Yue Minjun — L’ombre du fou rire



Yue Minjun
L’ombre du fou rire

Past: November 14, 2012 → March 24, 2013

The Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain presents the first major European exhibition dedicated to the Chinese artist Yue Minjun, a unique opportunity to discover the work of an artist who, in spite of his international renown, continues to maintain a relatively low profile. Yue Minjun’s paintings, with their colorful iconography, peopled by enigmatically laughing characters, reinvent the grotesque and its codes, while expressing an ironic and disillusioned vision of the social situation in contemporary China, as well as of the human condition in the modern world. Featuring nearly 40 paintings from collections around the world, as well as a wide array of drawings that have never been shown to the general public, this exhibition will reveal the singular and complex aesthetic of an œuvre that defies all interpretation.

An artist emblematic of a generation profoundly marked by the history of contemporary China : laughter as an outlet.

Born in 1962 in the city of Daqing in the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, Yue Minjun first took up painting as a hobby. He went off to study art at the Normal University in Hebei Province in 1985 and then joined the artistic community in Yuan Ming Yuan, a village near Beijing, in the early 1990s. It was there that he started to define his style and to sketch out the contours of what would become his main theme: laughter.

In addition, Yue Minjun came to be seen as one of the leading representatives of “Cynical Realism,” a new art movement that emerged in the early 1990s. Affected by a social situation different from the one of the 1980s, as well as by the opening up of the Chinese economy to the world market, young artists broke away from the “Socialist Realism” and the avant-gardes. They offered a more caustic and less idealistic vision of their society. “That’s why the act of smiling, laughing to mask feelings of helplessness has such significance for my generation”1, says Yue Minjun about his beginnings as an artist.

Ymj memory 2 a4 mini medium
Yue Minjun, Memory-2 2000, 0 Oil on canvas — 140 x 108 cm Collection of the artist, Beijing © Yue Minjun
Self-Portrait : the same howl of laughter directed at the face of the world

With their closed eyes and gaping mouths, the painted or sculpted faces found in Yue Minjun’s works display, in their extravagance, the rigidity of impenetrable masks. “This stereotyped laugh prohibits any search for intentionality; it puts up a wall, makes any interiority off limits, bars any kind of feeling,” writes François Jullien in the catalog published in conjunction with the exhibition.“As nothing more than a series of explosions, it shows that there is nothing to communicate”. Initially inspired by the artist’s friends, the portraits gradually merged into a single face: that of Yue Minjun himself. His face thus becomes a multitude of mirrors that reflect whatever one wants to see in them: a caricature of the homogenization of Chinese society, a way of “grinning and bearing it” in a world that has become absurd or, quite simply, a form of self-derision on the part of the artist. At the same time, this laugh, repeated over and over again, provides the artist with a never-ending supply of pictorial possibilities: the same characters with their stylized and unchanging traits are depicted alone or reproduced ad infinitum. Portrayed in ludicrous, comic, poetic or tragic situations, these strange figures have inherited the codes associated with certain cartoons in which anything seems possible and absurdity becomes the norm.

Moving beyong “cynical realism:” an aesthetic with a secret narrative

Beyond any narrow categorization, Yue Minjun has developed an idiosyncratic aesthetic of his own—extremely diverse, full of twists and turns, like a narrative with a secret plot. Well-known public places in China are combined with luxury cars, airplanes, and dinosaurs, as well as with references to popular Chinese culture and art history, to create collages and image associations in which every sign remains open to interpretation and the artist allows himself complete freedom of expression.

Minjun yue sans titre 1998 medium
Yue Minjun, Water, 1998, 0 Huile sur toile Collection privée, londres © Yue Minjun

In his painting The Execution, based on The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico by Édouard Manet (1868), the artist thus seems to delight in baffling the viewer. He replaces all of the original protagonists with smiling figures, and in the background, clearly alludes to the wall around the Forbidden City. Similarly, in a series that questions the absence in a picture, he recreates exact replicas of masterpieces by famous Western artists or famous masterpieces from chinese popular history but removes all of the characters. Nothing is left but the background, a stage set in a deserted theater, revealing lunar or romantic landscapes, curious or unrecognizable architectures. This potential for endless variation plunges viewers into a maze that, like the artist’s enormous labyrinthine landscapes, offers no clear way out. That is what makes Yue Minjun’s work, which has evolved continuously since the 1990s, so powerful and, at the same time, so subtle. Through repetition and variation, each painting inter-resonates with the others as part of a larger set. By bringing these unsettling and enigmatic pieces together and exhibiting them, for the first time ever, in the same space, the extraordinary visual power of this body of work will thus be brought to light.

1 Quoted from «Yue Minjun Biographie» in Yue Minjun, (Paris: Hanart TZ Gallery/Galerie 75 Faubourg, 2006).

2 François Jullien, «No Possible Subject» in Yue Minjun, L’Ombre du fou rire (Paris: Édition Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2012).

14 Paris 14 Zoom in 14 Paris 14 Zoom out

261, boulevard Raspail

75014 Paris

T. 01 42 18 56 50 — F. 01 42 18 56 52

Official website


Opening hours

Every day except Monday, 11 AM – 8 PM
Late night on Tuesday until 10 PM

Admission fee

Full rate €10,50 — Concessions €7.00

The artist

  • Yue Minjun