Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong
Private Collection, Europe
Birth of The Big Family
An indisputable icon of Chinese contemporary art, Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline: Big Family series has participated in important international art festivals, including the São Paulo Biennial and the Venice Biennale, and directly influenced the artist's subsequent development. The themes of personal and collective memory explored therein remain central to Zhang's work. As the first instances of this series and precursors to the subsequent works, the two Family Portrait paintings from 1993 are of immense significance. Of the two, Bloodline-Big Family: Family No. 1 is in the collection of the Tokushima Modern Art Museum, Japan. It is thus difficult to overstate the preciousness and art-historical value of the remaining Bloodline-Big Family: Family No. 2 (Lot 810), to be offered by Sotheby's in its spring auction this year.
1993 was a crucial turning point in Zhang Xiaogang's creative development. In the 1980's and early 90's, he painted dreamy soliloquies in expressionistic and surrealist styles. In 1993, he suddenly abandoned expressionism and began to explore Chinese identity in a purely surrealist manner, moving from a preoccupation with personal existence to meditations on national history. Also in this year, he painted Family Portrait paintings that paved the way for the full-fledged Bloodline: Big Family series. An important impetus for Zhang's transformation was a trip to Europe in 1992.
The political turmoil of 1989 awakened Zhang Xiaogang to reality. "You can't help thinking about what makes you, a Chinese artist, different from Western artists."1 By this time he had begun to receive critical attention and participated in the exhibition "I Don't Want to Play Cards with Cézanne" and Other Works, organized by the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California. But Zhang was also increasingly confused about his artistic style and direction. "I had some serious reflections and wrote many things. I felt that if I continued to paint in the same way, I could become one of a million people imitating Western art. However good I was at this, I could only distinguish myself among copycats. I still wouldn't be a true and independent artist."2 In this malaise and disorientation, Zhang received a timely invitation to the University of Kassel for a short-term academic exchange, and in May 1993 left for Germany, where his wife Tang Lei was studying. He could not have foreseen the influence of this brief sojourn on his subsequent artistic career.
During his three months in Germany, Zhang Xiaogang spent all his days in museums studying the works of Western painters. Secretly he even visited France and the Netherlands (to which countries he had no entry visas). He was humbled by masters like Van Gogh and Magritte and fascinated by contemporary German artists like Beuys, Kiefer, Baselitz, and Richter, the last of whom would exert a particularly profound influence on him. At the same time, Zhang was also disappointed by the complete "bourgeoisation" of contemporary art. He was particularly saddened by that year's Documenta, which he later professed he completely failed to understand.3 In later letters to his friends Wang Lin and Ye Yongqing, he wrote, "Westerners are tired from playing this game [of contemporary art]. Many people have lost their direction and begun to play with themselves... This exhibition was nothing more than an opportunity for Westerners to spend money."4
Exposure to foreign cultures also caused Zhang Xiaogang to think more deeply about his position as a Chinese artist. "I looked from the 'early phase' to the present for a position for myself, but even after this I still didn't know who I was. But an idea did emerge clearly: if I continue being an artist, I have to be an artist of 'China.'"5 The identity of "Chinese artist" had never occurred so clearly in Zhang's mind. In a letter to Ye Yongqing, he wrote, "as of now, there is no such thing as contemporary Chinese culture in the West. They perhaps prefer to see it as a primitive culture in the same way they buy African wood sculptures... Or perhaps they prefer to view the contemporary cultures of the Third World from a colonial perspective, proclaiming 'inclusiveness.' What Chinese contemporary culture truly is only we have an inkling, but we have yet to find clear concepts and images to show it to the world. This goal can only be achieved through the efforts of the Chinese."6
Upon his return to China, Zhang Xiaogang participated in the Guangzhou Biennial with a pair of paintings entitled Chapter of a New Century: Birth of the People's Republic of China, but these did not entirely reflect the influence of his trip to Germany. Intellectual, stylistic and philosophical transformations that resulted from this tremendous cultural shock gradually became manifest beginning in the year 1993, a crucial period during which the painter explored a broader artistic language and recorded his thinking on contemporary Chinese art. Works from this period are extremely rare and precious.
