscribed styles indebted to the sudden influx of Western cultural material proliferated. Throughout the 1980s, newly emancipated artists were granted greater room for manoeuvre and sought to change society through their work. The landmark exhibition China/ Avant Garde at the prestigious Beijing National Gallery was programmed to showcase the progressive art produced in China throughout the 1980s. However, two events in 1989 brought an abrupt and brutal close to the ideological advancements of that decade. The first was the forced closure of the China/ Avant Garde exhibition moments after it opened its doors to the public on grounds of censorship; the second was the violent massacre of June 4th at Tiananmen Square which instantly revoked any freedom imparted over the previous decade.
Yue Minjun was one of a group of artists who had hoped that the China/Avante Garde exhibition would contribute to a revival of Chinese culture. Months later this heady idealism had evaporated, quashed by an accusatory political regime that implicated all artists and intellectuals in lawless activity. From 1991 onwards, Yue Minjun lived in a small village to the North West of Beijing where he pioneered an embryonic community of likeminded artists who shared the same ironic, absurdist response to the summer's events. Later known as the Yuanmingyuan artists' village, this community became a hotbed for some of the most talented artists known today, including Fang Lijun and Yang Shaobin. With the social conditions in place, this village on the fringes of society saw the genesis of the Cynical Realism movement.
Execution is the summa of the Cynical Realist spirit at this turbulent time and as such is a work of paramount importance in the understanding of contemporary Chinese art. The populous protests that saw over 100,000 students march on Tiananmen Square in one day are reduced to a single, condensed image of acute political import. Like the photograph of the 'Unknown Rebel' halting the advance of a column of tanks onto the square, an image immortalised by the international press as a symbol of the individual's resistance against the State, Execution distils the sentiment of protest into a single captivating painting. The line of condemned men, in fact clones of the artist's self image, stands as a metaphor for the superannuated principles of collectivism and egalitarianism championed by the State which inhibited individualism and artistic creativity. Their faces, instead of revealing fear, are contorted by alarmingly inane, absurdist laughter. The grinning face, an ironic hyperbole of the smiling visages of propagandist posters designed to co-opt citizens into working for the common good of the State, is here used to convey irreverent ambivalence as the only remaining defence against political oppression. The grinning face has its roots in a work called The Second State by Geng Jianyi, one of the pioneers of the 1980s art scene who paved the way for Cynical Realism. The work, which was among those censored by the closure of the China/ Avant Garde exhibition, had a profound impact on Yue Minjun. The motif of spiked laughter reaches its apogee in the present work, thanks to the loaded connotations that come with his appropriation of Goya, Manet and Picasso's images. While Goya's hero flings his arms in the air in a pose reminiscent of the Crucifixion, Manet confers magnanimity on his hero through his stoic upright pose. Yue Minjun's multiplied heroes, by contrast, stand debased in their underpants, stripped of their acquired Western attire, covering their genitals as if defending against a free kick in a football match, an imported cultural phenomenon. Their maniacal laughter represents the only recourse to protest left when demonstrations are ignored or, worse, violently stamped out. This lunacy has an important and specific precedent in Chinese artistic and literary culture. Known as the 'Popi' style, it is analogous to the stock motif of the intelligent fool in Shakespearean tragedy, where feigning madness to cope with political oppression became a way of salvaging one's self esteem. As the artist explains: "Scholars of past times could often only display helplessness when faced with social problems; most of them gave up. 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, 'A Few words Behind My Works' in Exhibition Catalogue, Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection, 2006, p. 138). In Yue Minjun's paintings, the act of giving up itself becomes politicised, a means of passive resistance and self-preservation.
There is an important added complexity in Execution which eschews facile interpretation. Perhaps incongruously, the firing squad, dressed in Western garb rather than PRC military uniform, point imaginary rifles instead of the smoking guns of Manet's composition. In the immediate right-hand foreground, a figure wearing a generic mass-manufactured Western-style T-shirt, appears to be playing air guitar, a cultural gesture alien to China's recent past. In fact, this is a direct quotation of the figure to the right in Manet's painting, but once deprived of his firearm, the figure's pose takes on a whole new meaning. On the one hand critical of tyrannical governmental authoritarianism, in Execution there is also the implicit criticism of the Western alternative. Having lived through repression, Yue's specific generation faces the subsequent onslaught of another, altogether antithetical, cultural model. With the opening up of the 1980s, the system of values built up over decades of totalitarian Communist rule lost its significance and was usurped by imported - and often shallow - Western culture, its clothes, television, music and not least, its art. This ideological revolution left in its wake a spiritual vacuum, the result of rapid societal change that outpaces the evolution of a nascent native culture. China's rich ancestral culture, which had prospered through centuries and dynasties until its destruction at the hands of the Cultural Revolution, was now in the grips of a no less oppressive force: Consumerism. In a complex, layered painting, Yue Minjun questions whether the arrival of a new alternative is any better than the last.
In the end, therefore, Yue Minjun's political statement is expressed as much through ambiguity and inference as by direct polemicising. Asking questions and provoking thought, this is the hallmark of great art. It is this sophistication which makes him stand out as the leading voice of the Cynical Realist movement. As appreciation for Chinese avant garde art grows both within and outside China, Execution will be consecrated as a work of huge art-historical significance, arguably the single most important painting of its genre. Acutely aware of the resonance of Goya's image to Western audiences, like Manet a century before him, Yue Minjun plays on its instant legibility and associative meanings to create an image which is at once a witty and ironic subversion of art history and a damning indictment of the prevailing political climate in China in the 1990s. With its unrivalled symbolic significance, Execution is quite simply Yue Minjun's masterpiece, an icon of the Cynical Realist movement and of the time and era that gave rise to it.
Oil on canvas
150 by 300cm. 59 by 118in.
Hebei Educational Press, Ed., Yue Minjun: The Lost Self, Hebei 2005, pp. 86-87 and p. 229, illustrated in colour
Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong
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