Superseding Authority with Desire
Realism was the mainstream artistic style in China post-1949. It was used extensively to represent revolutionary heroes and the many achievements of Communist Party leaders. During the height the Cultural Revolution, painters produced an incredible number of images of Mao. “Red, Bright, and Glowing” and “Tall, Big, and Wholesome” were the golden standards for portraying the deified leader (Fig. 1). The tides of time had dramatically changed by 1994 when Chinese painter Liu Wei executed the oil on canvas painting Bathing Beauty III (Lot 65). The majesty of Chairman Mao cannot be found here; instead, he is reduced to a supporting actor in the background of the composition. The protagonist of this work is instead a woman in swimsuit bearing a likeness to the Figures represented in pinup-girl calendars. In Chinese society with its overtly politicised ideologies, this work demonstrates the painter's defiance of authority and innovation that breathes new meaning into an era of change.
Born in 1965, Liu Wei is similar to his contemporaries such as Fang Lijun, in that he feels that he does not belong to the previous generation of artists whose lifelong mission it was to rescue Chinese culture. He despises all the lies and illusions that are associated with idealism. In the early 1990s though his investigation of how to pragmatically rescue the spirituality of the individual, he paints with unbridled freedom in a cynical and insipid style, experimenting unscrupulously with painting techniques and imagery. In Bathing Beauty III , Liu Wei directly uses the body and sexual desire as ideological weapons. Mao, despite his absolute authority elsewhere in the visual canon, is pulled into the water. The composition conveys that the artist both grappled with and reflected upon the relationship between human desire and political authority. At the same time, this unique painting style of anti-aesthetic challenges the authority of academic Realism.
Without a doubt, Bathing Beauty III cannot be appreciated and accepted as “beautiful” according to a conventional sense of aesthetics. The woman in the painting has the bushy and unruly eyebrows of a man. Her swollen facial features, grotesque torso, dim-witted gaze, and toothy grin serve to convey the antithesis of elegance. Her self-conscious but futile attempt to be fashionable and seductive evokes a sense of comedy and invites ridicule from the viewer. The ugliness and faux pas of this woman serves as a polar opposite to a traditional sense of beauty. It Is precisely this enormous incongruity that produces an intense sense of irony. When Liu Wei puts this individual, whose physical attributes are woefully lacking, at the centre stage, he unreservedly expresses his contempt of the fossilised aesthetic of authority. If the sense of aesthetic championed by the Academy represents harmony and perfection, then this same sense of aesthetic also represents the necessity for order and restraint. During this period of fierce cynicism, Liu Wei felt that only with the uncouth and exaggerated representations of anti-aestheticism could he express his pursuit of spiritual freedom. To a larger extent, the frustration and helplessness of the youth of his generation has also been exorcised.
The relationship between art and sexuality as a subject matter has always been a favourite topic of artists throughout history. The female nude in Manet's masterpiece The Luncheon on the Grass (Fig. 2) challenged the moral limits of the 19th century Parisian society with her sexuality. 20th century Austria painter Egon Schiele contorted the limbs of the nudes exaggeratedly in his paintings (Fig. 3). Jeff Koons is another excellent example of an artist who extensively manipulates sexuality in his works. Ancient China also has a long history of erotic art that featured graphic imageries. On the contrary, ever since the founding of Communist China, collectivism was highly emphasised. Relationships between the opposite sexes were not casually considered during Cultural Revolution, and sexuality considered deeply taboo. The oppressed social climate was reflected in the unisex attire worn by Chinese citizens at that time. Men and women alike were rendered sexless as comrades. It was a symbolic dismemberment of sexuality, a fundamental part of humanity. The generation who grew up under the shadow of the Cultural Revolution cannot find equilibrium between repression and desire within themselves. As a result, they suffer from a tremendous sense of psychological trauma. As a result, there was vacuum period in Chinese contemporary art history when artists could not express sexuality.
The founding father of psychoanalysis, Austrian-born neurologist Sigmund Freud believed that the libido was the driving fundamental motivator of humankind. He proposed that sexual instinct and impulse are developed during infancy. Freud's theory can explain how Liu Wei's expression of sexuality is a return to human nature. Freud postulated the three theoretical constructs of Id, Ego, and Superego. The subconscious directs the Id to fulfil primitive desires, which of course include sexual desires. On the other hand, the Superego represents the morality that is informed by Society. The conscious mind of Ego rests between the two, moderating between desire and social convention. When Superego relentlessly expands and represses Id, it will result in personality disorders. Freud believed that if the conscious mind can confront trauma and desire, a renewed sense of mental balance could be achieved.
Liu Wei's attitude of detachment and cynicism stem from his experience of growing up during the Cultural Revolution. To him, Bathing Beauty III is a water park that offers psychotherapy to the masses. He lays out the opposing symbols of Id and Superego on the canvas: the woman in the swimsuit represents the primitive desire of humankind (Id). In the background, the three Figures stick out their tongues, one of whom resembles Mao indulgently licking a red flower, creating a vignette loaded with sexual symbolism. Another Figure of unknown identity brazenly gawks at the pinkish body of the woman. In the background, the navy ship wantonly sprays white liquid behind the female Figure. All of these elements point to how the patriarchy of a totalitarian government conquers its people. It is a metaphor of how social construct (Superego) causes trauma to the individual.
In Liu Wei’s body of work, political oppression and societal pressure are never far away; yet, through his nonchalant, humorous, and ironic compositions, sexuality becomes an antidote that neutralises the pain and helplessness caused by an authoritarian society. Bathing Beauty III is a work that transcends the judgement of good or bad taste. It is a mirror that reflects the pulse of a culture. It shows a brutal truth that no one is willing to confront - that none of them actually care whether something is beautiful or ugly. Everyone exists according solely to the primitive instincts of humanity. It is a truth that cannot otherwise be expressed by conventional representation and therefore transcends Realism.