Pinnacle of the Bloodline: Big Family Series
If we need to search for the most appropriate work in the course of contemporary Chinese art that accurately reflects the recent history of China, we cannot dismiss the paramount position of Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family series. The series has participated in many important international art festivals that most notably include the Sao Pãulo Biennial and the Venice Biennale. Based on his old family photographs from the Cultural Revolution as the basic framework, through this series, the artist attempts to document the scarred memory of the previous generations, moving away from Western expressionistic style and returning to the roots of the Chinese history. The Bloodline: Big Family series not only became a milestone in Zhang Xiaogang’s career, but also a repeated theme that the artist would revisit throughout his later works. The lot on offer Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 (Lot 145) from 1995 is arguably the most mature piece in the series, showcasing the iconic three member family portrait. The work is also the only piece from the series to depict the Little Red Guard with the Chairman Mao adge and armband, making it of greater rarity and art historical value in comparison with other works.
In 1995, Zhang Xiaogang only painted five works, each measuring 180 by 230 cm, for the Bloodline: Big Family series. The present work belongs to the four paintings that were chosen to participate in the 46th Venice Biennale. It displays the full breadth and maturity of the aesthetics in the series, not to mention the vast scale that was never before seen. In the Bloodline: Big Family series, No. 1 and No.4 each depicts a family with two daughters and two sons respectively. Only No. 2 and No. 3 showcase the standard one child family structure introduced during the Cultural Revolution in China, clearly referencing the changing scene of the Chinese society. In comparison to the yellow baby in No. 2, the composition of No. 3 is ever more refined and detailed. It is the only work from the four works, or even the entire Bloodline series to concentrate on the central Little Red Guard, who dons a dark green revolution uniform, Chairman Mao badge, and red armband. Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 is without a doubt the most explicit piece from the Bloodline: Big Family series that unravels the hidden tension in politics and history. Under this solemn and cool tone, the dark gray palette suitably represents the philosophy of Zhang after 1989 and at the same time imbues the lot on offer with greater historical burden.
The political turmoil of 1989 awakened Zhang Xiaogang to reality. “You can’t help thinking about what makes you, a Chinese artist, different from Western artists.” By this time he had begun to receive critical attention and participated in the exhibition “I Don’t Want to Play Cards with Cézanne” and Other Works: Selections from the Chinese “New Wave” and “Avant-Garde” Art of the Eighties, organised by the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California. But Zhang was also increasingly confused about his artistic style and direction. “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.” 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 his wife Tang Lei was studying. He could not have foreseen the influence of this brief sojourn on his subsequent artistic career.
During his three months in Germany, Zhang Xiaogang spent all his days in museums studying the works of Western painters. Secretly he even visited France and the Netherlands (to which countries he had no entry visas). He was humbled by masters like Van Gogh and Magritte and fascinated by contemporary German artists like Beuys, Kiefer, Baselitz, and Richter, the last of whom would exert a particularly profound influence on him. At the same time, Zhang was also disappointed by the complete “bourgeoisation”of contemporary art. He was particularly saddened by that year’s Documenta, which he later professed he completely failed to understand. In later letters to his friends Wang Lin and Ye Yongqing, he wrote, “Westerners are tired from playing this game [of contemporary art]. Many people have lost their direction and begun to play with themselves… This exhibition was nothing more than an opportunity for Westerners to spend money.”
Exposure to foreign cultures also caused 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.’” The identity of “Chinese artist” had never occurred so clearly in Zhang’s mind. In a letter to Ye Yongqing, he wrote, “As of now, there is no such thing as contemporary Chinese culture in the West. They perhaps prefer to see it as a ‘primitive culture’ in the same way they buy African wood sculptures... Or perhaps they prefer to view the contemporary cultures of the Third World from a colonial perspective, proclaiming ‘inclusiveness.’ What Chinese contemporary culture truly is only we have an inkling, but we have yet to find clear concepts and images to show it to the world. This goal can only be achieved through the efforts of the Chinese.”
Upon his return to China, Zhang Xiaogang participated in the Guangzhou Biennial with a pair of paintings entitled Chapter of a New Century: Birth of the People’s Republic of China, but these did not truly reflect the influence of his trip to Germany. He experimented with Surrealism and Cubism until he developed a unique color palette and visual vocabulary for representing the human face and body. To heighten the sense of depth and dimensionality, he used trompe l’oeil and staged his subjects inside a painted frame. A group of works painted in 1991 and 1992 of disembodied heads and arms inside a painted frame were exhibited in 1993 at the “China’s New Art: Post-1989” exhibition. Also, the Tiananmen Square series painted in 1993 all share this same framing device. These early works influenced the approach Zhang would take when later creating his Bloodline: Big Family.
