YUAN YUAN (CHINA, B. 1973)
YUAN YUAN (CHINA, B. 1973)
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PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT ASIAN PRIVATE COLLECTION
YUAN YUAN (CHINA, B. 1973)

HELPLESS

Details
YUAN YUAN (CHINA, B. 1973)
HELPLESS
signed in Chinese; signed ‘y. yuan’, titled ‘Helpless’ and dated ‘2011.4’ (on the reverse); signed ‘y. yuan’ (on the side)
oil on canvas
180 x 147 cm. (70 7/8 x 57 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2011
Provenance
Hadrien De Montferrand Gallery, Beijing, China
Private Collection, Asia
Literature
Edouard Malingue Gallery, Yuan Yuan, Hong Kong, 2016 (illustrated, p. 79).

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Lot Essay

Throughout history, civilizations have erected grand monuments as symbols of power and wealth. Temples and cathedrals were built to inspire awe and wonder, to impress supplicants with the grandeur of the divine, and to stand as immortal estaments to the culture that created them. Yet even the most imposing monument is vulnerable to the ravages of time, helpless in the face of history. It is this history that fascinates Yuan Yuan: his paintings explore the visible traces left by time, painting once-glorious interiors that have been abandoned, forgotten, and grown derelict.

Within Yuan Yuan’s oeuvre, Helpless (Lot 42) stands out for its collage-like quality. Stark Grecian columns topped with Corinthian capitals support a starry vaulted ceiling, the gaps between pillars filled by floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows that culminate in a gilded altar at the end of the nave. Yet upon closer inspection the composition feels dream-like – the Greek columns exist free of the surrounding architecture, and traditional rules of linear perspective don’t seem to apply. The space feels shallow, as if compressed towards the viewer, producing an effect of disorienting flatness and artificiality. We are locked out of the painted space, even as we try to make sense of its logic, blocked by a perspectival barrier that keeps us as observers rather than entrants into Yuan Yuan’s world.

Yuan Yuan frequently uses real locations as sources of inspiration. Here, the vaulted ceilings and glass windows seen are based off of the Upper Chapel of the Sainte-Chapelle cathedral located in Paris (Fig. 1). Built between 1242 and 1248, the Upper Chapel is famous for its 15 enormous stained glass windows, which represent one of the most extensive collections of 13th-century stained glass in the world. Sainte-Chapelle itself is a stunning example of Rayonnant Period Gothic architecture, and was designed with an emphasis on illumination, verticality and the appearance of structural lightness. In contrast to the heavy solidity of earlier Gothic styles, cathedrals built during the Rayonnant period featured larger windows framed by delicate stone tracery, conveying a feeling of bright airiness. Cathedrals like Sainte-Chapelle were designed to be a rejection of the earthly, functioning instead as a jewel-like reliquary and a vision of heaven on earth.

However, rather than depict the delicate columns of the original Sainte-Chapelle, Yuan Yuan has replaced them with heavy Grecian pillars. Painted in monochromatic tones to suggest eroded limestone or marble, the columns appear weather-worn and rough around the edges, as if they are part of a great archaeological monument that has stood exposed to wind and rain for centuries (Fig. 2). Of the Corinthian order, the columns possess fluted shafts topped with ornate capitals that feature carved acanthus leaves and intricate scrollwork. Like Rayonnant Period architecture, the Corinthian style emphasized verticality and slender proportions, seeking an effect of weightlessness in contrast to the simple solidity of earlier orders.

By layering Gothic vaults and windows over a supporting base of Greek columns, Yuan Yuan comments upon the layers of history, in which one civilization will often build upon the foundations of its predecessors. Many elements of Western civilization were built upon foundations laid by the ancient Greeks, and consciously or not, the cathedrals of Gothic architecture were built upon basic principles first established by Classical architects. From the rows of columns, to the Corinthian style capitals that adorn the original architecture of the Sainte-Chapelle, the connection between Grecian and Gothic is subtle, but present. Yuan Yuan has taken these attributes and made them clearer, juxtaposing elements from wildly different eras as a way of making their architectural genealogy clear and apparent.

Although Yuan Yuan’s works feature an incredibly rich level of photorealistic detail, they are also imaginary in their construction. “I approach the canvas like an installation artist,” stated the artist in an interview, “adding, removing, transforming and creating a particular setting, for I want to confront the issues pertaining to a deathward loss and ultimacy.” By creating an architectural collage, and manipulating the erspectival depth of the space to magnify the feeling of alienation, Yuan Yuan makes a clear comment about the history of human artistic achievement, capturing its complex interdependence but also a sense of futility.

This sense of the futile is underscored by the loneliness of Yuan Yuan’s paintings, in which there are never any signs of life beyond the wild growth of trees and brush. In the 17th and 18th centuries, European artists were entranced by the romantic image of the ruin (Fig. 3), a tradition that Yuan Yuan continues to develop. Architectural apriccios depicted imaginary combinations of buildings, archaeological ruins and other built elements, presenting a fantastical scene that nonetheless demonstrated the artist’s grasp of composition and allowed for romanticized views of history. Paintings of ruins were also conceived of as warnings, celebrating the glory of the past while reminding viewers that the glories of no civilization will last forever. In Helpless, snarl of brambles encroaches upon the space that would have been occupied by worshippers, seeming to spread inexorably upwards from the bottom of the canvas.

The title of this work, Helpless, adds a final twist to our understanding of this piece. Gazing upon the glorious, imaginary space that Yuan Yuan has conjured up, we are impressed with the impotency of humanity’s struggle against time and decay, and the inability of civilizations to ensure the immortality of their great architectural achievements against the changes of history. Yet the title could also refer to the helplessness of the individual in the presence of extraordinary art, our irrepressible urge to create, and our helplessness pursuit of divine beauty. Ultimately, Yuan Yuan’s painted monuments may be viewed either as futile symbols of human pride and hubris, or else as tributes to humanity’s unflagging quest for immortality.

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