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 Yu Xiaodong  (1963 - )

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Lived/Active: China      Known for: portrait, tibetan, art education

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Biography from Verna Glancy Fine Art:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

About Yu Xiaodong "When I was five years old," painter Yu Xiaodong recalls, "I wanted to be an artist."  That single-minded passion to create art never deserted Yu, who has made an important mark on the contemporary Chinese art world with his well-known series of Tibetan portraiture.  The artist's profound respect for the Tibetan people, their complex beliefs and culture, as well as Tibet's extraordinary landscape, radiates from his meticulously detailed oil paintings of the colorfully nomadic people with whom he lived and worked from 1984 to 1997. 

Yu Xiaodong was born in 1963 in Shenyang in the northeastern province of Liaoning, China, considered to be the gateway to the Korean peninsula.  It was there that he was educated from primary school through university.  He was raised in a city environment by parents who earned their living, as many Chinese did during the time of Mao Zedong, working for the Communist Chinese government.  However, when he was eight years old, he went to live with his grandparents in the countryside for two years.  Yu's grandfather, a painter himself, encouraged his grandson's interest in art.  "I definitely have his artistic genes," says Yu.  An exhibition of oil paintings entitled The Tibet Series by Chen Danqing that Yu saw in 1983 was the spark that fired Yu's fiery imagination and burning desire to go to Tibet, long called "the roof of the world," and live among its people. 

Chen, along with a number of promising young artists, had been involuntarily sent to Tibet in the 1970's as a part of the "reeducation" movement spawned by the Cultural Revolution.  There, the artists spent years of their youth working the land and sympathetically painting the life of minority people and villagers.  This school of artists, called the Scar and Country Life Painting School, recorded not only their own experiences during the Cultural Revolution, according to art critic Zhang Zhaohui, but also their reflections upon life's hardships and bitterness.  Chen Danqing's Tibet Series, so inspirational to Yu Xiaodong, is considered to be some of the masterpieces of this school of Chinese oil painting. 

Unlike Chen, who was involuntarily conscripted to go to Tibet, Yu demanded that he be sent to the remote autonomous region, voluntarily giving up the coveted chance to stay at Luxun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang after graduation in 1984.  In Tibet, he eventually became the head of the Art Department of Xizang University established in Lhasa.  "I lived in Tibet for 13 years and it was the best time of my life," Yu states.  "Tibet's arduous physical environment, as well as Tibetan Buddhist beliefs and philosophy, made me strong and have helped me become a better person as well as a better painter." 

It was during his leisure time in Tibet that Yu Xiaodong began to read voraciously, especially about the history of art in both the East and the West.  The painter's influences have been as varied as his reading material. Stylistically speaking, he cites the important effects the disparate work of Northern Renaissance master painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Spanish Baroque court painter Diego Velasquez (1599-1660), Dutch genre painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), 19th century Russian realist Ilya Efimovich Repin (1844-1930), French Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) and German Expressionist printmaker and sculptor, Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) have had on his painting style.  It is a distinctive style that incorporates the devoted attention to light, shadow, color, detail and line quality that have characterized the work of these European artists throughout the centuries. 

There is no doubt about the effect that Chen Danqing's Tibet Series from the early 80's has had on Yu Xiaodong's paintings, though the tenor of each artist's work is altogether dissimilar.  In stark contrast to Chen, Yu's work is infused with a sense of transcendent elegance and mysticism conspicuously lacking in Chen's gritty, highly sensual portraits of Tibetan nomads and villagers (Chen shocked the Chinese art world in the early 1980s at a national art exhibition with a work depicting a kiss between a young Tibetan man and woman). In addition, Yu's Tibetan portraits are inescapably Chinese in that they are reminiscent of Ming and Qing Dynasty imperial portraiture, with its strict formal frontality, a perspective used to paint emperors' official court portraits (inspired by face-on images of Chinese gods), as well as Confucian-based ancestor portraits that have been in use for generations on Chinese home altars.

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