Yue Minjun 岳敏君


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Yue Minjun is a Chinese artist best known for oil paintings depicting himself frozen in laughter. He has utilized this signature image in sculpture, watercolor and print, as well as on canvas. His work is often termed Cynical Realist, referring to the post-1989 movement. Born in 1962, Yue lives and works in Beijing. 


Childhood & Family

Yue's father worked in the oil fields of northeast China. Yue worked as an electrician for the Ocean Oil Company in Tianjin before beginning his studies in art in 1983.[1]

Education & Development

In 1985, Yue graduated from the Oil Painting Department of Hebei Normal University, and found a job teaching drawing at North China Petroleum College. In 1989, he was inspired by a painting by Geng Jianyi in the China/Avant Garde show in Beijing, which depicted Geng's own laughing face.[1]

Throughout the early 1990s, Yue Minjun was part of the artistic community at Yuanmingyuan, an area on the outskirts of Beijing encompassing a large park. Young artists from all over China rented cheap housing there from the local farmers. In 1992, Yue Minjun sold his first painting to Johnson Chang, the owner of Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong, for USD 1,500. A week later, an American investment banker showed up in the artists colony, and bought one of Yue Minjun's paintings for USD 5,000. Since then, Yue says, he has been prolific and well-remunerated.[1]When the community was disbanded, Yue Minjun moved to another outlying area, Songzhuang Village, along with some fifty other artists. Yue remains in Songzhuang village today.[1]

In 1994, Schoeni Art Gallery showed Yue Minjun's work for the first time. By the mid 1990s, Yue had already been grouped with Fang Lijun and Liu Wei (b. 1965) as part of the Cynical Realism group, a term coined by critic Li Xianting. These were artists whose work had political overtones; in particular, a sense of cynicism about what was happening in the country and the world.[1]


Cynical Realism

Cynical Realism takes its name from Aldous Huxley's famous quotation: "Cynical realism: it's the intelligent man's best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation." Faced with a tumultuous and unstable environment, these artists created works that simultaneously exposed their suffering and masked it with irony, a glaze of "stylized ambivalence." In Minjun's case, this ambivalence is conveyed through the over-emphatic, insincere grin on the face of his figures--that is, his own face, as with fellow Cynical Realist Fang Lijun who also features himself as the recurring protagonist of his art.

Yue Minjun, "Noah's Ark," lithograph, 41 x 45 inches, 2006.
Yue Minjun, "Noah's Ark," lithograph, 41 x 45 inches, 2006.
Yue's laughing portraits engage the viewer with a kind of grey humor that emphasizes the canvas' boundaries as much as Yue's ability for individualistic self-expression. His repeated use of his own image fashions himself into a vacant icon, an ad proclaiming the spiritual emptiness of the contemporary world. His poster-like style invokes the Socialist Realist iconography of the Cultural Revolution. His iconic figures enact themes including war and private conflict, the manipulation of history and art history, and the ambiguity of gender.

Such styles as Cynical Realism that are dedicated to social commentary have emerged in just the past 25 years, following the opening of China to the world by Deng Xiaoping in 1979. Art critic Gao Minglu spoke to CNN reporters about the nature of the Chinese avant-garde: "They felt a very strong responsibility for social reform," Gao recalled. "This movement was not just for creating an art form or style; rather, the artists' concern was that their activity be a part of the social change."[2]


As original as his mocking self-portraits may be, Yue's work shows a distinct penchant for art historical appropriation. Whether it be Eugene Delacroix or Francis Bacon that Yue chooses to emulate in a specific canvas, he does so with a conflicting blend of respect and mockery that is typical of the Cynical Realism movement as a whole. Though the compositions are painted in painstaking realism, insistent on displaying the artist's virtuoso and respect for his tradition, they also subvert their subject matter in interesting, often grotesque ways. Yue's "Pope" of 1997 cites Velazquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X, painted in 1650. The orientation of the seated Pope within the niche of his gilded throne remains consistent between the two versions. This symmetry, however, only serves to further highlight the main discrepancies within the picture: that of the Pope's expression and his dress. On the one hand calm and astute in Velazquez's portrait, the Pope is maniacal in Yue's version. This difference changes the entire tone of the portrait, pointing towards the fragility of the Pope's carefully arranged identity as a grave and controlled figurehead. Furthermore, while in Velazquez's courtly product the Pope bares little to no bodily flesh, in Yue's he wears his dress up around his waist, revealing his undergarments with childlike peevishness. The artist's attitude toward the masterpieces from which he borrows remains as ambiguous as his attitude towards the broken culture that surrounds him. At once clinging to and scorning it, Yue maintains a signature poker face throughout.

