C reated in 1993, Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline – Big Family: No. 2 is the second of the two earliest and most important works from the artist’s seminal and era-defining Bloodline – Big Family series. With the first work residing in the Tokushima Modern Art Museum, Japan, the present painting is the only nascent masterpiece from the series in private hands – a tremendously rare and academically significant work representing the historical inception of Bloodline – Big Family.
The year 1993 was the most crucial turning point in Zhang Xiaogang’s creative development; whereas in the 1980s and early 1990s he painted dreamy soliloquies in expressionistic and surrealistic styles, 1993 was the year in which he abandoned expressionism and commenced rigorous interrogations on Chinese identity in a purely surrealist manner, moving away from personal existentialist meditations towards investigations on national and collective history.
Inspired by old family photos, the present work portrays Zhang Xiaogang’s parents and elder brother in a standard three-person family portrait composition. The infant is singled out in vivid yellow, in striking chromatic contrast to the faded sepia tones of the rest of the portrait. Two red threads connect the infant to his parents, while weather icons and notations of a pop song hover in the top left. After the completion of the present work, Zhang Xiaogang and the eminent critic Johnson Chang together entitled the series of two works as Bloodline – Big Family. The first Bloodline – Big Family: No. 1 was debuted at the 22nd Sao Paolo Biennale and now resides in the Tokushima Modern Art Museum. Bearing the weight of the psychological disposition of an entire generation, the present Bloodline - Big Family: No. 2 is the earliest work from the series that is still available in the market.
Internationally acclaimed and exhibited at prestigious biennales in the mid-1990s, Zhang Xiaogang’s singular Bloodline – Big Family aesthetic is underlain by a rich range of influence from artistic trends and personal experiences during two dense decades of societal and cultural shifts. Zhang’s teenage years coincided with the Cultural Revolution: in 1968, his parents were sent away for re-education, his father to the countryside and his mother to Chengdu. Afterwards, as part of the first graduating class of 1982 from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, Zhang’s earliest artistic influences beyond Socialist Realism included Jean-François Millet and Vincent Van Gogh. Zhang soon mastered technical command of various lineages of Western oil painting, and for his graduation project, he travelled to the Tibetan plateau, painting the ethnic peoples with experimental lyrical expressionism and emotion-filled brushwork. After graduation, Zhang’s works across the 1980s engaged with Surrealism, symbolism, trompe l’oeil and a number of modern Western styles. In the ’85 Movement, Zhang played a leading role in the Southwestern Art Research Group: while the Northern Artists Group, led by Wang Guangyi, focused on rationalism and idealism, the Southwestern Group focused on Western modernism and individualistic expression.
From the ’85 Movement to the nascence of the Bloodline series in 1993, two important milestones occurred. The first is the defining political events of 1989, which sparked a critical transition in Zhang’s mindset from individualistic introspection to emphatic explorations of the linkages between art and reality, self and history. It was during this period from 1989 to 1992 that the patches of light, so prevalent within the Bloodline paintings, first appeared in Zhang’s works.
Always spilling from the right side of the canvas and illuminating sections of his subject’s faces, these pools of light manifest as presences of the real world – “acknowledg[ing] the reality of the natural world, and yet [maintaining] a strong subjective resonance.”1 The connection between the subjective self and external reality forms a key part of Zhang’s artistic and philosophical enquiry: for him, the “ambiguities” or “in-betweenness” of art brings him “closer to reality.”2 Zhang began to develop what he called “psychological realism” – one that “projects shadows onto [his heart].”3 Gradually, the patches of light became abstract and expressionistic, eventually taking the form of the aberrant splatches of colour in his Bloodline works. Reminiscent of aged film or birth marks, these patches interrupt the otherwise greyscale palette of the series, representing vestiges of individual histories within nationalistic collectivism.
The second milestone leading up to Bloodline was Zhang’s four-month trip to Germany in 1992. During his brief time in Europe, two artists influenced Zhang profoundly: Gerhard Richter and René Magritte. Whereas Richter’s treatment of photographs inspired Zhang’s attention to the private and collective histories behind photos, Magritte’s whimsical fantasies influenced Zhang’s gradual detachment from anguished pathos and tormented turmoil towards a more distanced, collected approach to art and expression. Zhang wrote: “Calm yet irrational, imaginative but restrained, realistic and terrifying but at the same time alienating, using visible objects to bring thoughts into an invisible tunnel, depicting an indescribable, mysterious philosophy […] this charisma of Magritte’s has enchanted me all these years. It has also become the standard to which I hold my art and the state that I hope I will someday achieve. Through [Magritte and de Chirico] I learned how to ‘keep a distance’ when examining our heavy history or facing our ever-changing reality.”4
The exposure to foreign cultures also led 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. He later commented to an art critic: “before I went to Germany, I had never truly, seriously looked at a Chinese face." 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.
