Breaking the European Canon

In 1978, the first exhibition of European painting to be shown in modern China travelled to Beijing and Shanghai. Paysages et paysans francais 1820–1905 (French Landscapes and Peasants, 1820–1905) was just the beginning of an influx of accessible European and American art publications and exhibitions, which many young Chinese artists saw as foreign and enticing.

New avant-garde practices developed rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s, and as Chinese artists sampled from their pick of Western and Eastern influences, the trend of subverting classic European paintings emerged. Whether using a new style or medium, replacing a central figure with a signature character, or re-imagining an entire scene, many of the edits made by these artists contribute to a sense of irony in their work. For example, Qiu Anxiong’s The Doubter replaces the tragic figure in Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat with a robed chimpanzee. Zhou Tiehai combines the iconic cigarette mascot Joe Camel with works by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Jacopo Palma, and Peter Paul Rubens. Yue Minjun replaces the central figure in Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas with his signature pink laughing man. By contrast, Liu Wei offers an earnest recreation of Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin.