- Zhang Xiaogang
- Bloodline: Big Family No. 12
- oil on canvas
- 190 by 150 cm.; 74¾ by 59 in.
Private Collection, Europe
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Japan, Niigata, Niigata Prefectural Civic Center Gallery; Utsunomiya, Utsunomiya Museum of Art, Invisible Boundary: Metamorphosed Asian Art, Traveling Exhibition of the Kwangju Biennale 2000, p. 36
Produced between 1993 and 2002, Bloodline: Big Family series by Zhang Xiaogang can without a doubt be considered the emblem of contemporary Chinese art, as it fully encapsulates the unspoken trauma, collective spirit, and public memory of the Chinese people under the burden of the past. Numerous art curators and critics such as Chang Tsong-Zung and Li Xianting have especially praised the brilliant reinvention of Western stylistic techniques and intellectual observation of the Chinese society in the series to be a distinctive factor that sets Zhang apart from other artists of his time. Sotheby’s is pleased to present Bloodline: Big Family No. 12 (Lot 56) from 1996, one of the earliest paintings that allude to the close relationship the artist has with his beloved daughter Huanhuan, featuring a rare and personal composition of a father and young daughter together. At the same time the painting skillfully showcases the subtle yet crucial aesthetic transition from the early phase of the Bloodline: Big Family series to the later works in Zhang’s career.
On view in the work is the presence of a scholarly father behind a yellow faced young girl on his right. In 1994, Zhang Xiaogang’s first wife Tang Lei gave birth to their daughter Huanhuan. The arrival of the newborn child brought a significant change to Zhang’s life as its course took a stable and steady turn. The welcoming of this new family member would also echo back Zhang’s own child-parent relationship with his mother, with whom he was closest with as a child. Thus, similar to the portrait of his young mother, the presence of the daughter image would show up throughout the many works he later creates. However, considering the composition of the piece, Bloodline: Big Family No. 12 is certainly one of the earliest and finest works, not only in his oeuvre, but in the entire Bloodline: Big Family series, to speak of this personal father and daughter bond that holds great importance to Zhang himself.
Since the beginning of the Bloodline: Big Family series, the child figure is constantly shown either in a solitary position, or enveloped as a central focal point flanked by both parents. Along with Bloodline: Big Family No. 13, which features the image of a mother and son, the lot on offer is also one of the very first works from the series to feature the composition of single parent with young child, strategically setting a canonical and continual framework that heavily contributes to the gradual evolution of the series.
On the other hand, the combination of the blue “Mao” uniform worn by the father, together with the signatory yellow face of the young daughter and grey background, all come together to create a crucial merging point between the aesthetics of the early and later Bloodline works. The iconic grey tone, smooth surface, and flat expression of the characters, have previously been described by renowned art critic Li Xianting to be a direct articulation of the contradictory spirit of the Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution, “There is in these portraits a special worldliness of the Chinese: pawns of fate and victims of politics, yet calm and self-sufficient. This also implies both numbness and satisfaction.”1 The rare inclusion of both blue and yellow not only represents a significant shift to the dominantly grey palette, but also infuses the work with societal connotations running parallel with the course of Chinese history. While the yellow skin of the girl, consistently found throughout the series, suggests the notion of the present in comparison with the fading past as seen with the father‘s diluted grey face, the blue “Mao” uniform interestingly evokes the “blue ant” commentary coined by a Western reporter of the Chinese society in the 1960s. It was precisely a period when every bit of individuality of the entire population was stripped away to one single form and colour: blue; the Chinese society was essentially a homogeneous body mass that stood as a blunt antithesis and phenomenon to the West at the time. This again showcases Zhang Xiaogang as a meticulous witness and keeper of the scattered historical traces in the new era in China.
