“Privates Notes remains concerned with human questions—reality, history, psychology—and concerned with those souls that have been distorted for a variety of reasons. Their most authentic lessons and experiences are preserved only in their diaries and letters, ‘historical records’ that may never be known.” This was how, in a 1991 letter to a friend, Zhang Xiaogang explained the motivation of his Private Notes series. It is not difficult to sense the political events of 1989 in the background. The series lasted only for two years—until Zhang went to Europe—but it was an important documentation of his transition from meditations on one’s individual existence to his signature Bloodlines: Big Family series, which explored issues of nationhood and national representation. Based on Zhang Xiaogang’s early painting style and infused with the dark, brooding mood of the Private Notes series, Private Notes No. 1 (Lot 932) expresses the individual’s trepidations and stresses during epochal changes. An occasion for Zhang to reflect on being a Chinese intellectual, this painting would later inspire the tremendously important Chapter of a New Century - Birth of the People’s Republic of China No. 1 and Chapter of a New Century - Birth of the People’s Republic of China No. 2. Moreover, works in the Private Notes series are extremely rare and almost never available on the market. The lot on offer undoubtedly demands collectors’ attentions.
The year 1989 was a break in history. The “Contemporary Chinese Art Exhibition” held earlier in that year marked the end of “National Soul” discourse of the ’85 New Wave, whose pure idealism and humanistic passion would be blunted and stymied by subsequent political events. On the other hand, China under the economic reforms stepped towards market economy, and the commercialisation of social life extended to the art world as well. Hot-headed group movements and ideological debates lessened, and many critics and artists who had been active during the 1980s went abroad to pursue their personal interest and advancement. The Chinese art world of the early 90s thus seemed quite lifeless, but it gave Zhang Xiaogang room to reflect on his creative direction maturely and soberly.
In 1991, Zhang embarked on the Private Notes series. “When painting this series, I thought of my old friend Dostoevsky and his notes from the House of the Dead, from which I took my title. For me, the twentieth century was one gigantic, absurd riddle filled with fear and insanity, a dark and endless replaying of the past. If my generation learned anything from it, it would be the meaning of suffering. My lonely struggles with ‘death’ are already part of my everyday life.” Here it is not difficult to detect the influence of the events of 1989. The renowned curator Li Xianting has argued that the melancholy of the series was a consequence of 1989: the naïve passion for life seen in Zhang’s 1988 Forever Lasting Love was seemingly thoroughly destroyed by reality. The artist’s own recollections confirm Li’s view: “At age 30, I became concerned with memory. When I painted the Private Notes series I was asking: In what state have Chinese intellectuals been living for all these years?”
The Private Notes series consists of five works. No.1 and No.2 are single paintings, while No.3 is fivepaneled and No.4 consists of seven canvases. The lot on offer, Private Notes No. 1, is thus especially valuable as the inaugurating work of the series. Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings from the 1980s were mainly surrealist renditions of his personal thoughts on life, and aligned him with the “Stream of Life” artists of the Southwest Art Research Group. In the Ghost and Lost Dreams series, the artist searched tirelessly for transcendental subjects: primitive humans, nude women, and the devil all appeared on his canvases as emblems of life and death. Following his passion for art and contentment in life, Zhang gradually moved away from the pessimism of his Devil series of the mid-80s and towards generative symbols such as rivers, religious figures, and infants. Thus began his quasi-religious and humanistic iconographies, which received their summary expression in his Endless Love of the late 80s.
However, the events of 1989 and the concomitant shifts in social climate led Zhang to alter his painting style. From 1989 onwards, death and mourning became his major themes. Private Notes No. 1 is representative of this period. The work comes with a Chinese subtitle “Thus Spoke 1999 Pages”, which refers to the open book within the painting as well as to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which resonated with Zhang Xiaogang’s yearning for selfhood. The disembodied head, books, cloths, and tabletop also in the painting are all important symbols in Zhang’s works of the 80s, but here they are rendered more concretely and weightily, leading to a heavier mood. The head has a pitying expression. Beneath it are several open books and a red hand pointing to a particular passage. The mysterious palette and certain stylistic features bear the influence of Western artists Zhang admired, such as Chirico and El Greco. Like Sleepless Martyr and the Dark Trilogy, this painting is a thorough expression of Zhang’s melancholy and fatalism, and infused with a monumental solemnity that Li has described as a “fable-like tone.”
A summation of years of exploration and experience, Private Notes No. 1 also had an important influence on Zhang Xiaogang’s subsequent stylistic development. Along with the two Chapter of a New Century - Birth of the People’s Republic of China paintings, it is a highlight of this period. In the two Chapter of a New Century paintings, we can see many elements that are already present in Private Notes No. 1, most notably the red hand in Chapter of a New Century - Birth of the People’s Republic of China No. 2 and the open books and strange light patches in both Genesis paintings. The latter’s dense, weighty palette and tangible renditions are likewise derived from Private Notes No. 1, suggesting that the meanings of the Private Notes series become elaborated in Genesis. Moreover, many visual elements of Zhang’s most famous Bloodlines: Big Family series are present or prefigured in Private Notes No. 1, such as the human figures’ solemn expressions and off-center gazes. The light that casts a partial shadow on the face and generates polygonal highlights on the desk in Private Notes No. 1 likewise prefigure the light patches on the faces of Bloodlines: Big Family series.
In the “China’s New Art: Post-1989” exhibition organised in 1993 by Johnson Chang, Li Xianting, and others, Zhang Xiaogang’s Private Notes series was given the label of “traumatised romanticism.” After the exhibition, Zhang gained increasing international recognition. It was through the Private Notes series that the British curator Karen Smith, who has vigorously supported the development of contemporary Chinese art, first came across Zhang Xiaogang. Unlike the later Bloodlines series, Private Notes is personal and introspective, but it was precisely in this interior world that Zhang could ease and fully express his mind and spirit during troubling times. In recent years, Zhang has returned to the privacy of personal memory in his attempt to portray an entire Chinese generation, resuming his earlier exploration of the same theme in Private Notes. Here as in his later works, the artist’s foremost intellectual concern is with the individual, a concern that also animates Private Notes No. 1.
1 “25th June, 1991: A Letter from Zhang Xiaogang to a Friend,” Amnesia and Memory: Zhang Xiaogang’s Letters, 1981-1996, Peking University Press, February, 2010, p. 185
2 “Interview: My Past is My Future,” Zhang Xiaogang: Overlapping Visions and Hidden Dimension, Lü Peng ed., Bao Xi, Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, September 2011, p. 115 67