Behind the Laughter: Yue Minjun’s Free and Leisure-10

Free and Leisure 10 painting Yue Minjun

With eight pink caricatures sporting a wide face-splitting grin, Yun Minjun’s painting “Free and Leisure – 10” is both repulsive and intriguing. The strange imagery immediately invites viewers to delve deeper into its meaning and symbolism. Yun Minjun, a contemporary Chinese artist known for his distinctive style of painting, has created several oil paintings that challenge traditional ideas of art and beauty. Through caricature, bold colors, and exaggerated expressions, Minjun’s work asks us to question how we perceive the world around us.

The Artist’s Style: Cynical Realism

Picture of artist Yue Minjun in front of his painting
The Artist: Yue Minjun. Fair Use. Via: New York Times by Doug Kanter

At 61 years old, Yue Minjun is one of the most prominent figures in the world of Chinese contemporary art. Like many of his peers, he grew up during the tumultuous era of the Cultural Revolution, and his art reflects his own experiences of the radical transformation that has taken place in China in recent decades.

Yue Minjun’s 2003 painting “Free and Leisure – 10” is a prime example of the artist’s style of “cynical realism.” This genre emerged in China in the 1990s, as artists sought to express their disillusionment with the country’s rapid economic growth and social changes.

“Free and Leisure – 10” features a group of identical, grinning figures that appear to be in the midst of a frenzied celebration. However, upon closer inspection, it seems as if their smiles are not genuine, but rather compensatory behavior. Their forced manic expression hints at something darker beneath the surface.

The figures’ exaggerated features – particularly their large, distorted mouths – serve to emphasize deindividuation suggesting that they are mere cogs in a larger, impersonal machine. The garish colors and chaotic composition further underscore the frenzied, chaotic nature of modern society.

Taken as a whole, “Free and Leisure – 10” embodies the spirit of cynical realism by satirizing the excesses and contradictions of the contemporary world. It serves as a critique of the empty consumerism and superficiality that have come to define much of modern life.

The Subjects and the Setting

Yue Minjun’s 2003 painting “Free and Leisure-10” depicts a group of eight identical male figures. They are positioned in the foreground of the painting, taking up the majority of the space and dominating the composition.

The figures are all dressed in the same olive green bathing suit and have glistening bright pink skin. The men all have identical, exaggerated grins on their faces, giving the impression of a forced, manic joy.

One of the most unsettling characteristics of their mouth is their innumerable tiny upper teeth. It seems as if the men have been captured mid-conversation as portrayed by their different hand gestures and shared emotional expression.

The background of the painting is a rather serene landscape in direct contrast to the energetic foreground. A calm sunset compliments a distant water body and lush vegetation. The figures are seen sitting on a boulder as they dip their feet in the water.

An Analysis of the Themes in “Free and Leisure-10”

Free and Leisure 10 painting Yue Minjun
Free and Leisure (2003) by Yue Minjun. Fair Use. Via Today Art Museum


Yue Minjun’s painting “Free and Leisure – 10” is a complex work that has been subject to several interpretations. In interviews, the artist himself has offered several explanations for the meaning behind the piece.

One of the central themes of the painting is the power of laughter as a means of coping with difficult or uncomfortable situations. At the same time, the painting is also a commentary on the nature of happiness and the complexity of human emotions. Thus, a more positive way of looking at it would be to consider this laughter as a tool to stand up to adversity.

In interviews, Yue Minjun has argued that the grinning figures represent a type of cultural conditioning that encourages people to conform to certain ideals and suppress their individuality.

At the same time, the painting can also be read as a kind of self-portrait of the artist himself. Yue Minjun has often used his own image as a subject in his work, and the identical, grinning figures in “Free and Leisure – 10” may be seen as a commentary on the commodification of the artist’s own image. The painting thus becomes a kind of meta-commentary on the relationship between art, commerce, and cultural identity.