Zhang gave birth to the Bloodline series in the summer of 1993 in Kunming, and the paintings were first exhibited in December of that year in the seminal exhibition “Chinese Art in the 1990’s: Experiences of China” at the Sichuan Art Museum in Chengdu. The five-man exhibition, curated by the art critic Wang Lin, also included works by Mao Xuhui, Ye Yongqing, Wang Chuan, and Zhou Chunya. It marked the culmination of the avant-garde movement formerly known as the“Southwestern Art Group.” Zhang Xiaogang exhibited ten paintings, including Family Portrait, a realistically proportioned portrait of a three-person family that may have been his own. They appear thin and frail against a background that was not yet rendered with chiaroscuro seen in his later works; a stark light shines in blocks upon the sitters, a precursor to the discoloured patches that would be seen in his future Bloodline series. This piece was later titled Bloodline: Family and was collected by the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum marking this as the first time Zhang’s work was collected by an international institution.
In 1993, 19 Chinese artists including Zhang Xiaogang were introduced for the first time at the Venice Biennale. Although Chengdu was not known to the international art community, Zhang started to feel that the symbolic value of his work was encountering a powerful market force. He felt troubled at the “Experiences of China” exhibition he stated that “we cannot accept easy categorization. Categorization is often required for exhibition purposes; for example, the “Post-1989” exhibition in Hong Kong resorted to categorization to help explain.”1 Zhang wanted to emphasize that an artist must hold true to his individual expression regardless of how the international community interprets or categorizes his work.
Johnson Chang, who had recently organized the “China’s New Art: Post-1989”exhibition, was now charged with selecting six Chinese artists to represent China for the upcoming 22nd International São Paulo Biennial; Zhang Xiaogang was selected and exhibited alongside Fang Lijun and Liu Wei in one of the two mini-exhibitions titled “Wakefulness and the Weightless Present.” This was Zhang’s first overseas exhibition so he chose four paintings that were executed in 1994 from his Bloodline series and each measuring 150 by 180 centimeters. The first two canvases were of family portraits, the third painting was Two Comrades, and the fourth was Three Comrades. Among the family portraits, Bloodline: Big Family No. 1 was featured. Painted with brighter colors and more stylized figures, these canvases are the first in which discoloured patches of red and yellow replaced the plays of light that were rendered in his earlier works. Another development seen in these compositions is the tendency to depict his subjects as increasingly androgynous. For Zhang Xiaogang, this outing was momentous in two senses: it placed his work for the first time in the international spotlight, and marked the mature outlines of a style he would continue to develop until the present.
There is no doubt that the four works Zhang exhibited at the International São Paulo Biennial was a major breakthrough for the artist’s career. From his paintings, we can clearly see that after 1989 the artist was striving to create a new visual experience as well as a totally individual artistic style.
Bloodline: Big Family No. 1 makes deeply apparent that the artist’s series had fully matured and was ready to advance to the international market. At the Venice Biennale the following year, Zhang’s Bloodline: Big Family received and overwhelming response at the show “The Other Face: Three Chinese Artists.” This exhibition fits into the larger international exhibition “Identità e Alterità” meant to celebrate the Biennale’s centenary. The Chinese pavilion was a resounding success and received immense attention, due to the efforts of the curator, Johnson Chang, and their sponsor, David Tang. The show even received a visit by Princess Diana. Zhang was originally planning to show alongside Liu Wei and Wenda Gu, but Wenda Gu’s installation was
too large for the space. Zhang was then able to show two groups of paintings: a cycle of singlefigure
Bloodline: Comrade paintings, and four monumental Bloodline: Big Family paintings. The 1995 show is considered a pivotal moment marking the beginnings of the Bloodline: Big Family and gradually establishing the tremendous value Bloodline: The Big Family No. 3 would have in the history of art.
Having served as the curator for the 1994 International São Paulo Biennial and the 1995 Venice Biennale, Johnson Chang, wrote that “the figures depicted in Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family are idealized and solemnly dignified resulting in a haunting image that will be passed down through future generations. Like early photo studio portraits where blemishes or any slight imperfections were removed to show only a clean and perfect complexion…these figures represented the masses of today.” 2 More than a decade later, these “masses” have become symbols that move beyond the canvas to represent life’s vicissitudes. The artist belongs to a socialist period of dark blue and green uniforms and embodies a sharp vision from that bygone era. Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 is the best testament to the course of history.
