From November 14, 2012 to March 17, 2013 the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain will present the first major European exhibition dedicated to the Chinese artist Yue Minjun, a unique opportunity to discover the work of an artist who, in spite of his international renown, continues to maintain a relatively low profile.

Yue Minjun’s paintings, with their colorful iconography, peopled by enigmatically laughing characters, reinvent the grotesque and its codes, while expressing an ironic and disillusioned vision of the social situation in contemporary China, as well as of the human condition in the modern world. Featuring nearly 40 paintings from collections around the world, as well as a
wide array of drawings that have never been shown to the general public, this exhibition will reveal the singular and complex aesthetic of an oeuvre that defies all interpretation.
An artist emblematic of a generation profoundly marked by the history of contemporary China: laughter as an outlet.

Born in 1962 in the city of Daqing in the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, Yue Minjun first took up painting as a hobby. He went off to study art at the Normal University in Hebei Province in 1985 and then joined the artistic community in
Yuan Ming Yuan, a village near Beijing, in the early 1990s. It was there that he started to define his style and to sketch out the contours of what would become his main theme: laughter.
In addition, Yue Minjun came to be seen as one of the leading representatives of “Cynical Realism,” a new art movement that emerged in the early 1990s. Affected by a social situation different from the one of the 1980s, as well as by the opening up of the Chinese economy to the world market, young artists broke away from the “Socialist Realism” and the avant gardes. They offered a more caustic and less idealistic vision of their society. “That’s why the act of smiling, laughing to mask feelings of helplessness has such significance for my generation” 1, says Yue Minjun about his beginnings as an artist.
Self-portraits: the same howl of lau ghter directed at the face of the world. With their closed eyes and gaping mouths, the
painted or sculpted faces found in Yue Minjun’s works display, in their extravagance, the rigidity of impenetrable masks. “This stereotyped laugh prohibits any search for intentionality; it puts up a wall, makes any interiority off limits, bars any
kind of feeling,” writes François Jullien in the catalog published in conjunction with the exhibition.
“As nothing more than a series of explosions,
it shows that there is nothing to communicate”.
Initially inspired by the artist’s friends, the portraits gradually merged into a single face: that of Yue Minjun himself. His face thus becomes a multitude of mirrors that reflect whatever one
wants to see in them: a caricature of the homogenization of Chinese society, a way of “grinning and bearing it” in a world that has become absurd or, quite simply, a form of self derision on the part of the artist. At the same time, this laugh, repeated over and over again, provides the artist with a
never-ending supply of pictorial possibilities: the same characters with their stylized and unchanging traits are depicted alone or reproduced ad infinitum. Portrayed in ludicrous, comic, poetic or tragic situations, these strange figures have inherited the codes associated with certain cartoons in which anything seems possible and absurdity
becomes the norm.
Moving beyond “Cynical Realism:” an aesthetic with a secret narrative.
Beyond any narrow categorization, Yue Minjun has developed an idiosyncratic aesthetic of his own—extremely diverse, full of twists and turns, like a narrative with a secret plot. Well-known public places in China are combined with luxury cars, airplanes, and dinosaurs, as well as with references to popular Chinese culture and art history, to create collages and image associations in which every sign remains open to interpretation and the artist allows himself complete freedom
of expression.
In his painting The Execution, based on The Execution
of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico by Édouard Manet (1868), the artist thus seems to delight in baffling the viewer. He replaces all of the original protagonists with smiling figures,
and in the background, clearly alludes to the wall around the Forbidden City. Similarly, in a series that questions the absence in a picture, he recreates exact replicas of masterpieces by famous Western artists or famous masterpieces from chinese popular history but removes all of the characters.
Nothing is left but the background, a stage set in a deserted theater, revealing lunar or romantic landscapes, curious or unrecognizable Full information on the exhibition Yue Minjun, L’Ombre du fou rire and the program of the Fondation Cartier
is available at fondation.cartier.com