To investigate on a broader scope, the homogeneity and collective spirit mentioned do not lie solely within the blue tone, but rather encompasses the facial features of the two figures in Bloodline: Big Family No. 12. Their almost identical facial expressions and contours are clever devices that drift away from the recognisable characters in Zhang’s early portraits of his friends and family members. According to the artist himself, “What I really want to paint is not a personal portrait, but rather a form or a symbol of a person. It does not matter whether it is a man or a woman, what age or identity. Every person I paint in the Bloodline: Big Family series is really the same person. They can be in different costumes, have different haircuts, wear glasses or not, be male or female, but essentially they are the same person.”2 What Zhang attempted to portray was no longer a single individual, but the face of Chinese people. Probably unbeknownst to Zhang at the time, this reproduction of androgynous figures as seen in the work on offer and throughout his later series such as Amnesia and Memory would later become one of the most important iconographies in contemporary Chinese art.
Born in 1958 in Kunming and graduated from Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 1982, Zhang Xiaogang had gone through several major exploratory periods before finally gaining the iconic status as one of the top contemporary Chinese artists with his breakthrough Bloodline: Big Family series. Inspired in the beginning by the works of Vincent van Gogh, Zhang had experienced predominantly with Western artistic currents such as Expressionism in his early career, most notably represented by his graduation work Grassland. The period immediately following his graduation from 1982 to 1985 was famously coined by the artist as the “Dark Era”. During this time, he suffered from depression and ill health after being rejected from a teaching position at his alma mater and had no choice but to work as an “art designer” at the Kunming Opera Troupe. His subsequent alcohol abuse had led to his eventual two-month hospitalisation for alcohol-caused stomach bleeding. It was during these two months on the hospital bed when Zhang finally had a quiet unperturbed moment to self-reflect on his private feelings and the fear of death. The ghost-like patients witnessed by the artist and the motif of dreams also became powerful sources of inspiration for his works produced after 1984, such as the Phantom and Lost Dream series. In a way, the origin of the lifeless emotion and surreal dream-like flair as seen in the figures in Bloodline: Big Family series can certainly be attributed to this life changing experience.
While the themes of his works in the 1980s and early 90s focused primarily on depicting dreamy soliloquies in Expressionistic and Surrealist styles, it was truly the political turmoil of 1989 that had awakened Zhang Xiaogang to reality. “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.”3 In this malaise and disorientation, Zhang received a timely invitation to the University of Kassel for a short-temp academic exchange, and in May 1993 left for Germany, where Tang Lei was studying. He could not have foreseen the influence of this brief sojourn in his subsequent artistic career.
It was during these three months in Germany where Zhang finally had the opportunity to immerse himself in the art world outside. It was an eye opening journey yet also one that fully and finally grounded his determination to move onto a whole new path. “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.’”4
It was after discovering his old family photographs back home, when Zhang unraveled the link between collective memory and painting. “I could see a way to paint the contradictions between the individual and the collective and it was from this that I started really to paint. There’s a complex relationship between the state and the people that I could express by using the Cultural Revolution. China is like a family, a big family. Everyone has to rely on each other and to confront each other. This was the issue I wanted to give attention to and, gradually, it became less and less linked to the Cultural Revolution and more to people’s states of mind.”
Zhang gave birth to the Bloodline: Big Family series in the summer of 1993 in his hometown Kunming. While the early works in 1993 still retained drips of Expressionistic influence, as evident in the brick-like borders, it was in 1994 when a more mature and definite style was established. The infusion of the symbolic thin red line, awkward light patch that spoke of time passage, and rigid posture of the figures was a key for Zhang to express and explore the ambiguous “familial” relationships between an individual and his country, family members, and even oneself, all in relation to the omnipresent history. In a way, these symbols, especially the flat facial expressions, have captured the very essence of a historical drama (or even trauma) of how the building up of a prosperous and affluent contemporary society from the embers of a revolution leads one to reflect on its turbulent and tragic past. As what Zhang has said, “While remaining on a certain psychological level, I repeat one ‘beautiful’ face after another; on the surface is calmness, underneath are numerous complex emotions.”5
1 Umbilical Cord of History: Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Hanart TZ Gallery, 2004
2 Ed. Lü Peng, Zhang Xiaogang, Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2007
3 Extract from “Dialogue with Zhang Xiaogang” in Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980 – 1990, Asia Art Archive, 2009
4 Refer to 3
5 Refer to 1