The painted grins are stretched so wide they seem to hurt. And that is pretty much what Yue Minjun intended, the Chinese artist explained at the Paris opening of his first major show in Europe.
A former electrician turned contemporary artist, Yue shot to international attention in 1999 when his signature laughing-man self-portraits made a much-noted eruption at the Art Biennale in Venice.
“If I paint laughter it is because I feel pain towards human life,” the 50-year-old, one of China’s most bankable art figures, told reporters through an interpreter. “I found a comical way to express something tragic.”
Where does this sense of tragedy come from? “It’s first and foremost a perception of human life. But it’s also a feeling towards the world we live in,” he offered.
Clothed in black, his head smooth, Yue confessed to feeling “a little anxious and shy” at the sight of the four dozen paintings and 100-odd sketches that went on show on Wednesday at the Fondation Cartier, where they will remain to March 17.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen so many of my works displayed at the same time,” he told reporters. “It’s also the first time I get to examine myself.”
“I spotted quite a few clumsy touches in my paintings,” he quipped. “I said to myself I must be one of those painters who does not know how to hide. I say things in a direct and simple way.”
Yue’s cartoon-like characters are cast in contorted poses, or scenes that reference the cultural revolution, like the 2000 Memory 4, where a crowd of people inside a man’s skull tout what looks like Mao Zedong’s “little red book”.
Sunrise, painted in 1998, features a crowd of laughing faces lifted towards the rising sun.
“A lot of visual memories stem from my childhood,” he explained. “It was the socialist experience. When I was a child, a great many works used to depict happy people, full of confidence, living an ideal life.”
“I want to help people find strength”
Other works reference the European art canon, such as the 1995 The Execution, inspired by Goya and Manet, in which both the half-naked victims and gunmen are bent with laughter in front of what look like the walls of Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Seen as one of his most political works, The Execution fetched 3.74 million euros (US$4.76 million) at auction at Sotheby’s in London in 2007.
But the artist does not like to be described as “political”. His critique is about culture, he says, namely the way that “in traditional Chinese civilisation the individual is not important”.
Born in Daqing in northeastern China, Yue grew up under the cultural revolution, working first as an oil field electrician before enrolling to study art in 1985 in Hebei province.
In 1991, he joined an artist community in a village near Beijing.
Still reeling from the fallout of the Tiananmen Square massacre two years earlier, he and other artists founded a current known as “cynical realism”, now one of the most influential contemporary art movements in China.
The Fondation Cartier’s director Herve Chandes said mounting the show was a challenge, since Yue’s works are spread out across Asia, Europe and the United States – and the artist kept little trace of their whereabouts.
For the Paris show, Yue loaned around 100 preparatory sketches, which had never before been shown outside the studio he shares with a handful of assistants near Beijing.
The exhibit also features snaps of Yue, taken by his brother, which he used to paint his emblematic alter-egos. A slideshow reveals the artist dressed only in underpants, laughing and pulling faces as he lunges out at the camera lens.
Today Yue is still painting laughing men – but is also exploring new avenues, for instance in a series of portraits obtained by rubbing one canvas up against another.
“Usually paintings are passive. Here I want to make them active; I want them to do something.”
But whatever he does, Yue is not out to comfort the viewer.
“There are artists who paint calm things to bring you tranquility. I try to stimulate people with my paintings to help them find strength.”