After his return from Europe, Zhang Xiaogang borrowed Mao Xuhui's studio and focused on painting. He took as his first subject Tiananmen Square, the symbol of China's highest authority, producing three eponymous paintings that featured the Gate of Heavenly Peace at the center and black tiles in the foreground. The gate is yellow in the first painting and red in the latter two. Compositionally, the first painting is a distant view of the gate, the second one a view from medium distance, and the third a close-up. In all three, Zhang employs strongly expressionistic brushwork; the masonry tiles of the square are rendered in brushstrokes that contrast strongly in texture and color, as if a response to the historical events that took place there. Two red lines extend from the bottom of the painting, through the square, and towards the gate, symbolizing the genealogy of the Chinese people and anticipating the Bloodline series. After the Tiananmen series, Zhang began to paint seven unique portraits of his friends after their photographs, including Ye Yongqing, Mao Xuhui, and Chen Weimin. While these retain the expressionistic tiles of the Tiananmen, the figures are finely and realistically rendered. Although completely different from Zhang's later genderneutral and homogeneous figures, these portraits still represented an important attempt at figure painting. Zhang's post-Europe works have their own visual vocabulary, such as expressionistic brushwork, painted borders that resemble stone slabs, weather icons, and scores of pop songs. In 1994, however, these elements slowly fell away in Zhang's distillation of his painting into the simplest and most essential form. He no longer painted individuals, but an entire people. One post-Europe visual element did persist in Zhang's later paintings and even became his trademark: the light passages on the faces, symbolizing the effects of history on individuals.
During his time in Europe, Zhang Xiaogang was filled with doubts. As he later said to an Italian critic, "before I went to Germany, I had never truly, seriously looked at a Chinese face... Why did we have to paint figures from books and catalogues rather than living individuals around us? This was puzzling." Only after returning to China did Zhang examine the faces of the Chinese, which had never appeared to him so lucidly. This awakening exerted an enormous influence on his subsequent career: people around him became important subjects, and he embarked on a long creative quest for a face that belonged to the Chinese.
This quest took a dramatic turn when the artist was visiting his parents in Kunming. Leafing through old photographs, he experienced an epiphany: "I cannot say clearly which part of me was so deeply moved by those carefully retouched old photographs. They sent me on endless fantasies and reveries."7 Photographs of his parents in their youth, of himself as a child, of him with his brother and parents—these all made strong and lasting impressions on him. The faces in these photographs, taken before the Cultural Revolution, are full of hope for the future, but history has a way of disappointing expectations. Behind these conventional family portraits lurks the unforgettable turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. These images with concealed conflicts, symbolizing the powerlessness of the individual against the vicissitudes of history, were the way Zhang Xiaogang discovered to represent Chinese history.
Under these circumstances, Zhang Xiaogang began to base his paintings on old photographs. Using his mother as a model, he first painted Bloodline: Mother and Son and then such works as Bloodline: Mother and Three Brothers. But his most important works from 1993 can be none other than Bloodline-Big Family: Family No. 1 and Bloodline-Big Family: Family No. 2. Precursors to the Bloodline: Big Family series that was to be extremely well-received in the international art world, these paintings are of tremendous academic and historical value.
Bloodline-Big Family: Family No. 1 was the first time Zhang Xiaogang painted the "family" as a unit. It was based on photographs of his parents and elder brother. The infant is coloured red and placed at the center of the composition. On his two sides are his yellow-faced parents in Mao suits. This classical composition became the prototype of later paintings in the Bloodline-Big Family series. Stylistically Family No. 1 retained traces of the expressionism of Zhang's early works and employed a predominantly monochromatic palette to suggest the weight of history. The human figures are basically realistically depicted, but the painting also includes the weather icons and pop song notations common in Zhang's early works. After its completion in 1993, this painting was taken by Johnson Chang, the gallery owner who represented Zhang Xiaogang at the time, to London to participate in "China's New Art Post-1989" at the Marlborough Gallery. There it was acquired by Japan's Tokushima Modern Art Museum.
