By Emma Marler
The Neorealism movement lies on the need of artists to represent reality as it is, without embellishments or abstractions. As Zhang Xiaoming, head of Chinese contemporary art at Sotheby’s New York, puts it: “Neorealists look at everyday life subjects, but glorify them.”
In Italy for example, Neorealism was a response to the huge changes the two World Wars brought about in daily life and society. In China, Neorealist painters tried to capture reality as everything in the country was changing drastically and developing at high speed. During the Cultural revolution, a realistic style of painting served propaganda purposes and political agendas.
Since the 1980s, Chinese Neorealist painters chose to depict urban and rural snippets of daily life without any filter, they just depicted exactly what they saw and felt.
Liu Xiaodong is one of the most talented and famous artists in the Neorealist scene. According to world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei, Liu Xiaodong “presents the wounds” of China. He always works on large scale canvases, perhaps to give even more reality to his subjects. His paintings are always carefully constructed and he often uses sitters to pose for his scenes.
One of his most significant series of paintings was The Hotan project. He decided to go to the town Hotan in Xinjiang where jade has been extracted and produced for centuries. The environment has completely changed due to human intervention. He spent a month there, talking to locals and learning the backstories of the place before starting to paint. In the next two pictures you can see his process of en plein air painting, from the backstage to the finished product.
Another subject that is often represented in his paintings is the condition of migrant workers. Disobeying the Rules is a crude image of naked workers on a truck, expressing the artist’s concern for working conditions since China’s development and industrialisation. The workers are looking straight at the viewer and smiling, showing their optimism even in such a humiliating condition.
This painting sold at auction for 6 million euros! Liu shot this picture in Beijing and then added his own spin to the narrative to make the scene more impactful and shock viewers, forcing them to think about this pressing social issue.
As his works became internationally appreciated, he focused on new subjects and places. His method is always the same: he talks to locals and then starts painting. His Half street series had Londoners as protagonists.
What makes him so unique is his ability to paint people in a sincere and touching way. The subjects of his works always seem to come to life while you stare at them.
The way Vinci Chang, head of sales for 20th-century Chinese art and Asian contemporary art at Christie’s Hong Kong, sums up Neorealism is truly to the point. He describes Neorealist works as “rich, moving depictions of the feel of daily life and they examine with a humanitarian eye the unaffected simplicity and beauty of local scenes”.
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