Leng Lin


When we look back on the typical self-portraits by Yue Minjun, we can find that these “cynical” images made in the early 1990s, in fact, bear marks of surrealism which owes a lot to the characteristics of contemporary Chinese society. Marx thought capitalism economy should be fully developed in a society before it can enter to its supposed next stage, socialism (which finally leads to communism), however, more than half a century ago, China, a struggling nation in panic, with a some-thousand-year-old history behind but little modern experience, started its socialistic experiment with incredible heroic idealism. In this sense, the socialist China took on surrealist characteristics ever since its beginning. From the Great Leap Forward to the Great Cultural Revolution, people in this country had voluntarily undertaken many responsibilities that far beyond the their experience, and the way they related themselves to the world were based on an imagination detached from the reality of the country. The art in the New China has inevitably carried on this imagination. During that time, in typical socialist paintings in China, all the scenes looked very realistic but were indeed surrealistic. They served for the heroic fantasies, and the images of great people or the heroes in the paintings could well justify the fabricated scenes.


Such paranoiac pursuit of sublimity has encountered ruthless ridicule and deconstruction in the post 89 Cynical Realism paintings. In his Cynical Realism period, Yue Minjun inserted his contemptuous grinning faces in numerous scenes that were originally intended for grand narrative, and the improper appearance of these ridiculous images of the artist himself are the surrogate of Yue Minjun in his rebel against revolutionary surrealism that prevailed in the art advocated by the authority. These paintings are intrinsically intertexual with those “heroic” paintings: the scenes are no more related to great figures but to the artist’s self-portraits with big grinning face. This improper juxtaposition can be regarded as another type of surrealism reactionary to the revolutionary surrealism. In this sense, in Scene series, the artist carries on his exploration in the Chinese surrealism, or starts his reflection on Cynical Realism/Cynical Surrealism. In these paintings, figures with typical cynical remarks are completely eliminated from the scenes, and the artist does not need the cynical symbols to show his doubt and challenge to history and culture any more. We find, however, the intertexuality does not disappear; it has even been strengthened in a hidden way. When facing to these familiar scenes, seemingly autonomous but devoid of the people that are supposed to be in them, instead of feeling the surrealism constructed by the artist, we start to think about what we ourselves, and our culture have done in the construction of the surrealism that we are used to but never aware of.


Scene series are not only a rewriting and reexamination of Chinese revolutionary realism tradition, but also a reconsideration of the western surrealism. The surrealist experience of the reality enable us to understand better the surrealist characteristic of China’s reality, and at the same time, it provides a Chinese perspective to look at realist and surrealist art in the West. Scene series make it clear that the nurturing source of surrealism in contemporary Chinese paintings is so different from the psychoanalytic methodology of western surrealism. It comes from the some half century’s cultural experience of the nation- and for the socialism with Chinese characteristics is still an ongoing surrealism experience.

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