Li Jin with Dr Yi Chen, Ashmolean Museum, 3 May 2024


Modern Chinese art enters the Ashmolean permanent collection via the man behind Spitting Image

Published: 13 May 2024

Author: Richard Lofthouse


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The Ashmolean Museum has just opened a wonderful exhibition well worth a dedicated visit. It is principally a display of works of art by celebrated Chinese artist Li Jin (b. 1958), collected by British artist Roger Law (b.1941) and recently donated to the Ashmolean’s permanent collection.

Li Jin, Ashmolean Museum, 3 May 2024

The exhibition also features a wide range of art works by Roger Law himself, so that you can start to feel the point of connection between two artists who are also friends.

Roger Law is best known as the creator of the satirical puppetry of Spitting Image, the series that became a defining element of popular culture in the 1980s and made a controversial come back in the Trump/Johnson era of politics.

Roger’s link to China and to Li Jin began when he loped off to Australia in the 1990s, after the demise of the original Spitting Image and just as China began its great liberalisation and economic rocket, following the premiership of Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989).

There, he met the preeminent Sydney art dealer Ray Hughes, who Roger likens to Henry VIII in his essay in the exhibition catalogue. Together they visited Li Jin and immediately Roger began to buy Li Jin’s work, later moving himself to China to work as a ceramicist in China’s ‘Porcelain City’ Jingdezhen.

May 3, 2024, saw a historic meeting and lunch at the Ashmolean Museum, with both Roger and Li Jin attending, and QUAD was lucky to be invited.

We were first given a terrific guided tour by the curator behind the exhibition, Dr Yi Chen (Merton, 2006), independent scholar in Germany and former Christensen Fellow in Chinese Painting at the Ashmolean.

She explains that the so-called literati tradition of art in China was often an expression of worldly failure, perhaps even by failed politicians who ‘escaped’ into an imaginary world of Chinese landscapes and ink brushwork. There, they found freedom but practised for the most part as emulators, referencing the established iconographic language and metaphoric imagery. In the language of Western art theory we might call this derivative.

Bath (2001) by Li Jin

But that changed as China changed, and Li Jin was at the forefront of this ‘New Literati’ approach, painting the simple pleasures of daily life in a frank, honest style, bordering on counter-cultural by studying the off-beat bits of society. Roger instantly related to Li Jin’s style having been inspired at the Cambridge School of Art by George Grosz, the great satirist of inter-war Berlin.

That connection is not straightforward, and each artist and their respective worlds should be understood individually. Dr Chen contrasts Li Jin’s voluptuous banquet scenes and undressed people with his series of decampments to Tibet, beginning in 1984, apparently inspired by Gauguin.

Returning to north China in the grip of huge change and economic growth, he encountered New Literati artist Zhu Xinjian and re-settled in Beijing, developing the aesthetic of ‘aliveness.’

Roger compares Li Jin to Thomas Rowlandson, in London in the Eighteenth Century, while noting that his own tutor (‘an old Commie’) Paul Hogarth, had travelled to China in the 1950s. There is a broader vibe here that permits the everyday and ‘celebrates the most basic of life’s rituals and pleasures – sleeping, eating, drinking, toiletry etc.’

The brush strokes evoke older Chinese traditions but are loaded with simple gestures of form, such as in Sweet (2001), a woman sleeping – expressed in a handful of strokes and washed across with gentle colour.

In Fish Banquet (2002) we get little colourful vignettes of sea food on separate dishes, figurative and delicious.

Up against it is Roger’s own take on similar themes – Chinese Feast (2010) a drawing for an enormous porcelain plate of the same title.

The Australian dealer Ray, recalls Roger, had said of one of Li Jin’s banquet scrolls, ‘Not only has he drawn the prawns, he has drawn the taste.’

Roger Law with Ki Lin, Ashmolean Museum, 3 May, 2024

It’s all displayed in one special gallery in the Ashmolean where a balcony allows you to look down on scrolls that can hang tall – an ideal setting for Chinese art but also mixed media including Roger’s ceramics.

Our interview with Roger has its own showcase, but suffice to say here that you get two different worlds touching, but they are not the same. Roger’s drawings and paintings are rooted in a journalistic idiom and powered by a huge distrust of authority laced with mirth. In Back to Bondi (2008) he paints another banquet of sea food, now Australian again, presided over by a couple who are unfavourably porcine.

It's a different, northern European/British tradition, and if there is any underlying link to George Grosz and Otto Dix it arises from a shared Protestantism that sees through surfaces, completely different from 20th century China unless one reconnects the intellectual byways at the fallout from Romanticism, which threw up Marx. But that has no perceptible reference in this delightful celebration of life.


Exhibition held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: 4 May – 17 November 2024.

Picture credits: Ashmolean Museum