“Cynical realism — it’s the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation.”
In Beijing, October 2006 two monumental art world events coincided to the fanfare of endless camera shutters: the opening of the Today Art Museum’s new space in Beijing and within it’s walls, the first Mainland solo exhibition of one of China’s most archetypical contemporary painters and celebrated “cynical realist” Fang Lijun. It was a strange “debut” in his hometown––late by almost 20 years––yet he is one of the most recognizable Mainland Chinese artists in the world.
Fang Lijun’s baldheads on desolate landscapes have become an iconic symbol of contemporary Chinese art, and Fang the commonly accepted as the definitive “cynical realist.” The Cynical Realist school that he so roundly represents and its contemporary, “Political Pop” have become the two most identifiable and uniquely “Chinese” contemporary art movements from the mainland—they are also some of the highest priced works in the international art market today.
Cynical Realism at a Glance
Cynical Realist painting, which emerged in the early 1990s, was a step towards personal expression and away from the collective mindset that prevailed in the Cultural Revolution, it is often linked with the political events of 1989 that left a sour taste in the hearts and psychologies of artists and intellectuals in Beijing, the cultural capital of China. Although Cynical Realist works maintain an ambiguous relationship with society and politics, socio-political themes emerge in form and content; politics are seen from a distance and take no clear pro-con stance on issues. The result is a cold, realistic view of a Chinese society in transition, a “stylized ambivalence” and a form of humor––later coined “grey humor”–– transcending the political realm although its roots clearly lie there. Fang Lijun incorporates his characteristic individual touches, such as the dusty landscapes of his native Hebei; other artists considered “Cynical Realists” include Yue Minjun, Yang Shaobin and according to some historians early works by Liu Xiaodong are considered as such, although he is more often categorized in the “New Generation” academic school of painters.
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