1 Wang Lin, Chinese Experience (Zhongguo jingyan), private publication, 1993, p. 50.
2 Chang Tsong-zung, L’Altra Faccia: Tre Artisti Cinesi a Venezia (Woxiang yu taxiang), 1995.
The Portrait of Chinese Family
In his famous essay The Uncanny, Sigmund Freud wrestles with the contradictory sensation of familiarity and unfamiliarity that attends such objects as life-like mannequins, whose close resemblance to us casts doubt on our own aliveness and individuality. That which is most familiar can, paradoxically, be uncomfortable and even threatening, but it is unclear whether this estrangement is a quality inherent in the object or the result of our very attempt to become familiar with it. Try staring at a photograph of a loved one, or at yourself in a mirror, or even at these very words on a page—they will soon begin to seem abstract and incoherent. This complex of unrationalizable sensations is captured by the word “uncanny,” for which Freud gives the enduring formulation of “that class of the frightening that leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.”
The immediate prototypes of Zhang Xiaogang’s Big Family series are formal group photographic portraits from the 1950’s and 60’s, including those of Zhang’s own family, a source of the painter’s “endless reveries.”1 From these old black-and-white pictures Zhang Xiaogang derived the series’ paradigmatic features: a subdued, nearly monochromatic palette; a thickly layered but flat surface, without overt evidence of brushwork; a general compositional restriction to upper bodies; the rigid and frontal poses and faces; and of course the Mao-era hairstyles and dress. The off-color passages, first introduced as patches of light on the faces, later became independent surface elements that recall damaged photographs. Given the series’ origin in the genre of the family portrait, it has become customary to attribute its success to the importance of the concept of family in Chinese culture. The critic and dealer Johnson Chang has written, for example, “Through the Chinese tradition of portraiture, Zhang has drawn upon the classical iconography of ancestor portraiture of which every Chinese would have vague collective memory of.”2 Likewise, for Li Xianting, “The legacy of Confucian ethics takes visual form in the common Chinese family’s ‘family group’ photographs. The technique of formal retouching, the classical upright pose of the figures, the rigidly set social order: all reveal the enduring power of the blood relationship.”3
But the families Zhang Xiaogang paints have a historical specificity that the labels “Chinese” and “Confucian” do not quite capture. Despite the series’ title, none of these families is in fact “big”; never once do more than two generations or more than a handful of individuals share the same canvas, whereas portraits of extended families, with grandparents and grandchildren huddled together, were in fact very common. Although the red lines that connect Zhang’s family members often extend to the edges of the canvases, and although infant genitalia are recurring motifs, these intimations of a lineage continuing beyond the frame are ultimately subservient to an image of the nuclear family, which is not so much traditional or Confucian as distinctly modern. The preponderance of the single child, almost always centered and preternaturally self-conscious like the infant Christ in European pictures, has reminded more than one critic of China’s One-child Policy, introduced in 1978. Karen Smith writes of these works, “Conjuring allusions to received impressions of China under Mao and through the Cultural Revolution, [the Big Family paintings] are eloquently, poignantly, Chinese in their sensibilities. Since the format is derived from conventional black and white, occasionally handcoloured photographic snapshots of the proletariat post-1949, these are sensibilities that Zhang Xiaogang renders accessible to all.”4 Also referring to the People’s Republic, the historian Joseph Esherick writes of the “reconstitution of the family as a nuclear family with a husband-wife pair and their children. The spousal bond became more important than ever, though it was often tested in the turmoil of political campaigns.”5
In the Big Family series, historical “turmoil” is not only alluded to by period details like the Mao suits and effigies and the Red Guard armbands. The paintings’ poignancy lies rather in their reconciliation of the moral and emotional contradictions of China’s recent past in an understated but ambiguously suggestive visual language. The character of Zhang Xiaogang’s art may be clarified with a comparison to Wang Guangyi and Fang Lijun, representatives respectively of Political Pop and Cynical Realism, the dominant artistic currents in Chinese contemporary art in the 1990’s. The three painters were selected by Johnson Chang to participate in the 1994 São Paulo Biennial, where Big Family made its debut, and exhibited together again in the 2002 exhibition Image is Power. Zhang Xiaogang is sometimes uncomfortably labeled a Cynical Realist. But the stylistic and temperamental differences between these artists are stark. While Wang mockingly plays with the impersonal iconographies of communism and consumerism, Zhang digs deeply into his own emotions and family history, particularly his relationships to his daughter and mother. As Arne Glimcher, founder of the Pace Gallery, puts it in a 2008 catalogue introduction, “Now, fifteen years later, the artist’s aspiration to create a personal vision has long since subsumed his desire to make a political statement. Indeed, Zhang Xiaogang’s works are anything but cynical.”6 Gao Minglu has likewise distinguished Zhang and his fellow southwestern artists’ “subtle and indirect” works, critical but still deeply humanistic, from the unabashed postmodern “shallowness” of coastal and Beijing artists.7 Indeed, Zhang Xiaogang’s quietly unsettling paintings recall Father of 1981 by Luo Zhongli, his classmate at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Art, an earlier reflection of the manifold ambivalences of “family” in the post-Mao era.8
