His name might be relatively unknown but the paintings of Yue Minjun are some of the most recognisable images in Chinese contemporary art. For the Beijing-based artist is responsible for the iconic series of laughing featureless characters that combine Pop Art with pertinent commentary on the disillusionment in Chinese society now. Long one of the darlings of the auction rooms, Minjun’s profile is now set to rise outside of rarefied art circles with the opening of his first major European exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, Paris.

“The act of smiling, laughing to mask feeling of helplessness has such significance for my generation,” explains Minjun of those well known grins. Initially inspired by his friends, the portraits gradually merged into a single face – that of Minjun himself, a face that has become a caricature of the homogenization of Chinese society.

It used to be the case that Minjun’s work was described by critics as Cynical Realism, an art movement that emerged in the 1990s which painted a less idealistic vision of society. But as the Minjun retrospective in Paris attests, the artist now defies categorisation. Beyond the “grin and bear it” portraits, Minjun’s work varies from referencing masterpieces of Western art (see The Execution, a painting based on the 1868 work, The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico by Edouard Manet) to his never seen before sketches and drawings that are on display at the Fondation Cartier. Most striking to see is the evolution of Minjun’s art – from his rarely exhibited early paintings of friends to his clear self portraits and right up to Overlappings, his most recent series which goes as far to obliterate his own face. What next for Yue Minjun? The art world is waiting.

Yue Minjun at the Fondation Cartier, Paris
Until March 24

Yue Minjun talks with Shen Zhong about his journey in contemporary art

From 1985 to 1989 you studied fine arts at the Normal University in Hebei province in eastern china. It seems to me that the works you made during that time were the works of what we might call a conscientious student...
Yes, I was pretty good student. [...] It was difficult to get the highest grade. In painting, as in many other things, you have to wait until you get that flash of inspiration. I remember an argument I had with a teacher. I made big paintings, very big paintings, because that’s what I like to do. The teacher asked me: “Why do you make such big paintings?” I replied: “It’s true, they’re big. So is that a problem?” The teacher said: “The problem is that it has no meaning. You could paint a matchbox the size of a table, but that doesn’t give any more meaning to your painting.” To which I replied, “Well then, it won’t change anything if I make smaller paintings.” That ended the discussion. But an amazing thing happened later on. In order to graduate, I had to write a paper. The subject I chose was “Film Close-ups in Painting” because it was a film technique that I was very interested in at the time. [...]

When you were a student, did you have access to what was happening in contemporary art through magazines or other kinds of media?
Back then, we didn’t have any information from foreign countries. The first time was around 1982 when the Chinese Fine Art Magazine presented the abstract works of Feng Guodong. However, most of what I learned came from going to Yuan Ming Yuan and painting there, outside in nature with other friends. The artists we often met there were ten years older than us. They were also doing landscape painting, but the result seemed strange to us because very few of their works were actually realistic. They weren’t like Van Gogh’s works. In their paintings the sky was pink, the tree trunks were blue, but they were absolutely fabulous. After observing those artists for some time, I asked them how they were able to do that, and they couldn’t really explain it to me. We were still quite young at the time and our painting was based on realism. My family lived in the Haidian district in the suburbs of Beijing, near Yuan Ming Yuan. The park was still very beautiful back then, especially the trees in the spring and fall. The artists who came to paint landscapes there were very interesting. They would arrive, eat a little snack and then begin to paint. It gave us the opportunity to look at what other people were doing and to discuss techniques and experiences.

When you were a student from 1985 to 1989, did you hear about ’85 New wave? Did you have access at the university to information about what was going on in the art scene?
Yes, well, at the university we did have the China Fine Art Newspaper. You could feel that some schools were starting to open up in 1985, and students were quite receptive. That stopped in 1987 with the anti- bourgeois liberalization campaign.6 In fact, when I entered the school many students had already created associations, such as the “Hebei Youth Painting Society.” At the time, the Communist Youth League had asked the committee in Hebei Province to find ways of promoting modern art. You probably remember the Miyang Painting Group.7 In 1985, shortly after I was admitted to the school, I heard—who would have ever imagined it—that there was a conflict over power that arose between its members and that they were never able to resolve it. After they graduated, the students who were members were sent to different cities. I knew some of the members of Miyang, and afterwards I thought about the fact that they had been unable to maintain a cohesive group. They had become involved quite early on in the ’85 New Wave movement, while at the same time remaining open to the artistic exploration that was going on back then. Later on, they went back to an artistic style that was more in keeping with their own personal experience— producing works that were not as modern. In fact, before, they were painting peasants, a subject that was unfamiliar to them, too far removed from their daily lives. [...]

