Oil painting on canvas of a panda sitting on an elegant lawn chair in the middle of a large green meadow. The panda is sitting in front of a small lawn table with a bottle and two plates of food on it.

From the Collections: ‘Untitled’ by Wang Xingwei

Untitled (2003) by Wang Xingwei is in the M+ Collections, but what is it, who made it, and why did M+ acquire it? Isabella Tam, Associate Curator, Visual Art, M+, explains:

What is this?

Untitled is a painting by Chinese artist Wang Xingwei. It depicts a panda sitting on a lavish chair in a green meadow, having a leisurely moment with wine and other delicacies. While the gradation of green and white in the background evokes a sense of afternoon light, there are no other visible clues to further contextualise the scene.

Untitled is one of the earliest paintings Wang created after relocating to Shanghai from China’s northeast Liaoning Province, in 2002. During this time, he shifted to a new, increasingly personal style of painting, away from his previous practice of re-appropriating iconic art historical paintings and imbuing them with local history. He repeatedly began to portray figures devoid of significant historical meaning, such as pandas, penguins, and air-hostesses, in a wide range of everyday scenes. In Untitled, Wang employs an almost amateur style of loose brushstrokes to portray the aimless activity of the panda. This aesthetic is in stark contrast to the prevalence of abstract art, political pop, and cynical realism in China at the time.

Untitled signifies a turning point in Wang Xingwai’s life and career after moving to the south, freeing himself from the constraints of any orthodox painting style. Hence, the absurdity of the panda and the deficient visual semiotics in the background was the artist’s deliberate way of marking himself as different from the mainstream artistic landscape, as well as from the cosmopolitan cityscape of Shanghai and its foreign lifestyle that were soare unfamiliar to him. China was going through an unprecedented urbanisation and internationalisation, and the painting evokes a sense of absurd ennui, commenting on the citizens’ increasingly enriched lifestyles due to the explosion of consumer culture. The work illustrates Wang’s thoughts on the meaning of this new, contemporary daily life.

Who is the artist?

Oil painting on three joined canvas panels. The yellow-on-red title card in the middle describes the images on either side in Chinese: ‘Chairman Mao Goes to An-Yuan - Width x 200%, The Death of Marat - Width x 50%’. The image on the left is expanded while the image on the right is compressed.

Wang Xingwei, History of Revolution, 1997, oil on canvas, M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. © Wang Xingwei.

Wang Xingwei was born in 1969 in Shenyan, Liaoning Province. Growing up amidst the 85 New Wave movement, Wang was exposed to and trained in a Western art historical discourse. He chose not to completely eschew this traditional model, but maintained a critical relationship and dialogue with his cultural history and experience with the painting techniques. He also, however, liberated himself from the traditional painting approaches, consistently remaining responsive to the language of the medium and applying a variation of styles and compositions.

For nearly three decades, Wang has created a unique artistic universe where characters and historical and cultural references collide. He is known for infusing dark humour in his paintings that depict ambiguous, irrelevant, and sometimes laughable and surrealistic scenes without clear storylines, which trigger the viewer to imagine what lies beyond their surfaces.

Why is this in the M+ Collections?

Having entered the art scene in China in the 1990s, Wang is an accomplished artist who is very well versed in the history of art, while also being able to maintain a critical voice within contemporary Chinese painting. Defying a conventional path or a singular aesthetic technique, his paintings demonstrates an intellectual complexity that also relates to the bigger picture of modern and contemporary art, Western discourse, and local context.

Wang’s distinctive methodology contributes to the emergence of ‘new painting’ in opposition to the symbolism of earlier movements such as cynical realism and social realism. His paintings break down previous assumptions of Chinese art and its cultural symbols, instead acutely examining the fundamentals of contemporary painting, and setting an example for a new generation of Chinese artists.

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Image at top of post: Wang Xingwei, Untitled, 2003, oil on canvas, M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. © Wang Xingwei.

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