The Anna Maria Jagdfeld Collection of Chinese Contemporary Art
As China emerged from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the intellectual and artistic conformity of the communist system, the country witnessed a profound and seismic transformation of its cultural scene. The subsequent decades heralded a new era of creativity that penetrated every aspect of art and culture. Relieved of the restrictions of a state-controlled cultural production system, young art academy students across the nation were suddenly exposed to an extraordinary range of tools, techniques, and philosophies that they would digest and incorporate into their own visions and inspirations. This transformation of the cultural field would manifest itself for years to come, opening up traditional fields of art-making to new subjects, visions, and an almost unprecedented privileging of the artist's subjectivity over all else.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese artists broke with their academic training and began developing new artistic languages for a nation in transition, seeking to overturn inherited aesthetic paradigms for ones that better-suited a post-Mao, rapidly modernizing nation. These artists were inspired by a new influx of information and materials about contemporary Western art practices, but also by their own experience of China's 20th century. The confluence of these circumstances -- the rigor of the training received in art academies, the turmoil and upheavals of, first, the Cultural Revolution and, second, the breakneck pace of modernization, globalization, and economic growth -- laid the groundwork for one of the most extraordinary breaks with aesthetic tradition in recent memory.
While prescient curators and gallerists, like Li Xianting, Gao Minglu, Manfred Schoeni and Johnson Chang, were early champions of this art, it was not always immediately appreciated or understood within China. Foreign diplomats, journalists and intrepid collectors were often among the first to intuit that these unusual, experimental works - at turns understated, fearless, humorous, and thoroughly unprecedented - represented not only a complete re-definition of Chinese contemporary culture, but new terrain in contemporary art itself, suggesting innovative approaches to representation, subjectivity, and aesthetics. As such, the field of Chinese contemporary art in its nascent stage was defined early on as much by its devoted collectors as it was by the art itself. The Anna Maria Jagdfeld Collection of Chinese Contemporary Art is one such historic collection, extensive and wide-ranging, one that identified a movement before it completely recognized itself. The visionary force behind a Germany-based luxury conglomerate, Mrs. Jagdfeld has brought an open, intrepid, and aesthetically comprehensive approach to all aspects of her life and work, one enlivened by startling and often provocative juxtapositions, and a long-cultivated eye for originality, beauty, and quality.
Christie's is pleased to present a selection of highlights from the Jagdfeld collection across our Evening and both Day sales, including exceptional, iconic and historic works from artists as diverse as Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi, Wang Yidong and Ai Xuan, representing the full spectrum of new art from China that is so well known today.
The painter Tang Zhigang was exposed to an environment of political bureaucracy and routinized behavior from a very young age. His father was an officer in the Red Army and his childhood was spent at the Kunyang Labor farm, where his mother was a prison warden, a childhood that bestowed upon him a unique introduction to the highly institutionalized world that was to become a prevalent part of his later life. Practicing as a painter first in the propaganda bureau of the People's Liberation Army and later as an independent artist, Tang developed an acute understanding of the authoritarian system, its fetishization of process and formalities, and the ways in which it both forms and reveals the character of its subjects.
While still an active soldier, Tang's works were notable for their sympathetic and often non-heroic depiction of military life. Contra the requirement that artists primarily represent workers, soldiers and peasants, in rigorously idealized forms, Tang's earliest works suggested a life full of humble responsibilities, heroic perhaps in their anonymity, such as visiting the dentist, digging water wells, or practicing formation marching. Indeed, some of his earliest paintings of fellow soldiers, some of which are held in the Jagdfeld collection, show not idealized "types", but individuals, young, idealistic, but in their individualism, also suggestive of the fragile innocence of youth. Given Tang's long observation of daily military life, it was not long before Tang added to his repertoire of subjects that most essential element of Chinese bureaucratic life: the meeting. Tang has reflected, "Apart from preparing the setting for all kinds of meetings, writing slogans and taking pictures, I was also responsible for the art education of the children in the army. So while the adults were 'in meeting', their children were raising their hands to answer my questions. It is easy to associate the two scenes."
With this insight, Tang has produced what is one of the most endearing series of the period, but also one of the most revelatory of Chinese daily existence. His Children in Meeting series inevitably beguile and charm the viewer with their scenes of toddlers play-acting at adult games, but at the same time these invented tableaus reveal the drudgery and petty bureaucratic politicking that defined Chinese life under communism.
From the Anna Maria Jagdfeld Collection of Chinese Contemporary Art, we have an exceptional example from Tang's Children in Meeting series (Lot 2036). Seated behind a desk is one of Tang's little generals, microphone before him, apparently reading a pronouncement and gesticulating grandly. Three additional uniform-clad young boys sit on a bench on the right of the composition, their hands resting complacently behind their backs and in various states of inattention, their feet dangling beneath them, all of them too short to reach the floor. Strewn about the room are a toy bucket, a train running along an incomplete track, and a green tractor truck. The variety of objects and uniforms give the composition an especially vibrant and lively set of colour contrasts, from the navy blue of the uniforms, sky blue of the microphone base, Kelly green of the truck the yellow and orange tones of the train cars, and the warm colours of the finely modeled hands and features of the children. This gives the scene a light and jaunty air, reiterated by the hanging lamp, which seems to be bobbing gently above the scene.
The playful setting belies the seriousness of the scene. The "toys" equally serve as the props of these generals, potentially announcing military operations, transport or demolition projects. The figures sit before a curtained stage and beneath a floating bold red banner, echoed in the tablecloth of the desk, but the banner is noticeably absent of any slogan. The posture and expressions of the figures on the bench suggest detachment or skepticism of the pageantry, but their obsequious poses equally suggest that of prisoners presented for a public reprimand. Indeed, their general indifference to the proceedings, whether as participants or as targets, suggests the extent to which these events had become hollow performances. As such, the composition invokes not only the discreet ways in which individuals abuse each other and assert their power in highly institutionalized environments, but also their most extreme expression at the height of the Cultural Revolution in the form public humiliation and forced self-criticisms.
Having spent years observing his student's behavior under a semi-authoritarian setting, it is understandable that Tang drew parallels between their behavior and that of adults in the numerous meetings within the Chinese bureaucratic system that he had attended throughout his life. The works then seem to be a provocation to invite the viewers to notice the elements of childish behavior, habitually masked in etiquette, seen in daily adult interaction. It would be unwise to dismiss the uniforms adorning these figures, the hanging banners and the bright red tablecloths. Tang's stark compositions ensure we do not ignore these clues, and serves as a clever device to satirize an era. Using children as his primary figures, Tang is permitted to broach subjects that would be otherwise considered taboo, giving them a veneer of humor, whimsy, and irreverence.