Montparnasse in Paris is usually a dead zone, not just for its cemetery, which holds Sartre and Baudelaire, Beckett and Poincaré, but also because it is a business district. The Fondation Cartier, however, has been bringing art to the 14th arrondissement since 1994 in its Jean Nouvel building, and its latest guest is one of China’s best-known artists, Yue Minjun.
You’ll instantly recognise work by Yue Minjun, whom I first encountered when covering the 2007 Contemporary auctions at Sotheby’s for The Guardian. His art features a cartoonish, nightmarish version of his own head, often with an impossibly broad smile-scream, complete with dozens of teeth more than he ought to have. The head seems descended from Velazquez’s Pope Innocent X via Bacon’s Screaming Pope, with the political criticism and artistic introspection that lineage brings.
The show, which is on until 17 March 2013 and is his first major European retrospective, covers Yue Minjun’s whole career and reveals his sly entrapment of his audience: his cartoonish style hides great questions about freedom and responsibility. Aptly for an artist showing a hundred years from Samuel Beckett’s tomb, he can cloak his existential despair in some knockabout humour. Well, his figures look like they’re laughing…
Pictured above: Yue Minjun in his studio, surrounded by his paintings and sculptures
Yue Minjun has certainly been in the advance party of Chinese artists gaining fame in the West. I asked him, via email and through a translator, if he ever thought he and his colleagues would become so renowned and recognised.
‘In my art career, I never expected that Chinese Contemporary art would become so popular in the West. Chinese artists are always trying their best to express their sincere feelings in art, or we can say they are genuine to art, which is rarely seen nowadays. This has moved audiences from all over the world.’
In pointing to sincerity as the missing quality in Western art, Yue Minjun highlights our own anomie and the privilege Chinese artists feel after years of obscure toil. Give them time to be super-successful – the sincerity will go!
Not that Chinese artists are in any danger of being so recognised at home: ‘Contemporary Chinese artists have a complicated identity. You can call them rebels, outsiders, and sometimes fashion icons. In my view, they are not enjoying a noble status anyway.’
After the recognisability of his works, which certainly makes them sellable (£100,000-£120,000 in recent auctions), Yue Minjun’s use of the Western art-historical tradition has certainly contributed to his success over here. By removing the figures from David’s Death of Marat, say, or using Goya’s Third of May 1808, with its execution of Spanish rebels, he enters into our tradition, drawing on its layers, and probably appeals, slightly, to the snob-connoisseur who feels clever in ‘getting’ the reference.
Pictured above: The Execution (1995) by Yue Minjun, modelled after Goya’s Third of May 1808
He does not see the Western tradition as exclusive, however: ‘Personally speaking, I don’t take Western art tradition as something particular to Western world. I am one of all the human beings and open to culture everywhere, not limiting myself to a particular place.’
He does concede that ‘Chinese contemporary art has its own background, while Western audience have theirs,’ but in looking at each other’s work, ‘the exchange of these two kinds of backgrounds happens, which will generate new ideas.’
Pictured left: I Am Dragon 3 (2008) by Yue Minjun
And if you’re going to open up a closed society – which China has been to the West, if not to itself – art is a good way to do it: ‘In my view, art is the best way to know other cultures because it communicates. And it definitely promotes mutual understanding.’
Yue Minjun’s art certainly produces mutual cultural understanding – but it is also always underpinned by an unresolved strain, laughing and smiling teetering on the brink of crying and screaming. That nervous matrix goes beyond comprehension or explanation.
Yue Minjun: L’ombre du fou rire continues until 17 March 2013 at the Fondation Cartier, Paris