Portraiture has long been a popular genre, past and present, East and West. Early portraiture focused on the pursuit of realistic depiction; modern western portrait painting has combined various elements such as psychological description, history, collective unconsciousness, and concepts. For example, Francis Bacon’s distorted faces, Gerhard Richter’s paintings in 1988 concerning social activists, and Luc Tuymans’s figurative paintings based on historical and news photography, have all demonstrated the development of modern portraiture and figurative paintings in the 20th century. Personal memory is a main motif in the works of contemporary Chinese artist, Zhang Xiaogang. Zhang would begin with personal memories, using them to connect to the collective memories of a generation of Chinese. “What I am trying to do is to represent the individuals in the narrative of history. What I want to look at is the state of the individuals in history as well as the relationship between the individual and the collective.” Although reconstructing the history of the Chinese people is not Zhang’s intention, he achieves this mission through the personal narration of history in his art. Zhang does not critique history, but rather reflects the living conditions of the individuals against the grand backdrop of history. With this aspect, Zhang leaves a psychological portrait for contemporary Chinese to rediscover and contemplate. In the 1990’s, Zhang discovered, in yellowed family portrait photographs, a standpoint from which to narrate personal history, thus created the Bloodline: Big Family series. Sister and Brothers (Lot 1059) was executed by the artist in the years of 2009 and 2010, the painting features three figures, a sister and her two younger brothers, as compared to two figures in most works by Zhang. The sister is wearing a typical 1970s green coat; the older of the two younger brothers, clad in the “Mao” uniform, carrying a ‘history’ book, representing intellectuals; while the youngest brother was facing the viewers, looking bewildered. The three figures have appeared in Zhang’s body of works, they represent some of the Chinese people in the Cultural Revolution, symbolising the Chinese collective unconsciousness. Here, portraiture refers not only to the characters in the painting, viewers are also able to trace the very essence of Chinese civilisation through the course of history under the surreal atmosphere created by the artist.
In the 1980’s, Zhang Xiaogang and other artists formed the “Southwest Art Research Group.” For their sentimentalist expression of their thoughts on life and existence, the critic Gao Minglu labeled them “Stream of Life.” “Stream of Life” and “Rational Painting,” the latter represented mostly by northern artists, were the two major forces of the ‘85 New Wave. The political turmoil of 1989 did not only allow Zhang to reexamine the fundamental nature of life, but also made him conscious of the profound impact that ethnic history and social background have on life. A visit to Germany in 1992 affirmed Zhang’s self-positioning as a Chinese artist. Afterwards, using family portrait photographs of the past as an inspiration, he created a series of portraits as well as the Bloodline: Big Family series, which would achieve great renown. The Red Guards and other figures in Mao-suits in these paintings connect them to a particular historical context; the faded backgrounds and semi-abstract depictions of the human figures create an alienating distance. The single individual is thrust into the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, embodying the fear and unease brought on by memory and history. “An artist chooses to dwell in a particular moment, committing to his private memory the realities and history that he sees. This dwelling is the opposite of the ephemeral and is a private narration of social memory.”1 The 90’s witnessed Chinese contemporary art’s rise to prominence at international biennials. The Bloodline: Big Family series exhibited in the São Paulo Biennial of 1994 and the Venice Biennale of the following year, opening a dialogue with international contemporary art and attracting the attention of collectors worldwide.
In the new millennium, Zhang Xiaogang recalibrated his creative direction. The Memory and Amnesia series, begun in 2002, marked his move away from grand history, from what was seen as an expression of the Chinese past and consciousness, to the bare individual, from “the fate of the individual in a collective” to “a more microscopic psychological reality”. This new series featured portraits of single persons and focused on faces, concealing all background. Later, the series incorporated symbols of Zhang's early Handwritten Notes series, such as light bulbs, electric torches, notebooks, beds, and television sets. Through the objects he once owned, Zhang sought to recover past memories. The objects thus became the concrete manifestations of memory, important proof for history and its authenticity. Zhang's works of this period were characterized by a stronger surrealistic tendency and a sense of dreamy ambiguity, reflecting the uncertainty of memory. "Images of past life gradually have become distant in the present reality in which I live, but at the same time are more pressing in my dreams. I thus am often unable to tell clearly whether they truly belong to the past or are a drama being staged in the present."2
Past memories can simultaneously evoke familiar, confuse, and even alien feelings. The uncertainty of memory is an issue that humans must face. Through the narration of personal history, Zhang Xiaogang explores the ever-vanishing and self-corrected memory of the Chinese people. He hopes to grasp and save what is salient and valuable in images of past life, articulating individual histories within the grand current of time.
1 Leng Lin, Foreword of exhibition “16:9”, 2010
2 Zhang Xiaogang, Artist Statement, 2003
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