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Untitled (Smile-ism No. 1), 2006 by Yue Minjun


Untitled (Smile-ism No. 1), 2006 by Yue Minjun
Untitled (Smile-ism No. 1), 2006 by Yue Minjun

Untitled (Smile-ism No. 1), 2006; Lithograph in colors on wove paper; Signed Yue Minjun in pencil lower right and numbered 22/45 in pencil lower left; Published by Art Issue Editions, New York; Size - Sheet 43 x 31 1/2"; Unframed.


“A smile doesn’t necessarily mean happiness; it could be something else.” - Yue Minjun

Yue Minjun (b. 1962) is a Chinese artist based in Beijing China and is best known for his works that depict himself in various settings, eyes tightly shut, and frozen in smiling laughter. He has worked in a variety of media including oil painting, sculpture, watercolor, and prints. Minjun is often classified as part of the Chinese Cynical Realist art movement developed in 1989, although he rejects the label. “I’m actually trying to make sense of the world,” he said. “There’s nothing cynical or absurd in what I do.” He holds the record auction price for a contemporary Chinese painting at $5.9 million, when his painting “Execution” (1995) sold at Sotheby's London in 2007.


Yue Minjun studied oil painting at the Hebei Normal University and graduated in 1989. In June of that year China was rocked by student-led demonstrations and their suppression on Tiananmen Square. “My mood changed at that time,” he said. “I was very down. I realized the gap between reality and the ideal, and I wanted to create my own artistic definition, whereby there could be a meeting with social life and the social environment. The first step,” he added, “was to create a style to express my feelings accurately, starting with something that I knew really well —myself.”


Minjun's now iconic laugh was inspired by a painting that he saw by another Chinese artist, Geng Jianyi, in which a smile is deformed to mean the opposite of what it normally means. “In China there’s a long history of the smile,” Mr. Yue said. “There is the Maitreya Buddha who can tell the future and whose facial expression is a laugh. Normally there’s an inscription saying that you should be optimistic and laugh in the face of reality."


"So I developed this painting where you see someone laughing,” Yui said. “At first you think he’s happy, but when you look more carefully, there’s something else there. There were also paintings during the Cultural Revolution period, those Soviet-style posters showing happy people laughing,” he continued. “But what’s interesting is that normally what you see in those posters is the opposite of reality.” Yue made the decision to paint himself as the smiling figure giving him a greater margin for freedom of expression. “I’m not laughing at anybody else, because once you laugh at others, you’ll run into trouble, and can create obstacles,” he said. “This is the way to do it if you want to make a parody of the things that are behind the image,” he stated.


The discussion of contemporary Chinese art must include Li Xianting, the most renowned art critic in China. Xianting graduated from the Chinese Painting Department, Central Academy of Fine Art in 1978 and became the editor of Meishu (Fine Art Magazine) until 1983 and from 1985-89 he was the editor of the China Fine Art Newspaper. He is currently based in Beijing and acts as an independent critic and curator. In the late seventies and eighties he was the major force in introducing and advocating the burgeoning avant-garde art in China that was starting to embark on economic reformation. Xianting coined the terms "Cynical Realism" and "Political Pop" which formed the dominate schools of the Chinese avant-garde. Many of the artists that he discovered and promoted have become leading figures and have garnished great international attention, such as Wang Guangyi and Yue Minjun. Li Xianting writing about the emergence of Political Pop and Cynical Realism stated:

"... both (movements were) interested in the dissolution of certain systems of meaning... (and) adopt a comical approach... With a revolutionary momentum resembling that of the '85 New Wave, these artists raised the flag of Western deconstruction and rallied under slogans such as 'purging humanist enthusiasm'... They stripped the lofty veil off the metaphysical '85 New Wave and attempted to give rise to a new movement through the 'materiality and immediacy' of Pop Art. -

("Political Pop and a Deconstructivist Attempt," 1992, Li Xianting, published in MoMA Primary Documents: Contemporary Chinese Art, Durham, NC 2010, p. 178.)


The Cynical Realism art movement that emerged in China began in Beijing in the 1990s, and has become one of the most popular Chinese contemporary art movements in mainland China. The movement arose as Chinese artists broke away from the collective mindset of the Cultural Revolution in the pursuit of individual expression. The resulting works of art focus on social and political issues that are transformed using humor. There is also a post-ironic take on the transition that Chinese society has undergone from Communism through industrialization and modernity.


Untitled (Smile-ism No. 1), 2006 is an excellent example of Yue Minjun at his best. The Smile-sim series is a group of 28 large lithographs that feature single or multiple images of the eyes closed smiling Yue Minjun set in different poses and on different backgrounds. Untitled (Smile-ism No. 1) features the classic eyes closed mouth open smiling image of the artist's face over another image of him, but this time his own hands are covering his eyes. This contemporary Chinese work would be a wonderful addition to any modern art collection!

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