- Zhang Xiaogang
- Bloodline-Big Family: Comrade No. 9
- oil on canvas
- 190 by 150 cm.; 74 by 59 in.
Private Collection, Europe
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. 34
“These old photos… seem to throng my mind with thoughts, and I become unwilling to let them go.”
Exuding a strong sense of nostalgia, Bloodline-Big Family: Comrade No.9 (Lot 59) is a highly significant work from Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline series. Painted in 1998, five years after the inception of this iconic series, Bloodline-Big Family: Comrade No.9 exhibits the confidently mature style that Zhang Xiaogang’s works had attained by this period, whilst revealing aspects of the socio-cultural influences that inspired the Bloodline paintings. The delicate grey tones that dominate the image invite associations with Gerhard Richter’s early photographic paintings, first encountered by the artist on a trip to Germany in 1992; yet it was early twentieth century photographs that truly provided the crucial stimulus for the creation of the Bloodline series. In 1995, Zhang Xiaogang recalled the impact on his work of his discovery of old family photographs, “The major elements in my recent works, besides the complex thoughts given to us by history and reality, came directly from
private collections of old family photos, and from the charcoal drawings one sees on the street throughout China [… ]These old photos [… ]seem to throng my mind with thoughts, and I become unwilling to let them go. Perhaps precisely because in these times such old photos do more than fulfill people’s nostalgic yearnings, or perhaps in their visual language that is pure and direct, yet full of illusion, they justify my loathing for enigmatic formalism and exaggerative romanticism”1
Bloodline-Big Family: Comrade No.9 clearly reveals the influence of old photography, not only in its subdued pigmentation, but also in the formal, frontal pose of the subject. The youth gazes earnestly out towards the viewer, as though eager to project an impression of seriousness and resolve for posterity: his solemn attitude seems to reflect the importance attached to so called “ancestor portraits” which would be preserved proudly within families for generations. The bonds between relatives and succeeding generations have been a major focus of the Bloodline series, signified by the distinctive line of red pigment that weaves around the figures within the portraits. Despite Bloodline- Big Family: Comrade No.9’s solitary state, the red bloodline that appears within the lower segment of the canvas connects him inextricably to his unseen kin in a moving indication of hereditary ties.
The eloquent title, Bloodline-Big Family: Comrade No.9, resonates with a very specific, potent meaning. Used as a term of address, through Zhang Xiaogang’s formative years, the word “comrade” was introduced as a unifying, egalitarian concept across Chinese society; its original meaning replaced after the People’s Republic of China was formed so that it became imbued with strong socialist connotations. Citizens who were formerly neighbours, friends or business partners became united under a pseudo-militaristic, revolutionary banner of comradeship. There was only one image of a true comrade - embodied by Comrade Mao Zedong - and that specified the entire aspect of a person’s appearance and manner, from the haircut to the garments that could be worn to the expression that a happy commune worker or peasant was required to don. Whilst the subject of Bloodline-Big Family: Comrade No.9 conforms to these frameworks through his neatly arranged hair
and visible Mao Jacket, his resolutely stoic facial expression hints at a spark of individuality, or, equally, acknowledges the reality of a political and social situation that actively discouraged deviation from the rigidly enforced norm. According to Karen Smith, this “could easily be read as the tongue-in-cheek parody of the dream each sitter harboured for an unblemished immortality as they presented themselves to the camera lens, creating an ideal picture of health that propaganda invested in the Mao era.”2 Ultimately, the Bloodlines series can be seen as a commanding exploration of the historical tension between family and nationhood, group and self-identity; themes which are sentimentally expressed within Bloodline-Big Family: Comrade No.9, a work that is arguably one of the most powerful paintings from this seminal series.
1 Umbilical Cord of History, Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Hanart TZ Gallery, 2004, p. 16-17
2 Karen Smith, Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China, 2005, p. 289