Emergence & Reception

However grim or critical their subject matter, Yue Minjun's portraits (and indeed the Cynical Realist movement en toto) have become synonymous with the boom in Chinese Contemporary art. According to Artnet, "China's post-1989 Cynical Realism movement has shaped and defined what we have come to understand as the major force behind Chinese contemporary art, and the leading artists of this movement, such as Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun, have undoubtedly achieved international status."[3]                                                                                                       


In 1994, Schoeni Gallery showed Yue Minjun's work for the first time. Yue has shown work internationally in many exhibitions including the 5th Shanghai Biennale, Mahjong at Kunstmuseum, Bern (and elsewhere) and Xianfeng! at Museum Beelden aan Zee in the Netherlands. Yue Minjun's first solo museum show in the United States, Yue Minjun and the Symbolic Smile, took place at the Queens Museum of Art, New York, from October 2007 to January 2008, and featured bronze and polychrome sculptures, paintings, and drawings.

For Yue Minjun's CV, click here.

Gallery Affiliations

In 1992, Yue Minjun co-operated with a gallery for the first time. Now his partner galleries span Germany, France, Switzerland, Canada, the United States, and other countries, though none has an exclusive relationship with the artist.

He is represented by Art Beatus in Vancouver and Chinese Contemporary in Beijing and London, among others.

Acquisitions & Auctions

Less than ten years ago, Yue Minjun sold his first three works at auction, and all were bought in. When one of his paintings finally did succeed at auction, in late 2004, it sold  for GBP 19,323. His  breakthrough came in the Sotheby's sales of 21-22 June, 2007, when three paintings  ("Untitled" of 1998, "The Pope" of 1997, and "Hats" of 2004) all sold within the range of GBP 276,000 to 2.2 million--stunning growth even by Contemporary Art market standards.

An Art Market Insight article written in early June of 2007 discussed the high-rollers of the Contemporary Chinese art crowd, saying: "To date, Xiaodong Liu is achieving the highest valuations of the Chinese contemporary artists...Amongst the artists whose works have estimates at under 10,000 euros, we would mention Guangyi Wang, Minjun Yue, Tiehai Zhou..." Three weeks after this Art Market article appeared, the aforementioned three Minjuns sold; elevating the artist's market value so steeply, one would feel hard-pressed to imagine any work of his ever being estimated at 10,000 euros.

Yue Minjun, "Execution," oil on canvas, 59.1x118.1 inches, 1995.
Yue Minjun, "Execution," oil on canvas, 59.1x118.1 inches, 1995.
Yue Minjun, "Massacre at Chios," oil on canvas, 98.5x143.25 inches, 1994.
Yue Minjun, "Massacre at Chios," oil on canvas, 98.5x143.25 inches, 1994.
The piece pictured above, "Execution" of 1995, became the most expensive work sold by a Chinese contemporary artist, when it fetched £2.9 million (US $5.9 million) at Sotheby's London in 2007. Until its sale in 2007, the painting had been owned by Trevor Simon, a junior investment banker who bought it with about a third of his salary while working in the region. Simon kept this painting in storage for 10 years as required by the conditions of sale. The record sale took place a week after Yue's painting "Massacre of Chios" sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong for nearly $4.1 million. "Massacre of Chios" (shown below) shares its name with a painting by Eugène Delacroix, depicting the 1822 event in Greek history.
Eugène Delacroix, "Massacre at Chios," oil on canvas, 139.37x164.96 inches, 1824.

The global financial crisis of 2008, of course, affected art markets everywhere. Yet the top of the contemporary Chinese market  seemed minimally influenced, with Yue Minjun's “Seeking for Terrorists” of 2006 auctioned for HKD  1.8 million at Christie’s Hong Kong. 85 pieces by Yue Minjun were auctioned in 2008, with a transaction rate of 78.46%, resulting in an RMB 84.81 million (USD 12 million) gross for the artist's work.  That year, Yue Minjun was also nominated for Time magazine's “Man of the Year 2007” designation, the only artist on a short-list including Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton.



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 http://new.artzinechina.com/display_vol_aid111_en.html
  2. http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/1999/china.50/inside.china/art.overview/
  3. http://www.artnet.com/Galleries/Exhibitions.asp?gid=424335412&cid=113805
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