The figures in the painting have their eyes tightly shut, which could symbolize how people choose to ignore the uncomfortable changes in their surroundings. The title of the painting suggests a utopian idea where humans and the divine live in perfect harmony. However, the actual artwork portrays irony and absurdity, rather than harmony.

“My work is to do with the fundamental agony of being human and the sense of confusion that comes with living in our society,”

Yue Minjun (2012)

One of the most common interpretations of the painting is that it reflects the superficiality and emptiness of modern society. The identical, grinning figures represent the loss of individuality in the face of rapid economic growth and consumerism. The exaggerated smiles and distorted features serve to emphasize the forced, artificial nature of the joy depicted in the painting.

The painting is an exploration of the sense of helplessness, confusion, and disorientation that can come from living in a world that is constantly changing and evolving. Laughter hence is a way of grappling with the complexities and contradictions of contemporary life.


Ultimately, the meaning of “Free and Leisure – 10” is open to interpretation, and Yue Minjun has acknowledged that different viewers may see different things in the painting. However, his explanations of the work suggest that it is a complex and nuanced reflection on the cultural and social changes that have taken place in China over the past several decades.

Yue’s work is particularly notable for its distinctive style, which features a repeated motif of a laughing man that he has been using since the early 1990s. With several hundred paintings featuring this image, his work has become highly recognizable and desirable to international collectors and curators alike.

Minjun seeks to provoke thought and conversation through his art while encouraging viewers to question their own assumptions about reality and the society in which they live.

Frequently Asked Questions

What makes free and leisure 10 contemporary?

Yue Minjun’s unique painting style is what makes his 2003 painting “Free and Leisure – 10” a contemporary artwork. The artist employs an eclectic style – a combination of realism and surrealism that is characteristic of much contemporary art. The figures in the foreground are depicted in exquisite detail, with every facial expression and gesture carefully rendered to create a sense of absurd realism.

Furthermore, the painting lacks a uniform organizing principle, as it explores the various themes of modern society. Yue provides a contemporary perspective on the human condition that is both insightful and relevant to our times.

What is Yue Minjun known for?

Yue Minjun is a Chinese contemporary artist who is best known for his paintings of figures with exaggerated grins and laughter. This motif often referred to as the “laughing man,” has become a signature element of Yue’s work, which explores themes of identity, individuality, and the complexities of contemporary society.

Yue is also known for his use of a surreal symbolic style, which often incorporates social commentary and critique. His work reflects his experiences of growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China and the rapid transformation of Chinese society in recent decades.

In addition to his paintings, Yue has also worked in sculpture and performance art, and his work has been exhibited in major galleries and museums around the world. He is considered one of the most influential figures in contemporary Chinese art and has had a significant impact on the development of the art scene both in China and internationally.

What inspired Yue Minjun?

Yue Minjun’s artistic inspiration is rooted in his experiences growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution. During this tumultuous period, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, many traditional forms of art were suppressed, and artists were often forced to work within the constraints of socialist realism, a style that emphasized propaganda and ideological messaging.

As a young artist, Yue was drawn to the works of Western artists such as Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who were known for their expressive and individualistic styles. He was also influenced by the works of Chinese artists such as Zhang Xiaogang and Fang Lijun, who were part of a movement known as “Cynical Realism,” which used humor and irony to critique the complexities of contemporary society.

In particular, Yue was drawn to the use of laughter as a means of coping with difficult or uncomfortable situations. His “laughing man” motif, which he began using in the early 1990s, reflects this fascination with the power of humor and satire. By depicting figures with exaggerated grins, Yue seeks to explore the complexities of contemporary society and offer a critique of mass production, consumerism, and societal pressure.

What medium does Yue Minjun use?

Yue Minjun is primarily known for his paintings, which are typically created using oil on canvas. He employs a surrealistic style that emphasizes detail and precision to create a sense of unnerving realism.

In addition to painting, Yue has also worked in sculpture, using materials such as bronze to create three-dimensional representations of his “laughing man” motif. He has also experimented with performance art, using his own body as a canvas to explore themes of identity and self-expression.

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