Unless you’re an art student, you may not have heard of cynical realism. While you may have come face to face with it personally, you may have written it off as just art. Cynical realism is a type of contemporary movement found in Chinese art, which began a relatively short period ago. In comparison to expressionism and impressionism, Chinese Art is the baby of art, being created in the 1990’s. Still active today, it’s one of the most popular art movements in Chinese contemporary art. Seen in the mainland of China, its origin can be traced to Beijing specifically.
Mostly seen in painting, it doesn’t have as wide of a spectrum as expressionism does, where many outlets are used such as sculpting, music, poetry, cinematography, and more. Cynical Realism was birthed during the cultural revolution as you can imagine by the name. While cynical, realism is just that – reality. Using art to portray socio-political themes, artists are connecting events from Revolutionary China to the people of now. Other topics can include modernization, industrialization (found mainly in China) by artists like Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, and others.
Yue Minjun has quite the distinct style, featuring the same man in many of their paintings pulling the same face in different poses with different themes laced throughout. There’s a general color palette that is used within Yue’s work to keep with being cohesive and painting cynical realism. Some of Minjun’s untitled paintings include a note with “Smile-ism” underneath, describing the a self-proclaimed style of painting.
The reason Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun seem to be the forefront of this socio-political art style is because of their ability to remain cohesive with their distinct art styles while sticking to the theme. While there are many notable artists within this art style, the two seem to reign supreme. With Minjun, he paints himself into iconic moments, with vibrant colors. With the world around as the environment, he is always the subject, silently yet beautifully painting how the world around him is effecting not only him, but everyone else.
Other themes in cynical realism
Some socio-political themes include China’s opening to the western world along with industrialization. With modernization, themes talk about ditching traditional values and letting money and power hunger people take over the greater good. Powerful themes, but ones that strike close to home for many in the main land of China.
Political pop and it’s correlation
Besides cynical realism, another art style from the 90’s included political pop. It’s not music, but rather popular (and sometimes political) images mixed with a commercial style. While they are two very different styles, they both draw inspiration from political themes, corruption, and the scary world around them.