The remarkable renaissance in Chinese art

More than half of the world's best-selling painters and sculptors today are from Asia – a major shift after 500 years of domination by Western art. Andrew Johnson reports

Sunday 16 November 2008 01:00 GMT

With its £2 trillion surplus, China's economic might dominates the world. Now its painters and sculptors are developing, collectively, into a contemporary arts superpower. Asian artists, and in particular those from China, dominate a new list of the world's best-selling contemporary artists of last year. Among the world's most sought-after artists are the unfamiliar names of Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi.

Of the world's 20 top-selling artists, 13 are from Asia, with 11 coming from China. Asian artists make up six of the top 10 biggest sellers at auction, five of which are Chinese. Experts predict that within a decade, the term "Asian art" will be as widely used as "Western art" and will be responsible for most global sales.

The annual survey of the global art market by the auction tracking site Artprice and the Axa insurance company lists the 500 top-selling artists at 2,900 auctions between July 2007 and June 2008. While the top four selling contemporary artists at auction were the Western superstars Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst and Richard Prince, almost all the rest are Asian. Other Chinese artists in the top 10 include Wang Guangyi and Yan Pei-Ming. Japan's Takashi Murakami comes in at number eight, while the Indian-born Anish Kapoor, who lives in England, is number 18. It is a seismic shift in an art market dominated by the Western tradition for almost 500 years.

"The total auction revenue generated by 100 Chinese artists in 2003-4 amounted to £860,000," the report says. "The same 100 generated total revenue of £270m over the last 12 months. Of these 100, three are striking for having each generated more than £26m."

Vinci Chang, head of sales at Christie's Asian contemporary department in Hong Kong, said: "These artists grew up in a post-Mao China and have seen a country under decades of turmoil and political and social change. All this has informed their work."

Such is the interest in Chinese art that Charles Saatchi has opened his new gallery in Chelsea with an exhibition of new Chinese talent. Originally, he said, he found Chinese art as very "kitschy" and "derivative". "But there's enough stuff to put on a good show," he said in 2006. "My rule is: if you can put this in the Whitney Biennial and nobody is going to say, 'Oh, that's very good for a Chinese artist,' then that will be fine."

World’s 20 top selling artists

Wang Guangyi

The Chinese artist is seen as an exponent of 'political pop'. His work, including 2005'2 'Porsche', left, combines the styles of communist propaganda posters with consumer logos. 'Stylistically merging the government enforced aesthetic of agitprop with the kitsch sensibility of American pop, Guangyi's work adopts the Cold War language of the 1960s to ironically examine the contemporary polemics of globalisation,' according to the Saatchi Gallery.

Takashi Murakami

Murakami is regarded as one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking Japanese artists of the 1990s. His work ranges from cartoon-like paintings and almost minimalist sculptures to giant inflatable balloons. He also puts on performance events and designs factory-produced watches, T-shirts and many other commercial products. Murakami, 46, is credited with creating the 'superflat' style of painting, which features flat planes of colour and graphic images derived from the Japanese traditions of anime and manga. Much of his work is emblazoned with his signature character, Mr DOB.

Zhang Xiaogang

Zhang is known for his surrealist paintings, with Picasso and Dali among his influences. His Bloodline series of paintings, including 'Big Family', right, feature stylised and monochrome portraits of Chinese people in stiff, formal poses, which recall portraits done in the 1950s and 1960s.

Zeng Fanzhi

Zeng is among the most sought-after Chinese contemporary artists. He combines expressionist and realist styles in his work, which often deals with relationships between people. His series of Great Man paintings – featuring Karl Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao among others – appear at first glance to be official portraits, but subvert the traditional representations with use of monochrome and expressive brush strokes. Pictured above: 2004's 'Tiananmen'.

Yue Minjun

Yue is a member of the Chinese 'cynical realist' movement. He is noted for depicting 'cloned doppelgängers', grotesquely contorted with maniacal grins, such as 2005's 'Backyard Garden', left. The forced jollity of his anti-heroes echoes modern anxieties.

World's 20 top selling artists

1 Jeff Koons, born 1955 in Pennsylvania, incorporates kitsch imagery. Sold £69.4m in the past year.

2 Jean-Michel Basquiat, born 1960 in Brooklyn, New York, was a graffiti artist who died in 1988. Sold £54.3m.

3 Damien Hirst, born 1965 in Bristol, a key member of the Young British Artists. Sold £45.7m.

4 Richard Prince, born 1949 in Panama, is an American painter and photographer. Sold £33m.

5 Zhang Xiaogang, born in 1958 in China's Yunnan province. Sold £32.3m.

6 Zeng Fanzhi, born in 1964 in Wuhan, holds the auction record for a contemporary Asian artist. Sold £27.8m.

7 Yue Minjun, born 1962 in Heilongjiang. Sold £27.8m.

8 Takashi Murakami, born 1962, Tokyo, Japan. Possibly the best known Eastern artist on the list. Sold £15.5m.

9 Wang Guangyi, born 1957, in Heilongjiang. Sold £11.7m

10 Liu Xiaodong, born 1963, Liaoning. Painter and photographer documented the controversial Three Gorges Dam project. Sold £10.5m.

11 Cai Guo-Qiang, born 1957. Performance artist who uses gunpowder to produce 'explosive events'. Sold £10.1m.

12 Yan Pei-Ming, born 1960, Shanghai. Best known for epic portraits of Mao Zedong and Bruce Lee. Sold £9.9m.

13 Chen Yifei, born 1946 in Zhejing. Among the first to break into Western art market. Died in 2005. Sold £9.7m.

14 Fang Lijun, born 1963, Hebei. Painter of the 'cynical realism' school. Sold £9.6m

15 Liu Ye, born 1964, veteran of the post-1989 avant-garde movement. Sold £8.8m.

17 Zhou Chunya, born 1955, Sichuan. Renowned for green portraits. Sold £8.3m.

18 Anish Kapoor, born 1954, in Mumbai, India. Turner Prize-winning sculptor who has lived in England since 1972. Sold £6.7m

19 Peter Doig, born 1959. The Scottish artist's paintings are among Europe's most expensive. Sold £6.7m.

20 Rudolf Stingel, born 1956, in Merano, Italy. Sold £6.5m.

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