Bloodline-Big Family: Family No. 1, which catapulted Zhang Xiaogang to fame, was a prototype of the Bloodline: Big Family series like the lot on offer, which is the earliest Bloodline: Big Family series available in the market. Compared to Family No. 1, the lot on offer has a deeper effect on the visual language of the series as a whole. Family No. 2 is based on old photographs of Zhang's parents and second brother and arranges the three figures into a standard family portrait composition. Rendered yellow, the infant is softly supported by the mother between her and the father. Two red threads connect the infant to his parents. Weather icons and notations of a pop song hover in the top left corner.
While compositionally similar to Family No. 1, Family No. 2 is stylistically different from it in fundamental ways, and exerted decisive influence on Zhang Xiaogang's later creations. Undeniably, Family No. 2 moves closer to surrealism and tends towards a surface flatness, minimizing expressionistic brushwork and strong chromatic contrasts. It betrays Magritte's influence. The four borders, resembling brick walls, are the only remaining expressionistic passages. The overall palette turns away from black-and-white towards a light sepia, evoking faded photographs. Compared to Family No. 1, the lot on offer seems lighter in tone and more emphatic on historical distance. Family No. 2 reflects the social reality of 1990's China: with economic rise, history fades away, and the communal life under Communism becomes increasingly alien. In the depiction of human figures, Zhang Xiaogang begins to abandon realism for surrealism, and the flat pictorial surface further homogenizes them. He also begins to give all his figures the epicanthic fold (known in Chinese as the "single eyelid") to emphasize Chinese identity, anticipating their later gender-neutrality. Zhang later said, "I became aware that I only needed to paint a 'person'—maybe male, maybe female." "Only after this phase did I gradually realize that, aside from their historical context, these standardized 'family portraits' touched me precisely because of their sense of being 'retouched' to fit certain standard modes. This 'retouching' incorporated the aesthetic qualities perennially prized in Chinese folk culture, such as ambiguity of identity and a 'poetic,' gender-neutral beauty."8 When we examine Family No. 2 in retrospect, we find that many of its artistic elements were unprecedented in Zhang's oeuvre, but even the artist himself may not have realized their tremendous influence on his later paintings.
After the two Family Portrait paintings, Johnson Chang and Zhang Xiaogang entitled this nascent series Bloodline: Big Family and debuted it at the 22nd São Paulo Biennial. The series later appeared in other major international exhibitions, such as the 1995 Venice Biennale. In the craze for Chinese contemporary art of the time, Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline: Big Family series attained an iconic status. All this can be traced back to Bloodline-Big Family: Family No. 2.
1 Extract from "Dialogue with Zhang Xiaogang" in Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980-1990, Asia Art Archive, 2009
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4 Forget and Remember: Zhang Xiaogang, Peking University Press, Beijing, China, 2010
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Interview with Zhang Xiaogang
20 February, 2012
Can you tell us about your state of being around the time you created Bloodline-Big Family: Family No.2?
In 1992 I was in a self-searching state of mind. After returning to China from Europe, I was searching for my identity, value, and position in history, but I didn't know what I wanted to paint and tried to move in several directions. Portraiture was one of my more important directions. When painting portraits, I found some old photographs that inspired me in peculiar ways. It was only then that I started to see old photographs as pictorial resources. At the time I had only painted two Family Portrait paintings. They were close translations from photographs. The first featured a family of three—the parents, the child, and a red line connecting them. This portrait was traditional in technique and rather painterly. The second portrait was also of a family of three, but I
tried to paint in a less painterly manner. At the time I had not begun to reflect theoretically on why I painted in this way. I was only curious, in an experimental stage.
Was Family No. 2 also based on a photograph of your parents?
