On 5th February, 1989, the much anticipated China Avant-Garde Art Exhibition opened at the National Art Museum of China. The show was a retrospective on the important New Wave art movement that took place during the 1980s. Unfortunately, the events that took place in Tiananmen Square the following June and the social changes that followed dealt a devastating blow and stunted the growth of the budding avant-garde art scene in China. Artists who envisioned greater freedom in their artistic practice had to move their efforts underground. In an environment where there was neither official recognition nor support, exhibitions and large-scaled academic gatherings were not possible. Because of this pivotal point in history, artists were compelled to question and re-evaluate critically the prevailing idealism that had thrived in 1985. They turned their attention towards devising new ways to give meaning, value, and rationality to their own art; it was under these circumstances that the new artistic ideology characteristic of the 1990s was conceived.
Other than the qualitative transformation in the artistic medium itself, the socio-political environment is an inextricable impetus to a new art movement. In early 1992, Deng Xiaoping visited Shenzhen and Zhuhai to proclaim and establish economic reform policies. The concept of market economy started to germinate. Mass media such as television, video games, advertisements, and karaoke were exponentially growing. Not only did this provide entertainment to people, but also these new media covertly influenced the new generation’s way of thinking. Consumerism, instant gratification, superficiality, kitsch, and similar ideas became keywords in the cultural climate of that time. Yu Youhan, Wang Guangyi, Wang Ziwei, and Feng Mengbo were all witness to the commodification and consumerism of this new era. They injected these elements of extraordinary historical conditions and contemporary culture into their artworks. By juxtaposing new social elements taken from consumer culture with political imagery, these artists reveal the nuanced interplay between consumerism and communism: thus Political- Pop was born. Subsequently, in the massive touring exhibition of China's New Art, Post-1989 curated by Johnson Chang and Li Xianting, the vitality and significance of this major art movement were brought to the attention of an enthusiastic global audience.
Born in the 1940s, Yu Youhan participated in important international exhibitions such as the 1992 Venice Biennale and the 1994 Sao Paulo Art Biennial. He was featured on the 1999 cover of Times magazine as one of the internationally recognized faces representing Chinese contemporary art. In the early years, in addition to teaching, he studied Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting. Yu Youhan began painting abstract works in 1981, up until the completion of the Circle series in 1985 (Fig. 1). The body of works produced during this period mark the maturation of his abstract style. Starting in 1989, Yu Youhan painted flamboyantly coloured portraits of Mao the style of Political Pop. These paintings contain imagery from popular culture, news footage, and the unmistakable features of commercial printing.
Despite being very similar to Western Pop Art in its formal qualities, the Chinese Political Pop bears a distinct set of aesthetic genes. Yu Youhan's Political Pop paintings are steeped in elements that are unique to Chinese culture. For example, the graphic style of the propaganda poster has a very specific discourse in mainstream academia which can be described as “striking imagery, prominent subject matter, concise style, inspiring and motivational.” These elements of political propaganda are still coursing through Yu Youhan’s creative veins and have permeated the collective visual culture of his generation. As such, popular image production, such as New Year Picture (Fig. 2), was also heavily influenced by this political visual style. Yu Youhan targeted the popular tastes and tropes of the people– joyous, courageous, and wholesome imagery is accompanied by highly decorative patterns reminiscent of printed fabric or other utilitarian objects. This combination of the familiar and cheerful imagery imbues the work with a harmonious air.
From 1976 until his death, Mao Zedong’s name and the image were synonymous with the new China. To this day, Mao’s portrait still hangs above the Tiananmen Square. It is unequivocally a symbol of authority that is uncontested in its legitimacy. In the 1990s, Chinese society's obsession with Mao had not yet dissipated. At the same time, the public was also enamoured with the age of consumerism– they needed an icon equivalent to the Western celebrities who inspired their hopes and fantasies. When the Chinese equivalent of superstars like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley did not materialise in their society, people turned to history to find a character who was equally charismatic and influential to fill the emotional void—Mao was the perfect fit. Mao-Mania swept China in the early 1990s: Mao lapel pins, books of Quotations from Chairman Mao, Mao portraits, songs rhapsodising Mao and Cultural Revolution, and T-shirts with Mao quotations became trendy merchandises. The man who was once a mighty figure in politics was transformed and repackaged into the most powerful popular idol in China. When we look at Yu Youhan's portraits of Mao, we see a celebrity that is depicted in the style of posters of movie idols or pop stars. Instead of exuding the aggression of proletarian struggles, he is more akin to the pitchman in the commercial world whose gaudy aesthetics are palatable to the masses.
