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Old 11-13-2007, 12:59 AM
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Merlion Merlion is offline
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What Lies Behind the Artist's Famous Smile

Chinese artist Yue Minjun recently achieved international stardom on the strength of his signature grin. His painting 'Execution' was sold for $5.9 million at a Sotherby auction, a record sum for a contemporary Chinese painting. He does sculptures based on this smile as well, see further below.

An Artist’s Famous Smile: What Lies Behind It?, from the NY Times.

Nov 13, 2007. Your first reaction upon meeting Yue Minjun might be, yes, it is indeed he! The face with the enigmatic, jaw-breaking grin, perhaps the most recognizable image in contemporary Chinese painting, is a self-portrait.

“Yes, it’s me,” Mr. Yue said in a recent interview, and he smiled, though in a gentler, less face-splitting fashion than the man in his paintings — the one who drifts Zelig-like past various familiar backgrounds making a sardonic, or perhaps ironically despairing, comment on the passing scene.

Mr. Yue, 45, was in New York in October for the opening of an exhibition of his paintings and sculptures that continues through Jan. 6 at the Queens Museum of Art. The show, “Yue Minjun and the Symbolic Smile,” is the first American museum exhibition of Mr. Yue’s work and further evidence of his remarkable rise in the superheated field of Chinese contemporary art.

A few years ago, Mr. Yue was eking out a precarious existence in one of Beijing’s artist colonies, trying to figure out a way to weave China’s tumultuous experience into his works. Now, largely on the strength of that signature grin, he has achieved stardom internationally.

Most conspicuously, one of his paintings, “Execution” (1995), a satirical Pop Art-like version of Manet’s “Execution of Maximilian” that was inspired by the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, sold for $5.9 million last month at an auction at Sotheby’s in London. It was a record sum for a contemporary Chinese painting. For Mr. Yue, the huge sums suddenly commanded by his works — “The Pope” (1997), depicting him as a prelate, went for $4.3 million in June — have involved a readjustment. ....

“A smile,” Mr. Yue said, “doesn’t necessarily mean happiness; it could be something else.”

The smile has been variously interpreted as a sort of joke at the absurdity of it all, or the illusion of happiness in lives inevitably heading toward extinction.

Karen Smith, a Beijing expert on Chinese art, suggests that Mr. Yue’s grin is a mask for real feelings of helplessness.

“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.”

“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.”

Mr. Yue said his smile was in a way a parody of those posters. But, since it’s a self-portrait, it’s also necessarily a parody of himself, he added.

“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.”

The real reason he paints himself is that it gives him a greater margin for freedom of expression, he explained.....


Last edited by Merlion : 11-13-2007 at 01:13 AM.
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