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(Chinese, B. 1947)
Northern Tundra
signed in Chinese; signed and dated 'Ai Xuan 1995.11' (lower left)
oil on canvas
89 x 89 cm. (35 x 35 in.)
Painted in 1995
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

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Lot Essay

Ai Xuan once recounted a cold winter day on the Tibetan plateau when he was deeply shaken by the silence that poured into him from the barren landscape. The dried grass was blowing in the cold wind and the ice was cracking under his feet, and he was struck with a deep feeling of loneliness. This sentiment echoes saliently through the beautifully rendered Northern Tundra (Lot 123), exemplifying Ai's ability to use his subject matter as a vehicle to express the inner world, to use Realism as a bridge into the spiritual realm of the inner consciousness.

After a period dominated by Soviet realism, China's artists emerged from the Cultural Revolution with a thirst to develop a new path for Chinese art. An exhibition of French naturalist art that travelled to Beijing and Shanghai in the late 1970s greatly influenced Ai's trajectory, particularly Jules Bastien-Lepage's work Les Foins (Fig 1). A far cry from the glorified images of labour that had proliferated in China, what spoke to Ai about this work was its depiction of the human experience and the mindset of the individual, merging human and nature into one body and mood. One can see these influences in Northern Tundra, in which a young girl reclines against a decaying fence with the vast, snowy tundra rising behind her. Not unlike the sitting woman in Les Foins, the young girl rests her arms heavily on the ground with her body stretching out before her. Her figure extends the diagonal line of the fence into the corner of the painting, literally grounding her into the environment. Thus, the composition opens up an exploration of the relationship between human and nature.

Ai renders the barren white landscape and the vast sky beyond with a monochromatic pallet, creating a feeling of emptiness and infiniteness. In contrast, the girl is depicted with intricate detail, demonstrating the controlled hand and subtle painterliness of Ai's mature works. He elevates his subject with the delicate textures and subtle fluctuations of colour in the coat, which draw the viewer's eyes to linger and get lost in the act of looking. The young girl gazes back distantly through the painting with her glassy eyes and raised eyebrows. Her expression exudes a sense of alienation, prompting the viewer to wonder what she is thinking. Rich in spirit, Northern Tundra merges beauty with a quiet sense of introspection. At the heart of this work is a profound exploration of the self.

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