In the Greek language Arcadia, a region in central Greece, means “refuge from disaster.” In ancient Greece, the people of Arcadia led a pastoral way of life, herding livestock in the mountains. Because of its secluded location and rustic lifestyle, Arcadia became a synonym for utopia. In the realm of visual art, one of the most renowned works that celebrates this region is Nicolas Poussin's Arcadian Shepherds (Fig. 1). Painted between 1638 and 1640, it currently resides in the collection of the Louvre. Guercino, a contemporary of Poussin, painted the same subject matter decards earlier in 1618 (Fig. 2). It has been suggested that when commissioned to paint his composition, Poussin was asked to use Guercino's depiction of Arcadia as a reference.
The Latin phrase Et in Aracdia ego, translated as “Even in Arcadia I exist,” bears a profound meaning in both of these works; the “I” in one interpretation refers to death. Poussin's biographer Andre Felibien interpreted the phrase differently. Felibien understood the inscription to mean “the person buried in this tomb lived in Arcadia.” The visual treatment of this subject matter is treated vastly differently by each artist however they adhere to the same message: when faced with the finality of death, human life and happiness on earth are but fleeting and fragile.
Does the message and value of Arcadian Shepherds hold up in the contemporary world? Poussin believed that art has to convey the noble messages that elevate the soul. This begs the question, can this mentality still prove its relevance in the creative process of contemporary art 350 years later, Wang Xingwei reimagined this classic painting from his unique perspective. Painted in 1996, Wang’s version of Arcadia (Lot 63) eliminates the other three shepherds from Poussin's composition. Only the key figure remains—the elder shepherd studying the inscription on the stone has been replaced with a figure in a yellow shirt meant to be a proxy for the artist himself. In Wang’s work, the text Et in Arcadia ego appears to be only faintly visible with only the word Arcadia in clear focus. In this utopia, the artist is not making a strong moral assertion regarding the inscribed statement; on the contrary, he positions himself as a traveller who is asking for directions, thus placing himself in this historical context in order to explore a new meaning for the phrase.
Compared to Marcel Duchamp's moustached Mona Lisa in L.H.O.O.Q. (Fig. 3) or Yue Minjin's grinning men revolutionary in La Liberte Guidant Le Peuple (Fig. 4), the irony, parody, and subversion in Arcadia is much more subtle. The way in which this work tampers with art history is solely for the purpose of calling into question the value of the painting tradition, with its systematic and established history, in the contemporary context. Wang Xingwei graduated from the Fine Arts Department of the Shenyang Normal University in 1990, after which he decided that he would not develop his career within the confines of the system. This enabled him to explore new artistic directions with much greater freedom. During this period, he painted a series of works that were related to western art history. He reconstructed, reassembled, and appropriated the works of Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, and Jacque Louis David among others; within this series, Arcadia is one of the most fascinating experimentations. Wang Xingwei references a painting that was also the product of reproduction; just as Poussin had replaced Guercino’s Baroque style in his Classic rendering to proclaim the true meaning of eternity, Wang Xingwei's quest for Arcadia is a metaphor for how a young artist who has been freed from the bonds of Realism explores the multifaceted visual language of painting. Today, Wang Xingwei is still revered as an artist with a widely diverse vocabulary in Chinese contemporary art. Arcadia is a quintessential work that documents the nascent stages of the artist’s questioning and exploration of the fundamentals of painting. Looking at this work macroscopically in conjunction with the dominant styles of Political Pop and Cynical Realism in the 1990s, Arcadia represents the independent value of the painting discipline when it is stripped of culture and imposed ideology.
The orientation of the figure in a work of art can change how the viewers interact with the composition. A frontal portrait directly establishes a sense of connection through the figure's face and gaze. On other hand, when the viewer can only see the back of a figure, there are fewer cues available to them– this limitation can often give limitless room to the imagination for interpretation. In the painting Young Man at his Window (Fig. 5), Impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte depicted his finely dressed brother standing at the balcony gazing down at the street below. With his back turned, the viewers do not know if he is musing at activity below, or if he is following a particular silhouette on the street. Rich with possibility and meaning, this mysterious figure with his back turned also makes an appearance in Wang Xingwei's body of work.
In 2013 the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing curated a large solo exhibition for Wang Xingwei. The artist had specifically requested that the art works be shown in three sections: frontal portraits, figures in profile, and figures from the back. This unique curation gives us another entry point into reading Wang Xingwei's works. In the artist’s self-portraits as the man in the yellow shirt, the figure is always shown with his back towards the viewer. In his 1995 painting The Oriental Way: The Road to Anyuan (Fig. 6), the artist substituted the central figure from Liu Chunhua’s famous painting Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan (Fig. 7) with his own iconic proxy, thus subverting the visual representation of political propaganda. This obstacle in reading the image directs viewers’ awareness to the medium of painting itself. Represented in profile, the shepherd that Poussin depicted earnestly studies the stone inscription, emphasizing the profundity of truth. In Wang’s interpretation of Arcadia, the man in the yellow shirt has his body turned further inwards toward the inscription. Viewers cannot see his facial expression: is he as puzzled as Poussin's shepherd? Or is he smiling after having solved the enigma? Perhaps this ambiguity hints that the truth is never absolute. Every generation must endeavour to find its own interpretations, like in Wang Xingwei paintings, to derive new meanings from a continuous process of postulation and investigation.