No.2 was also based on a family portrait. The child in it was directly taken from a photograph of my second elder brother. I recombined and modified other photographs to create the parents. At time, I wanted to paint a family during the Cultural Revolution. In the average Cultural Revolution-era family, a child was like a seed of evil, and hence the slightly eerie expression of the child in the painting. He is cross-eyed and not cute. Here I wanted to make clear the difference between the two generations.
Portrait of the Uncanny
In his famous essay "The Uncanny", Sigmund Freud wrestles with the contradictory sensation of familiarity and unfamiliarity that attends such objects as life-like mannequins, whose close resemblance to us casts doubt on our own aliveness and individuality. That which is most familiar can, paradoxically, be uncomfortable and even threatening, but it is unclear whether this estrangement is a quality inherent in the object or the result of our very attempt to become familiar with it. Try staring at a photograph of a loved one, or at yourself in a mirror, or even at these very words on a page—they will soon begin to seem abstract and incoherent. This complex of unrationalizable sensations is captured by the word "uncanny," for which Freud gives the enduring formulation of "that class of the frightening that leads back to what is known of old and long familiar."
The immediate prototypes of Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline: Big Family series are formal group photographic portraits from the 1950's and 60's, including those of Zhang's own family, a source of the painter's "endless reveries."1 The infant in the lot on offer is in fact based on a photograph of Zhang's elder brother. From these old black-and-white pictures Zhang Xiaogang derived the series' paradigmatic features: a subdued, nearly monochromatic palette; a thickly layered but flat surface, without overt evidence of brushwork; a general compositional restriction to upper bodies; the rigid and frontal poses and faces; and of course the Mao-era hairstyles and dress. The off-colour passages, first introduced as patches of light on the faces, later became independent surface elements that recall damaged photographs. Given the series' origin in the genre of the family portrait, it has become customary to attribute its success to the importance of the concept of family in Chinese culture. The critic and dealer Johnson Chang has written, for example, "Through the Chinese tradition of portraiture, Zhang has drawn upon the classical iconography of ancestor portraiture of which every Chinese would have vague collective memory."2 Likewise, for Li Xianting, "The legacy of Confucian ethics takes visual form in the common Chinese family's 'family group' photographs. The technique of formal retouching, the classical upright pose of the figures, the rigidly set social order: all reveal the enduring power of the blood relationship."3
But the families Zhang Xiaogang paints have a historical specificity that the labels "Chinese" and "Confucian" do not quite capture. Despite the series' title, none of these families is in fact "big"; never once do more than two generations or more than a handful of individuals share the same canvas, whereas portraits of extended families, with grandparents and grandchildren huddled together, were in fact very common. Although the red lines that connect Zhang's family members often extend to the edges of the canvases, and although infant genitalia are recurring motifs, these intimations of a lineage continuing beyond the frame are ultimately subservient to an image of the nuclear family, which is not so much traditional or Confucian as distinctly modern. The preponderance of the single child, almost always centered and preternaturally self-conscious like the infant Christ in European pictures, has reminded more than one critic of China's One-child Policy, introduced in 1978. Karen Smith writes of these works, "Conjuring allusions to received impressions of China under Mao and through the Cultural Revolution, [the Big Family paintings] are eloquently, poignantly, Chinese in their sensibilities. Since the format is derived from conventional black and white, occasionally hand-coloured photographic snapshots of the proletariat post-1949, these are sensibilities that Zhang Xiaogang renders accessible to all."4 Also referring to the People's Republic, the historian Joseph Esherick writes of the "reconstitution of the family as a nuclear family with a husband-wife pair and their children. The spousal bond became more important than ever, though it was often tested in the turmoil of political campaigns."5