Selected from Johnson Chang's collection, we can see how these two Yu Youhan paintings of Mao are different in terms of artistic conception. Compositionally, The Lowly are the Most Intelligent, the Elite are the Most Ignorant (Lot 66) invokes the realism of a historic photo-documentary. In the painting, Mao stands at the foreground performing manual labour, as people cheer in the background, thus forming a sense of harmony between all the figures. Yu Youhan did not use the conventional colour of glowing red to galvanize the feeling of unity in this scene; on the contrary, black, white, and grey are the dominant hues of the composition, meanwhile the skin tones of the figures are expressed with a yellow tint. The palette creates an eerie almost surrealistic atmosphere. The warmth of Mao's party-approved red glow has been chilled to a cool tone (Fig. 3). By substituting the glaring red typical of political propaganda posters with the solemn and rational colours of grey and white, Yu Youhan is both subverting and reflecting on the aesthetics of historical authority. The deified figure of Mao is no longer unapproachable. The artist has closed the gap between Mao and the people. British painter George Clausen was famous for his portrayal of the rustic lives of peasants. The Impressionist work The Mowers (Fig. 4) depicts the humble farmers as the main characters. The idyllic picture is filled with a sense of peaceful ordinariness. Without deliberately forming any narratives, this painting is a simple study in light, and it celebrates the work of the peasants. In comparison, even though Yu Youhan purposely attempted to diluted the domineering character of Mao Zedong in the painting, as figurative symbol, Mao cannot be subdued by Yu's visual interventions – its power as a Pop Art symbol is eternal.
Politics is a serious topic; however, in a world where the media dominates our perception, politics is constantly being steered in favour of those who have vested interest in the matter and is vulnerable to subjective narrative, be it commercial or entertaining. Yu Youhan's visual treatment of Mao & His People: Green (Lot 67) masterfully demonstrates this phenomenon; the highly saturated red and green elements of the composition grab the attention of the viewer instantaneously. Mao’s figure is depicted in a hyper-flattened manner, reminiscent of the succinct and direct expression of collage. Its execution is also similar to the late cutout works of the Fauvist master Henri Matisse. By overlapping two completely different scenes together, a novel and unifying effect is achieved through this conflict. This visual device can be compared to the Surrealistic scenes of Rene Magritte (Fig. 5). The image Mao in this painting was borrowed from a famous historic photograph (Fig. 6) – appropriation is a defining feature of Pop Art (Fig. 7). Mao's suit has also shed its conventional sombre colours. Instead, his attire is covered with abstract and dazzling patterns, as if his suit were a designer item taken from the latest Western runways. The floral pattern of his suit floats on top of the sea of army green uniforms - this treatment accentuates the decorative elements of the composition. Vastly different from The Lowly are the Most Intelligent, the Elite are the Most Ignorant, this work detaches itself from the seriousness of political imagery, delving into the realm of fashion, kitsch, and popular culture. The masses clad in army green uniforms assume the role of green leaves who loyally support and complement the flowery Mao, transforming him into an icon of popular culture.
“Why do I paint Mao? Partly because I want to memorialise his political legacy. I adopted Political Pop, folk art aesthetics, and a sense of spirited humour in order to critically reveal an ordinary Mao - this treatment is my way of expressing my admiration for him. In my work, he is no longer an inviolable deity. He becomes an ordinary person, and I am very proud of this achievement.”
With this proclamation, Yu Youhan ushered in a new era where, ideologically, Mao and capitalism have converged and have been inserted into the lives of ordinary citizens. Through the vernacular of Pop Art, Yu Youhan successfully staged an artistic revolution against Mao.