The exhibition presents a selection of works from the early 1990s. Although rarely exhibited, these examples of Yue Minjun’s earliest paintings are an important part of his oeuvre in that they show him beginning to explore and gradually define his style. He spent several years living in the artistic
community of Yuan Ming Yuan village near Beijing, and during this period his main subject was his friends. His approach is still realistic and his faces very diverse, but as time goes by certain stylistic elements start to show up in these paintings:
portraits, repetition, absurd situations, the inclusion of a variety of objects taken from reality such as well-known public places in China.
The individual features gradually begin to disappear and all of the faces start to resemble the artist’s face. Using enormous canvases, Yue Minjun depicts himself in bizarre, improbable or, at times, highly poetic situations. These pieces appear to
tell a story, and he compares them to certain kinds of cartoon scenes: his facial expressions seem to change very little, even though the situations in which he portrays himself are always extremely stylized, absurd or comical in nature.
In this series of paintings, references to traditional Chinese art or popular imagery intermingle to create compositional collages and visual associations: the stylized depiction of water and waves, for example, or the inclusion of certain animals associated with Chinese culture. Yet the artist does not provide any clues as to what is going on in his paintings—it is as if the entire contents of a complex storyboard were displayed simultaneously without any indication as to how they
should be read. In front of these impenetrable labyrinths, the
sense of bewilderment created by the absence of narrative, by the omnipresent standardized faces and by the sheer size of the works becomes almost metaphysical.
Yue Minjun’s work is also full of artistic references.
He takes great masterpieces of Western art and repaints them with a twist of his own: by replacing all of the characters with his own figure, he spreads his laughter everywhere. In The Execution, a painting based on The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico by Édouard Manet (1868), the artist thus seems to delight in baffling the viewer.
Is this painting a tribute to Édouard Manet, an ironic pastiche, or does it simply represent a desire to, as the artist himself puts it, “direct his own image and put himself into any scene he chooses, at random, from the past five centuries of history”?
Along with The Execution (Städtische Kunsthalle, Mannheim), the exhibition also features The Massacre at Chios and Freedom Leading the People, inspired by two paintings by Eugène Delacroix: The Massacre at Chios (1824, Musée du Louvre, Paris) and Liberty Leading the People (1830, Musée
du Louvre, Paris).

In another series, Yue Minjun creates exact replicas of paintings by renowned artists or of certain famous images from the era of Socialist Realism, but deletes all of their characters. These scenes then become nothing more than empty stage sets, revealing lunar landscapes and curious or unrecognizable architectural designs. In this series, the artist is seeking to play with our memory and to scramble our visual cues.
The exhibition features three paintings from this series. The first one was inspired by The Death of Marat (1793, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels) by Jacques-Louis David, while the other two allude to two emblematic images from Socialist Realism and Maoist iconography: The Founding Ceremony of the Nation (1953) by Dong Xiwen, and Gutian Meeting by He Kongde (1972).
Sometimes the faces are close-ups, with their mouths spread wide open across the canvas. These works bring viewers face to face with the artist and his talent for endless variation, and also refer to certain paintings in the surrealist tradition which
were said to reveal the invisible world of dreams, of the imagination and of thought.
In his very recent series, Overlappings, Yue Minjun even goes as far as to obliterate his own face, whose disappearance engenders works of an unusual graphic and stylistic intensity. It is not only the artist’s face that is destroyed, it is also the significance of laughing that seems to become impossible
as the laugh, replicated ad infinitum, is later blotted out.
Exhibited for the first time ever to the general public, a hundred sketches and drawings, laid out like a vast patchwork of ideas and inspiration, reveal the everyday work of the artist. Preparatory notes or spontaneous scribblings, this collection of drawings shows us that Yue Minjun’s work is much more complex than it seems at first glance.
A slideshow featuring a series of photographs taken by the artist’s brother shows Yue Minjun in positions, attitudes, and postures that are similar to those of the figures he paints. The artist is compelled to experiment with the poses and compositions in his paintings, as if the physical act of trying them out were an essential part of creating a work of art.