Shortly after Zhang’s return to China, his quest for a ‘Chinese face’ found fruition during a visit to his parent’s home 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."
Photographs of his parents in their youth, of himself as a child, of him with his brother and parents - all these made strong and lasting impressions on him. Basing a new series of paintings on these old photographs, Zhang’s Bloodline works resonate with a uncannily enthralling aura that combines the poignancy of old photographs – lost moments in time – with a disquieting surrealist style. By usurping the photographic medium’s claims to objectivity, Zhang reopens a chapter from the past and enlivens its discourse with painterly ambiguity. The impassive and icy stares of his protagonists, inaccessible and indifferent, do not coerce us into an emotional response or any reading of narrative; rather, their grey apparitions beckon silently as flat relics of a familiar history, now emptied of its currency and rendered obsolete. Albeit united via facial features, posture, uniform, and the symbolic red bloodlines, Zhang’s figures remain disconnected, inaccessible not just to viewers but to each other. As such, Zhang constructs an open-ended remedy for dealing with a complex cultural past; his relived uneasy nostalgia of an ideologically extreme period, now a bygone era, and the traumas it enacted and left behind. Through his expressionless and disconnected figures the artist looks back on the flux of history with no certain terms, taking back the claimed objectivity of a family photograph and questioning notions of subjectivity, selfhood, and otherness within the complex construction of modern China’s identity.
The enduring aesthetic resonance of Zhang’s era-defining Bloodline paintings constituted an instant and enduring impact on the history of Chinese contemporary art and the globalized cultural dialogue of which it has become a profound contingent. Within the tides of international trends, Zhang remains wholly idiosyncratic: while he is sometimes uncomfortably labelled as a Cynical Realist, Arne Glimcher observes that “Zhang Xiaogang’s works are anything but cynical”, aspiring instead to create a genuinely personal vision. Along a similar vein, although the Bloodline paintings are often described, even by Zhang himself, as completing his transition from an “expressionistic” to “surrealistic” mode, such terms of Western modernism are not entirely accurate. “Repressive” is perhaps a better description, for the moments of surrealism are not there to express, but instead to conceal, resist, and thus draw attention said concealment. With one formulaic beautiful face after another, each connected by exquisitely fragile crimson bloodlines, Zhang’s superlative oeuvre encapsulates the artist’s private familial memories, the collective psychological histories, dreams, and disillusions of an estranged generation, as well as his epochal position in global art history.
1 Jonathan Fineberg and Gary G. Xu, eds., Zhang Xiaogang: Disquieting Memories, London, 2015, p. 66.
4 Zhang Xiaogang, ‘My Soul Mate Magritte’, in Art World No. 5, 2001
5 Extract from "Dialogue with Zhang Xiaogang" in Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980-1990, Asia Art Archive, 2009
Lot 6002 - Details
BLOODLINE - BIG FAMILY: FAMILY NO. 2
signed in Chinese and Pinyin and dated 1993, framed
oil on canvas
110 by 130 cm. 43¼ by 51⅛ in.
Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong
Private Collection, Europe
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 2 April 2012, Lot 810
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner
Forget and Remember: Zhang Xiaogang, Xin Dong Cheng Publishing House, Beijing, China, 2003, pp. 80-81
Umbilical Cord of History: Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong, China, 2004, p. 47
Karen Smith, Nine Lives – The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China, Scalo, Zurich, Switzerland, 2005, p. 264 (installation view at artist's studio)
Karen Smith, Nine Lives - The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China - The Updated Edition, AW Asia, New York, USA, 2008, p. 274 (installation view at artist's studio)
Victoria Lu ed., 100 Contemporary Chinese Artists Collection - Zhang Xiaogang, Modern Press, Beijing, China, 2009, p. 75
Zhang Xiaogang: Work, Literature and Studies 1981 - 2014, vol. 2, Sichuan Art Publishing House, Chengdu, 2016, p. 339, illustrated in colour