XIA XIAOWAN (Chinese, B. 1959)
XIA XIAOWAN (Chinese, B. 1959)

Sea of Life

XIA XIAOWAN (Chinese, B. 1959)
Sea of Life
dated '1990.11.25.'; signed in Chinese (lower right)
oil on canvas
180 x 200 cm. (70 7/8 x 78 ¾ in.)
Painted in 1990

15% of the hammer price of this lot will be donated to Moonchu Foundation
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner
Asian Art Archive, China's New Art, Post-1989, Hong Kong, 2001 (illustrated, p. 122).
Aye Gallery; & Today Art Museum, Xia Xiaowan, Beijing, China, 2008 (illustrated, p. 79)
Hong Kong, Hong Kong Arts Centre; & Hong Kong City Hall, China's New Art, Post-1989, 30 January-28 February 1993.
Sydney, Australia, Museum of Contemporary Art, Mao Goes Pop, 2 June-15 August 1993.
Melbourne, Australia, Melbourne Arts Festival, China's New Art, Post-1989, Summer 1993.
Vancouver, Canada, Vancouver Art Gallery, China's New Art, Post-1989, 12 April-28 May 1995.
Eugene, USA, University of Oregon Art Museum, China's New Art, Post-1989, 17 December 1995-28 February 1996.
Fort Wayne, USA, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, China's New Art, Post-1989, 23 March-11 May 1996.
Salina, USA, Salina Arts Centre, China's New Art, Post-1989, 14 March-11 May 1997.
Chicago, USA, Chicago Cultural Centre, China's New Art, Post-1989, 7 June-8 August 1997.
San Jose, USA, San Jose Museum of Art, China's New Art, Post-1989, 2 September-2 November 1997.


A sensitive artist is not only perceptive about humdrum routines wherefrom an enlightened mind is cultivated, but also skilled in embodying the greatness of life within his or her oeuvre. Xia Xiaowan’s paintings created throughout the 1990s have a dramatic and infectious tension built around the desolate landscapes and the writhing human bodies depicted in the artist’s work, which “by happenstance unconsciously reflected the collective mental state of the youths at that time- confused, depressed and spiritually impoverished” (Lu Peng, Zhu Zhu, Kao Chienhui, Thirty Years of Adventures: Art and Artists Post 1979, Timezone 8, Beijing, China, p. 284). Presented here, Sea of Life (Lot 70) was on view in the historic exhibition Post-89: The Contemporary Art in China. The exhibition was a significant milestone for the development of Chinese contemporary art and marked the first endeavor that systematically introduced the latter to the international art scene. The works displayed in this exhibition were divided into six different cultural orientations according to the spirits they reflected; the exhibited works by Xia Xiaowan, Zhang Xiaogang, Ding Fang, Pan Dehai, Zhou Chunya and Mao Xuhui belonged to the category of “traumatic romanticism.”

The root of Xia’s romantic spirit can be traced back to his college days at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). In Sea of Life, such a spirit has been perfected in the form of an expressive artistic vocabulary. In 1978, the artist was enrolled in the painting department where he received access to Western art for the first time in his life. From then on, he has been interested in the absurdity and sense of disorder conveyed by surrealist paintings. He made a trip to Dunhuang in his senior year, and the sultry nights in the desert greatly fueled his innate desire for artistic creation, serving as inspiration for his surreal night landscapes (Fig. 1). After graduation, Xia was offered a job as an art editor at an engineering industrial publisher, a job that largely curtailed his freedom in painting. Later, he seized the opportunity to teach at a college of performing arts where he regained his freedom of artistic creation. The artist christened this time his “Baroque”period, during which he studied paintings by Spanish painter Francisco Goya and Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. Under the relentless pressure of daily life, the artist deliberately distorted the appearances of the wilderness, landscapes, and celestial bodies above the horizon to a greater extent, making his brushstrokes brim with a sense of motion. Meanwhile, he embedded the figures into the landscape, alluding to a primitive state of life. (Fig. 2)

Evolving from surreal spectacles to concerns with life, Xia’s paintings gradually integrated independent images into trail-blazing creative vocabulary. His body of work produced during the 1990s carried stronger and more profound implications for the life and soul, which prompted Wu Hong to eulogized them as “a peak of Xia’s career in the early 1990s; and the six paintings exhibited in Post-’89 clearly exemplified the artist’s signature painting style that has been a classic of its own.” Sea of Life is the only work of Xia’s that features a vast expanse of open sea. The tragically heroic struggle of humankind against nature is reminiscent of the biblical story about the Great Deluge. Nonetheless, water is simultaneously the origin of life and the world welcomes new life after the destruction. The epic grandeur of Sea of Life evokes a strong association with Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa, a masterpiece of romanticism. (Fig. 3) Both paintings exhibit great humanistic compassion. Gericault meticulously depicted the sailors in the final throes of their ship sinking. Above the wan victims and the exhausted survivors is a man waving a red-white cloth to a ship in the distance, symbolizing a beacon of hope in troubled times. A similar symbol of hope can be seen in Sea of Life. While the sea churns with the bodies of people fighting for survival, a silhouette appears against the night sky. Away from the struggling crowd, he seems to have found a way to escape the chaos. This shadowy red silhouette bears serves as the metaphorical silver lining around a cloud by implying the possibility for deliverance.

The distorted human body is a signature characteristic of Xia’s oeuvre. At his young age, the artist had sat at the feet of a painter who had studied abroad in the Soviet Union. The Soviet-style training laid a solid foundation for his skill in drawing. Daily practice in drawing has been vital to the artist’s ability to deftly shape and twist human bodies. He terms this process “the making of humankind.” "My drawing neither features specific objects nor requires models. I’ve memorized the structure of the human body and can adapt it into all kinds of shapes. When I was still a student, I already knew the fact that the perfected human bodies in Occidental art are forged by Western masters. There would be no model posing for Michelangelo. I also treat my own body as a source of reference whenever I’m about to draw a particular part,” the artist said. A similar style of writhing shapes and distorted proportions in figures can be examined in the works of El Greco, an early pioneer in Expressionism (Fig. 4). As far as Xia is concerned, however, his highly expressive strokes no longer serve a religious purpose. The figures with their elongated torsos and curtailed limbs are sentient beings incarnate in the world. They appear naked, fighting for survival against the raging sea. Taking a closer look at this painting, we may see the distinguishable features of each figure. Such diversity has faithfully demonstrated the artist’s true creativity at the peak of his career.

The so-called traumatic romanticism refers not so much to passivism or retreat, as it does to attaining deliverance by bravely revealing the truth beneath the peaceful disguise; it calls us to recognize the appeals from the depth of our souls, as well as the vulnerability of our lives. The braver endeavor the artist made, the greater the romantic atmosphere we sense in his body of work. In 1994, Xia felt that continuing to create paintings in this romantic style was futile, as they could never surpass the vitality expressed in Sea of Life which he created three years earlier, and consequently terminated the series. This decision has greatly enhanced the value of Sea of Life as the chef d’oeuvre created by the artist in the prime of his career.

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