- Zhang Xiaogang
- Brother and Sister
- signed and dated 2005/6
- oil on canvas
- 210 by 250cm.
- 82 3/4 by 98 1/2 in.
A giant, close-up depiction of a young male and female, unclothed at least to the waist, Brother and Sister, 2005, is a stand-alone painting from Zhang Xiaogang's ongoing Bloodlines series. Unusually, the hazy colour patches that are a feature of the early works in the series, symbolic of mental or genealogical scars, here give way to a more oppressive horizontal band of blinding light which shines in their faces as if they were under interrogation. Denuded of their clothes and attributes, Zhang Xiaogang's generic couple with standardised features are also stripped of their individuality. As such, they stand for the everyman of China's turbulent political past, the silent witness to the great upheavals experienced by the artist and his parents' generation.
The atmosphere of Brother and Sister encapsulates the mood at a critical juncture in twentieth-century Chinese history, conjuring allusions to received impressions of China under the authoritarian aegis of Chairman Mao, whose influence is still felt today. Although painted at a time of fast-paced change and modernization in China, Zhang Xiaogang's paintings look back to the country's turbulent political past, to a time when the misjudged policies of the Cultural Revolution brought protracted periods of widespread social, economic and political Chaos. Working from vintage black and white photographs, Zhang Xiaogang taps into the sensibilities of that era, identifying something quintessentially Chinese in the formality of the poses and the seriousness of the attitudes that the sitters project. These are not the informal, spontaneous snapshots of family life of today's generation, but rather the highly staged, formulaic group photographs in which the proletariat of yesteryear conventionally sought to commit their dreams and aspirations to immortality in front of the lens. Set against a nebulous grey background, the striking red colouration of the young man is reminiscent of the practice of hand-tinting black and white photographs, a technique which was widespread before the development of colour film processing. Filling his studio with such images, predominantly those of his own ancestral heritage, the artist imbued himself in the zeitgeist of a bygone era.
Standing before this monumental work, one senses the personal empathy of the artist as he connects with the trauma endured by his own family and their entire generation. As the limpid, watery eyes of the sitters stare out at us like glistening black pearls, there is a tangible sense of catharsis for the suffering that they endured. Primarily the expression of one individual's experience, the enduring appeal of Zhang Xiaogang's body of work is that it dovetails with the broader psychological trauma of an entire generation. Like Honorée de Balzac's Comédie Humaine in the Nineteenth century, when seen in its totality the vast artistic project of the Bloodlines series paints a vivid picture of familial and societal relations at a pivotal moment in modern history.