John Yau's monograph on Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong (b.1963) was published earlier this week (27th May). Yau's text explores Xiaodong's development as a truly global artist who has depicted scenes from his native China to Europe, South Africa, Tibet, Israel, Egypt and beyond, in the context of China's history beyond the Cultural Revolution.

Below are two excerpts - from the book's Foreword and Introduction - which give an insight into the position of Xiaodong's oeuvre in the context of contemporary painting internationally...



- Foreword -


Liu Xiaodong is not only one of the most interesting painters at work today, he has perhaps the most original and unprecedented conceptions of what it means to be a painter, and he is, as John Yau observes, ‘both a traditionalist and a radical innovator’. More than half a century after Michael Fried claimed to have detected ‘the gradual withdrawal of painting from the task of representing reality – or of reality from the task of painting to represent it’, Liu has done more than just insist, as many others have done, that representation in painting is still possible. He has found new ways to enter as a painter into the reality he means to represent – meaning that his representation comes from both without and within that reality. As the artist himself once remarked, in his paintings, the ‘texture is born in the environment’ in which they were created; they are as indexical as they are iconic. He is, as Yau says, a ‘chronicler, film director, news reporter, diarist, objective observer and fervent witness’, all at once, conveying ‘a bracing vision of communities navigating a fractured world under constant and extreme pressure’.


To follow Liu’s comprehensive vision, Yau traces his development, from his first adolescent efforts to copy Western oil paintings and watercolors from an uncle’s art books through his subsequent training in Socialist Realism in Beijing, where he also befriended a rising generation of young filmmakers, and a year living in New York’s East Village in a basement apartment he took over from Ai Weiwei. There he got to know artists such as John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres and saw paintings, such as those of Lucian Freud (in a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum), with subjects completely alien to the art he’d previously known. All these experiences and others helped Liu find a pictorial language for engaging with the world at large, which amounts – as Yau says – to an ‘embrace – at once nuanced, direct and respectful’.


- Barry Schwabsky





- Introduction -
John Yau


In his groundbreaking essay, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863), the poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire formulated the essential characteristics of the ‘passionate observer’ when he described the bond the modern artist must establish with everyday life: 


The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world, such are a few of the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family . . . 


As I will demonstrate, Liu Xiaodong, who was born in 1963 in Jincheng, China, epitomizes Baudelaire’s description of ‘the painter of modern life’ as an ‘independent, passionate and impartial nature’, even as he expands upon it. Liu’s restatement and magnification of Baudelaire’s definition of the modern painter occurs in two important ways. First, he has transformed the role of the flâneur, the walker in the city, by wandering the streets not of 19th-century Paris, but of Jerusalem, Havana and the new city districts built by the Chinese government in Mongolia, observing the social world into which he has immersed himself, while remaining self-determining, intense and independent. Second, he has brought the technological developments that have accelerated since Baudelaire’s time (photography, film and digital media) into his practice.


By traveling to distant locales and sovereign situations to paint on site, under a range of weather conditions and uncontrollable circumstances, as he began doing in 2004, he has redefined the studio as a portable situation. In contrast to Baudelaire’s earlier model, Liu doesn’t simply sketch on site, but works directly in oils on a large scale in places far from his home base in Beijing. In his paintings, many of which are monumental and multi-paneled, he has collapsed the roles of chronicler, film director, news reporter, diarist, objective observer and fervent witness. By eroding the border between the factual and fictive, Liu complicates the genre of realism. His displacement of painting from its historical categories echoes his desire to document the disruptive effects of society’s relentless drive toward further modernization.




At the same time, by focusing on the members of a community, Liu is underscoring the strength of banding together out of a sense of common purpose to form a caring, self-sustaining unit within a larger, hostile culture. The basis of this community might be family, ethnicity, religious belief, sexual orientation, shared labor or simply the desire to achieve a common goal. Liu never appears to favor one cause over another. Attentive to a wide and unpredictable range of commonplace issues, the artist presents a bracing, vision of communities navigating a fractured world under constant and extreme pressure.


Liu’s means of expression include paintings, drawings, project diaries and photographs, which he sometimes alters with paint strokes. He also considers documentary films made about his work as a parallel project, at once collaborative and independent. Since filming Liu’s return to Jincheng to work on the paintings for Hometown Boy (2010, fig.3), almost all these documentary films have been directed by Yang Bo.



Artistically speaking, Liu is both a traditionalist and a radical innovator, more so than his contemporaries. This is because, in contrast to artists such as Gerhard Richter, Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans and Kehinde Wiley, who derive their subject matter from photographs, mass media and art history, Liu’s paintings since 2004 are based on the direct observation of individuals and groups as they go about their everyday lives. Painting out in the open or in a temporary studio erected on site, Liu has to allow contingency into the process and relinquish the control that working from a photograph or in a stable studio situation would afford him.


By working from life, Liu is not operating in the wake of Andy Warhol, who relied on images appropriated from the mass media for his silkscreen paintings. He has no interest in celebrities or fashion, in sensationalism or irony. He needs to have his subject(s) literally in front of him, while he remains for the most part invisible. He is simultaneously empathetic toward and detached from them, a paradox that further engages the viewer. Trained in the Soviet Realist style that developed in China after the Communist ascension to power in 1949, Liu had to subvert the lens of ideology in order to see what was in front of him. Without seeking refuge in a signature style, predictable subject matter or a particular medium, he set out to discover what it means to see for himself, accepting all the complications and ambiguities such an undertaking would entail. This is no small accomplishment, particularly since he remained committed to plein air encounters, realist techniques and everyday subject matter. Liu’s arduous pursuit of painting what he sees has led him to reject both nostalgia for past styles and idealizing his subjects, to live in the fluid present rather than the past or the future. His aim is to establish the ability to chronicle ‘the ebb and flow’ of the world around him, whatever it might be. 



You can get your copy of the book HERE. With free UK P&P on orders from our website.

Hardback • 144 Pages • Size: 280 × 240 mm
114 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781848224162 • Publication: May 27, 2021
Series: Contemporary Painters Series