A bluffer's guide to contemporary Chinese art

Go from art dud to aficionado with our contemporary crash course

You've spent a few afternoons in 798 or Caochangdi and, sure, it was super interesting, but what does it all mean? What were they trying to say? China's contemporary and modern art scene has exploded since the end of the Cultural Revolution, and there's been a lot of twists and turns along the way since, so you're right to feel a little lost. But with the help of our bluffer's guide to contemporary Chinese art, you'll be talking like you know what you mean and wowing your friends in no time!

Timeline

1976

• The Cultural Revolution ends with Mao's death.

First exhibition of western art in post-war China, Paysages et paysannes francais: la vie rurale en France au XIXe siècle 1820-1905, is shown at the National Art Museum in Beijing, and in Shanghai. This contributes to the emergence of a new form of critical realism later in the year.

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Jules-Bastien Lepage, Les Foins, 1877

1979

• First Exhibition of the Star Group shows in a park next to the National Art Museum of China. Twenty-three artists exhibit 160 radical, avant-garde works. It’s eventually shut down by the Public Security Bureau.


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Huang Rui, Space structure, 1979


Scar Painting emerges as a force in the scene.

• The 'father of modern painting' Wu Guanzhong has his first major solo show at the National Art Museum of China.


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Wu Guanzhong, Hometown Morning, 1960


Rustic Realism becomes popular. New Chinese Cinema filmmakers, like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, find influence in the style.


1980

The Second Star Exhibition debuts at the National Art Museum of China, seemingly signifying approval from the men at the top – or at least someone who makes big decisions in power.


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Members of the Star Group in 1980. Photo: Helmut Opletal


1982

The Government's Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign is launched to counteract Western influences. Big thumbs down from the avant-garde, who cherish abstraction and art for art's sake.


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The National Times, January 13-19, 1984


1985

The Young Art of Progressive China exhibit in Beijing embodies the '85 New Wave Movement. Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign ends, avant-garde groups flourish across the country.


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Lu Chenggang, 喜上梅梢 (Lit: Joyfulness), 1985


1986

Emergence of the Xiamen Dada group when ready-made art is exhibited for the first time in China. Founder Huang Yong Ping says it's like Dada remixed with Zen (or 'with Chinese characteristics', hmm?).


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Huang Yong Ping, Is this a self-portrait or Da Vinci or the Mona Lisa?, 1986-7


1988

First solo installation exhibit of Xu Bing in Beijing. Xu’s piece 'Book from the Sky' features traditional-style books and scrolls, however the thousands of 'Chinese' characters are meaningless.


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Xu Bing, Book from the Sky, 1987-91


1989

First comprehensive show of avant-garde art, China/Avant-garde, is exhibited in the capital, featuring 186 artists, but is then quickly shut down. Also, the New Generation group exhibition opens at the China Museum of History. It showcases New Generation art, a early subset of Cynical Realism.


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Geng Jianyi, The Second State (I-III), 1987


1993

Mass Consumption – a series of rock music, painting and fashion – is organised by The New History Group to be held at the McDonald's in Wangfujing. Authorities stop it before it happens, but it's still conceptually important as it's the first time the avant-garde takes consumerism and materialism as themes.

The Road to the East, curated by Li Xianting, debuts at the 45th Venice Biennale – the first time Chinese avant-garde have been shown in this prestigious a Western setting. Includes Wang Guangyi and Zhang Peili.


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Wang Guanyi, Great Criticism: Coca Cola, 1991-94


2000

First Shanghai Biennial. Alternative exhibit F**k Off! organised by artists excluded from Biennial.

Yue Minjun shoots to fame after 1999’s Venice Biennale, and has first solo show, presented in London.


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Yue Minjun, Untitled, 1998


2003

Alors la Chine? (Well then, China?) debuts at Paris' Centre Georges Pompidou as the first officially sponsored exhibition of Chinese art abroad. Features work of over 50 well-known Chinese artists.


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Liu Xiaodong, Watching, 2000


2011

An ink painting by modern painter Qi Baishi tops the list of most expensive paintings sold in 2011. At 57.2 million USD, Qi’s piece beats out those of Western luminaries like Picasso and Warhol.


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Qi Baishi, Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree, 1946


2015

Pace Beijing, Galleria Continua and Tang Contemporary Art Center present Unlived by What is Seen, an ambitious exhibition reflecting the future direction of contemporary art in China.


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Unlived by What is Seen. Image: Pace Beijing


Know the movements

New Realistic Painting The early beginnings of the post-Revolution avant-garde movement, includes major subset movements like Scar Painting, the name of which references the emotional wounds that the Cultural Revolution caused in its people, and Rustic Realism.

'85 New Wave Movement The umbrella term for the collective efforts of 75-plus artist organizations that arose in the late 1980s to advance the cause of avant-garde art.

Cynical Realism is one of the two most prominent movements in post-80s contemporary Chinese art. Emerging at the end of the '80s and reached its peak in the early '90s. It's typified by disenchantment with political and artist utopias. Some of the highest earners in art, like Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Minjue, are of this school.

Political Pop is China’s riff on Britain's Pop Art from the '60s, remixing and blending the power of propaganda and advertising. Notable names include Li Shan and Yu Youhan.

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Yu Youhan (of Political Pop movement), Untitled (Mao/Marilyn), 2005

Drop a big name

Big shot Wang Guangyi

Why Blending propaganda and corporate logos; he shaped the scene.

Who A leader of the Political Pop.


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Know these groups

Stars Primarily self-taught artists and the first influential avant-garde group. Includes Ai Weiwei and Li Shuang.

No Name Group Noted for experimentation with turn-of-the-century styles like Impressionism at a time ('60s-'70s) when this was unacceptable in China.

Northern Art Group Championed the 'rational' trend of the '85 New Wave Movement. Paintings had a solemn atmosphere. Influenced by German philosophy.

Xiamen Dada Based out of Xiamen, these artists protested socialist realism by way of absurdism. Inspired by early 20th-century Dadaism and Chan Buddhism.


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Ma Kelu (of No Name Group), Setting Sun at Meridian Gate, 1972
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