In the Bloodline: Big Family series, historical "turmoil" is not only alluded to by period details like the Mao suits and effigies and the Red Guard armbands. The paintings' poignancy lies rather in their reconciliation of the moral and emotional contradictions of China's recent past in an understated but ambiguously suggestive visual language. The character of Zhang Xiaogang's art may be clarified with a comparison to Wang Guangyi and Fang Lijun, representatives respectively of Political Pop and Cynical Realism, the dominant artistic currents in Chinese contemporary art in the 1990's. The three painters were selected by Johnson Chang to participate in the 1994 São Paulo Biennale, where Bloodline: Big Family made its debut, and exhibited together again in the 2002 exhibition Image is Power. Zhang Xiaogang is sometimes uncomfortably labeled a Cynical Realist. But the stylistic and temperamental differences between these artists are stark. While Wang mockingly plays with the impersonal iconographies of communism and consumerism, Zhang digs deeply into his own emotions and family history, particularly his relationships to his daughter and mother. As Arne Glimcher, founder of the Pace Gallery, puts it in a 2008 catalogue introduction, "Now, fifteen years later, the artist's aspiration to create a personal vision has long since subsumed his desire to make a political statement. Indeed, Zhang Xiaogang's works are anything but cynical."6 Gao Minglu has likewise distinguished Zhang and his fellow southwestern artists' "subtle and indirect" works, critical but still deeply humanistic, from the unabashed postmodern "shallowness" of coastal and Beijing artists.7 Indeed, Zhang Xiaogang's quietly unsettling paintings recall Father of 1981 by Luo Zhongli, his classmate at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Art, an earlier reflection of the manifold ambivalences of "family" in the post-Mao era.8
Importantly, the contrast extends to the nitty-gritty of painterly practice. Whereas Wang and Fang revel in a deadpan superficiality, for Zhang, "To bring out a sense of vacuousness and feminine detachment, I must adhere to a rigorous painting process, and apply very thin layers one after another, repeatedly. Generally a face needs four to five layers."9 That his paintings remind some critics of the quick charcoal sketches of street portraitists only dramatizes his labour. In contrast to Wang and Fang's in-your-face compositions and colours, Zhang reworks the same quiet compositions and subdued colour schemes again and again. The watery eyes that began to appear in the Bloodline: Big Family paintings hint at traumatic memories beneath the dazed and blank faces, pointing to some interiority and history as well as Zhang's own emotional investment in his subjects. On the other hand, these eyes—the key to the subject's presence in traditional portraits and religious icons alike—are unrealistically jet-black and oversize, and being invariably unfocused or directed off-axis, they remain spiritually vacant. The translucent glazes and congealed pools of white pigments that render the films of tears are also when the medium is exposed, when paint is nakedly paint. Thus, where surface seems to open into depth, depth reveals itself as a surface illusion, and the two are inextricably bound. Although the Bloodline: Big Family paintings are often described, even by Zhang Xiaogang himself, as completing his transition from an "expressionist" to a "surrealist" mode, these terms of early-20th-century Western modernism are not entirely accurate. "Repressive" is perhaps a better description, for the moments of surrealism are not there instead of expression, but to conceal, resist, and thus draw attention to it. To quote Zhang again, "I repeat one formulaic 'beautiful' face after another; they seem calm on the surface but are full of numerous complex emotions."10
For another example of Zhang Xiaogang's deft use of ambivalence and paradox, consider the signature red lines of his mature work, a borrowing from the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Whereas in Kahlo they are quite literally exposed veins—outlined in a darker shade of red, connected to organs, and dripping with blood—in Zhang's hands they become at once more explicit in form and more elusive in meaning. To be sure, Zhang's "bloodlines" most immediately illustrate the genetic relations between the figures; issuing from necks and chests and navels, they do recall arteries and umbilical cords. At the same time, however, they also connote estrangement and even antipathy. For one critic, "they seem to be both the blood ties between people and the chains that restrain them in the darkness."11 There is a subtle violence in their clinical penetration of clothing and flesh and intrusions into ears and nostrils. As insistent linear surface marks upon meticulous layering and modeling, they also read as defacements, just as the added patches of discoloring recall erosion and even skin disease.12 (In the lot on offer, one of the red lines momentarily gains the weight and substance of a "real" thread as it passes through the child's right hand— a pictorial witticism not to be repeated elsewhere in the series.) The following passage by Esherick brings forth the discomforting resonances of "bloodline" as concept and image:
A common slogan of the early Cultural Revolution was If the father is a hero, the son is a good fellow; if the father is reactionary, the son is a bastard.'( 老子英雄兒好漢，老子反動兒混蛋) Although this so-called bloodline theory ( 血統論) was later repudiated by Mao and his allies, the very simplicity of this standard of political correctness gave it enduring appeal throughout the Cultural Revolution. [...] Children were urged to 'draw a clear line' between themselves and parents accused of a transgression.13
If the Cultural Revolution tested and perverted familial ties, in China's dazzling developments in the subsequent two decades, the past itself threatened to become confused and alien. Such was certainly the mood of the acclaimed film In the Heat of the Sun of 1994, contemporary with Bloodline: Big Family debut. Early in the series (as in the lot on offer), the bloodlines cooperate with musical notations and weather icons to resist the viewer's immersion into the world of the ostensible photographic model. Like the tear-glazed eyes, they serve as a reminder of the unavoidable mediations between inside and outside and between past and present. By his own admission, Zhang Xiaogang is attracted to old family photographs for their persistent feeling of having been "retouched," not only in the senses of manipulations of the negatives and adherence to portraiture conventions but more fundamentally because of the discrepancy between our private and social selves, or, in his words, the "ambiguous relationship between role and character."14 Whatever "truth" there is in the photograph, personal or historical or otherwise, it lies irretrievable beneath layers of distortion and forgetting. The passages of striking bright reds and yellows in the Bloodine: Big Family paintings, along with the children's tendency to hover in a physically implausible manner, reveal the spiritual distance between the figures despite their physical resemblance and proximity. It is as if some of them remained frozen in time while others magically "popped" into our present. This is manifest in another painting from 1993, early in the series. Here an adult, "contemporary" Zhang Xiaogang appears, wide-eyed and yellow-skinned, next to his young mother, who by contrast looks complacently in the past, an image from memory.
The lot on offer is precious among Bloodline: Big Family paintings for having an identifiable source photograph and individual specificity. The only other comparable painting, also from 1993 and featuring weather icons and musical notations, was collected by the Tokushima Modern Art Museum after its exhibition in São Paulo. As the series progresses, Zhang Xiaogang's faces soon become increasingly uniform and unisex, the dress increasingly nondescript. The facial features, lit from the right without exception, lose their contours in a diffuse chiaroscuro and merge dreamily with the grey backgrounds. Although the painter's daughter makes several cameos and the adult figures retain his mother's small eyes and "melon-seed" face, the later works are abstract portraits of the Chinese people. Zhang means for these faces to be stereotypically and immediately recognizable as "Chinese." The "big family" of the series title thus includes the nation as a whole, and the "bloodlines" that crawl beyond the canvas enfold the viewer also. Stemming from Zhang Xiaogang's personal preoccupation with the memory of his mother and with the genetic implications of her illness for him and his daughter, The Bloodine: Big Family series finally gives voice to his generation's collective traumas and dreams, illusions and disillusions. It does so not by any direct "representation" of the past, but rather by enacting in painting the uncanny ambivalences between self and other, between self and collective, and even between self and self.
1 Umbilical Cord of History, Hanart TZ Gallery, 2004
2 Johnson Chang, "Between Reality and Illusion," in Diancang Magazine 3 Refer to 1
4 Karen Smith, Nine Lives - The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China - The Updated Edition, AW Asia, 2008
5 J. Esherick, Ancestral Leaves, University of California Press, 2011
6 Revision: Zhang Xiaogang, PaceWildenstein, 2008
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8 Yuejin Wang, "Anxiety of Portraiture: Quest for/ Questioning Ancestral Icons in Post-Mao China," in Politics, Ideology, and Literary Discourse in Modern China: Theoretical Interventions and Cultural Critique, Duke University Press, 1993
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11 Avant-Garde China: Twenty Years of Chinese Contemporary Art, The Japan Foundation, 2008
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