Were there still a lot of artists in Yuan Ming Yuan at the time?
About thirty to fifty. My experience in Yuan Ming Yuan has led me to believe that what is most important, in the cultural sphere, is definitely the emergence of a small circle, in the beginning, that gradually expands and is thus able to gain recognition. This may be true in China as well as abroad...

From 1989 to 1991 a lot of the artists around li Xianting 8 withdrew, didn’t produce anything, remained silent. It was a period of pessimism, but it also gave rise to artists such as fang lijun, liu wei and to works that li Xianting labelled as belonging to “cynical Realism.” you yourself joined this movement shortly afterwards.
It’s true that the period after 1989 was profoundly marked by a loss of hope.

There was a real sense of disillusionment?
Absolutely. It was stronger than the disillusionment that people are feeling today. When I read the messages posted on Weibo11 these days, I realize that everyone is experiencing a similar sense of disillusionment. We’ve come to see that the things we thought were good are no longer credible. This feeling was particularly strong after 1989, in the years that followed. If you look at the works we painted at that time, you will see that we mainly preferred to paint things we were feeling, even if they were ugly and negative, rather than beautiful, positive things that we didn’t feel. That’s why I think we went back to painting things that were authentic and credible. In that way, art regained its power.

Why didn’t you choose to make “beautiful” paintings like most of the teachers at the fine arts schools?
[...] I could never do that. To me, they’re too beautiful, beautiful to the point of revulsion.
It’s intolerable. There’s absolutely no reason for me to paint like that. I wondered why I could never find any women as beautiful as the women in those teacher’s paintings. Should I perhaps change my painting technique? I would certainly have to change it in order for it to work. But that approach may not be right for me. The fact is, we are not in the same situation. After they graduated, they stayed on at the school as teachers, so they are relatively sheltered. As a result, all the things they see can probably be described as “beautiful.” I, however, do not see those things.

Do you think there’s a certain kind of beauty in your paintings?
When a painter always paints beautiful women, it comes from the aesthetic canons that were inculcated into him. However, those aesthetic conventions do not correspond to what I feel. What’s important for me is to paint something that I feel perfectly comfortable with, that I feel good about. For example, if I draw a perfectly horizontal line for the horizon it makes me uncomfortable, but if I make the horizon slant a little, it seems more interesting to me. That’s the way I work. People can say, “That guy paints pretty badly,” but it’s a way of being that’s right for me.

It’s your kind of beauty?
When I was little, the scenery around me was never beautiful, gay, or refined. Everything I saw was relatively ugly. I’m sure you’ve noticed that when a Chinese artist paints a house, there’s no feeling of elegance, it’s never very attractive. If we gazed at ancient Chinese houses with their gardens every day, or French cities with their narrow streets and little houses that look like paintings, we would quite naturally make beautiful works.

Your signature smiling faces have gradually become a set figure in your work. Do you ever try to look for other kinds of forms, such as in the “Absences” or “labyrinths” series that you’ve created in the last ten years? Haven’t the smiling faces become a sort of obligation for you?
I must admit that the faces have sometimes had a restrictive influence on my work. And when I realized that they were able to control me in a certain way, I didn’t feel free anymore. I could also decide to explore other subjects while continuing to paint the way I paint. It would be complementary. But the main thing is that I don’t want my work to develop according to a certain logic. If the changes my work has undergone don’t necessarily appear to be very logical, things are, in reality, more complex than they seem. In fact, what defines a good artist for me doesn’t have to do with whether his or her work is good or bad, but whether, through this work, the artist has been able to elevate his or her mind. Duchamp, for example, was able to understand the issues involved in the changes taking place during his time, which was due to his thinking, not to the form of the works he created. If I were to change my work according to a specific logic, I’d feel like I could never achieve something interesting. The extent of our knowledge is indeed so poor (unlike European artists who have a very rich culture) that trying to develop our work simply through logic would only accentuate that poverty.

You’re now a famous artist who is known all over the world. Aren’t you afraid that you’ll be forgotten one day?
It’s true. That’s why I sometimes have doubts. You can be sure that if what you create is immediately and unanimously well received, there’s a problem somewhere. It means that you feel the same and have the same tastes as everyone else. It would be better if, after you’ve been painting for ten or twenty years without being recognized, people started to understand your work only once it had become more accomplished—if, after experimenting in many different ways, you were discovered only once you had found your own style. You couldn’t dream of anything better than that.