What has resulted from the Chinese contemporary art market in the last 40 years?

At the basement of the Power Long Museum, the exhibition 40x40 Art History Shaped by 40 Artists is currently on display. Lv Peng, one of the most famous curators in China, selected artworks by 40 artists to showcase the contemporary art of China from 1978 to 2018. The exhibited artists are mainly from the 50s and the 60s, and include big names like Zhang Xiaogang and Cai Guoqiang. (See the full list of the artists at the end of the article.)

Of course, a few pieces in an exhibition hardly represent the whole of contemporary art history in China. We analysed the turnovers of artworks by the 40 exhibited artists using AMMA's database in order to examine how the art market has changed throughout the years. We were then able to review the contemporary art history of China.


▲The scene of the 40x40 Art History Shaped by 40 Artists at Power Long Museum

From a nobody to a somebody whose paintings are worth millions

The 80s was the golden era of Chinese contemporary art. The Star Art Group (Xing Xing), one of the most important movements in Chinese contemporary art history, presented the concept of "freedom of expression in art" for the first time in China. In 1981, the Tibetan Series from Chen Danqing and the Father from Luo Zhongli, which focused on individualism, lead the trend for artists to create unexpected and innovative pieces. The climax of this era was the '85 New Wave Movement. It inspired many young artists to create avant-garde pieces that were very much influenced by postmodernism in the West.   


In today's art market, socialist realism pieces are hot ticket items among artworks from the 80s. Luo Zhongli's Spring Silkworm (1982) sold for nearly $7.5m at China Guardian in 2017, while Shang Yang's Yellow River Boatmen (1981) sold for $4.7m at Poly. Chen Danqing's Shepherd from the Tibetan Series sold for $4.5m at Beijing Council. Meanwhile, postmodernism artworks from the same era are not as attractive. For example, Zhang Peili's X? No.3 (1986), one of the best postmodernism artworks from the 80s, sold for a mere $2.9m.


▲Luo Zhongli's Spring Silkworm (1982) sold for nearly $7.5m at China Guardian in 2017

In the 1990s, cynical realism, political pop, and gaudy pieces became the mainstream in China’s art world. Under the influence of politics and the economy, artists abandoned the pursuit of "truth" and "essence" to explore a new relationship between art and social reality.

Postmodernism artworks from the 90s perform the best in today’s art market. Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline: The Big Family No.3 (1995) sold for over $12m, and Liu Xiaodong's Disobeying the Rules (1996) hammered down for more than $8m at Sotheby's in Hong Kong. Moreover, Yue Minjun's Gweong-Gweong (1993) knocked down for nearly $7m at Christie's in Hong Kong.

In the 21th century, the market of Chinese contemporary art has developed rapidly as it never has before. In 2013 Sotheby's spring auction, The Last Supper (2001) sold for over $23m. Its painter, Zeng Fanzhi, became the most expensive artist in China. Additionally, the accelerated growth of private museums and self-owned galleries has allowed the Chinese art market to influence the art itself.

The rise and fall of politicisation in Chinese art

Until around 2005, the Chinese art world is struggling to stray from popularising politicised art. Yet the international art market still prefers artworks that contained political satire, which is why Chinese contemporary art raised excitement when it first entered the world stage.

During the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993, an exhibition entitled Passage to Orient attracted the attention of the world. The exhibition not only helped publicise Chinese contemporary to the world, but also decided the motifs for Chinese contemporary art – cynical realism and political pop.


▲Poster of Cardinal Points of Art at the 45th Venice Biennale in 1993 (Asia Art Achive)

Famous Chinese artist and curator Kong Chang'an once said in an interview: "We were not willing to introduce Chinese artists to the West under the name of Orientalism. Many Westerners see the Orient as a very conceptual thing. When they look at a painting that contains classic Oriental elements, they will agree that it is Chinese art.”

For many Westerners, political pop is a mockery of consumerism in China, while cynical realism is satire of the current society. Nevertheless, the international art market celebrates these works of art.

In Zeng Fanzhi's The Last Supper (2001), 13 students with masks replace the twelve disciples and Jesus. They all wear red scarves, a symbol of the young generation in China. However, sitting at the same seat as Judas in Da Vinci's The Last Supper (1498) is a boy with a golden tie, symbolising the betrayal of capitalism. This painting is now the most expensive Chinese contemporary painting by a living artist.


▲Zeng Fanzhi's The Last Supper (2001)

Though politicised art started to put Chinese artists on the map, more and more depoliticised artworks from Chinese contemporary artists are becoming popular. Cai Guoqiang's Drawing for Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation: Ode to Joy sold for nearly $10m. The turnover of Chou Chunya's painting of Chinese landscape scenery increased 200% in market value in 2018.

Even though Chinese contemporary art has a relatively short history and its art market has experienced dramatic ups and downs, it will continue to grow and impact the international art world. Of course, it's up to the newer generations to make that happen.

Artist List of 40x40 Art History Shaped by 40 Artists

罗中立 (Luo Zhongli)、尚扬 (Shang Yang)、陈丹青 (Chen Danqing)、何多苓 (He Duoling)、黄锐 (Huang Rui)、毛旭辉 (Mao Xuhui)、夏小万 (Xia Xiaowan)、傅中望 (Fu Zhongwang)、谷文达 (Gu Wenda)、黄永砯 (Huang Yongbing)、张培力 (Zhang Peili)、朱新建 (Zhu Xinjian)、刘小东 (Liu Xiaodong)、方力钧 (Fang Lijun)、岳敏君 (Yue Minjun)、刘炜 (Liu Wei)、王广义 (Wang Guangyi)、张晓刚 (Zhang Xiaogang)、马六明 (Ma Liuming)、丁乙 (Ding Yi)、洪磊 (Hong Lei)、隋建国 (Sui Jianguo)、展望 (Zhan Wang)、徐冰 (Xu Bing)、李山 (Li Shan)、余友涵 (Yu Youhan)、蔡国强 (Cai Guoqiang)、尹朝阳 (Yin Zhaoyang)、杨福东 (Yang Fudong)、李松松 (Li Songsong)、宋冬 (Song Dong)、邱志杰 (Qiu Zhijie)、尹秀珍 (Yin Xiuzhen)、汪建伟 (Wang Jianwei)、毛同强 (Mao Tongqiang)、姜杰 (Jiang Jie)、向京 (Xiang Jing)、毛焰 (Mao Yan)、叶永青 (Ye Yongqing)、曾梵志 (Zeng Fanzhi)、周春芽 (Zhou Chunya).