Importantly, the contrast extends to the nitty-gritty of painterly practice. Whereas Wang and Fang revel in a deadpan superficiality, for Zhang, “To bring out a sense of vacuousness and feminine detachment, I must adhere to a rigorous painting process, and apply very thin layers one after another, repeatedly. Generally a face needs four to five layers.”9 That his paintings remind some critics of the quick charcoal sketches of street portraitists only dramatizes his labor. In contrast to Wang and Fang’s in-your-face compositions and colours, Zhang reworks the same quiet compositions and subdued colour schemes again and again. The watery eyes that began to appear in the Big Family paintings hint at traumatic memories beneath the dazed and blank faces, pointing to some interiority and history as well as Zhang’s own emotional investment in his subjects. On the other hand, these eyes— the key to the subject’s presence in traditional portraits and religious icons alike—are unrealistically jet-black and oversize, and being invariably unfocused or directed off-axis, they remain spiritually vacant. The translucent glazes and congealed pools of white pigments that render the films of tears are also when the medium is exposed, when paint is nakedly paint. Thus, where surface seems to open into depth, depth reveals itself as a surface illusion, and the two are inextricably bound. Although the Big Family paintings are often described, even by Zhang Xiaogang himself, as completing his transition from an“expressionist” to a “surrealist” mode, these terms of early-20th-century Western modernism are not entirely accurate. “Repressive” is perhaps a better description, for the moments of surrealism are not there instead of expression, but to conceal, resist, and thus draw attention to it. To quote Zhang again, “I repeat one formulaic ‘beautiful’ face after another; they seem calm on the surface but are full of numerous complex emotions.”10
For another example of Zhang Xiaogang’s deft use of ambivalence and paradox, consider the signature red lines of his mature work, a borrowing from the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). Whereas in Kahlo they are quite literally exposed veins—outlined in a darker shade of red, connected to organs, and dripping with blood—in Zhang’s hands they become at once more explicit in form and more elusive in meaning. To be sure, Zhang’s “bloodlines” most immediately illustrate the genetic relations between the figures; issuing from necks and chests and navels, they do recall arteries and umbilical cords. At the same time, however, they also connote estrangement and even antipathy. For one critic, “they seem to be both the blood ties between people and the chains that restrain them in the darkness.”11 There is a subtle violence in their clinical penetration of clothing and flesh and intrusions into ears and nostrils. As insistent linear surface marks upon meticulous layering and modeling, they also read as defacements, just as the added patches of discoloring recall erosion and even skin disease.12 The following passage by Esherick brings forth the discomforting resonances of “bloodline” as concept and image:
A common slogan of the early Cultural Revolution was‘If the father is a hero, the son is a good fellow; if the father is reactionary, the son is a bastard.’ (老子英雄兒好漢，老子反動兒混蛋) Although this so-called bloodline theory (血統論) was later repudiated by Mao and his allies, the very simplicity of this standard of political correctness gave it enduring appeal throughout the Cultural Revolution. Children were urged to ‘draw a clear line’ between themselves and parents accused of a transgression.13
If the Cultural Revolution tested and perverted familial ties, in China’s dazzling developments in the subsequent two decades, the past itself threatened to become confused and alien. Such was certainly the mood of the acclaimed film In the Heat of the Sun of 1994, contemporary with Big Family’s debut. Early in the series, the bloodlines cooperate with musical notations and weather icons to resist the viewer’s immersion into the world of the ostensible photographic model. Like the tear-glazed eyes, they serve as a reminder of the unavoidable mediations between inside and outside and between past and present. By his own admission, Zhang Xiaogang is attracted to old family photographs for their persistent feeling of having been “retouched,” not only in the senses of manipulations of the negatives and adherence to portraiture conventions but more fundamentally because of the discrepancy between our private and social selves, or, in his words, the “ambiguous relationship between role and character.”14 Whatever “truth” there is in the photograph, personal or historical or otherwise, it lies irretrievable beneath layers of distortion and forgetting. The passages of striking bright reds and yellows in the Big Family paintings, along with the children’s tendency to hover in a physically implausible manner, reveal the spiritual distance between the figures despite their physical resemblance and proximity. It is as if some of them remained frozen in time while others magically “popped” into our present. This is manifest in a painting from 1993, early in the series. Here an adult,“contemporary” Zhang Xiaogang appears, wide-eyed and yellow-skinned, next to his young mother, who by contrast looks complacently in the past, an image from memory.
As the series progresses, Zhang Xiaogang’s faces soon become increasingly uniform and unisex, the dress increasingly nondescript. The facial features, lit from the right without exception, lose their contours in a diffuse chiaroscuro and merge dreamily with the grey backgrounds. Although the painter’s daughter makes several cameos and the adult figures retain his mother’s small eyes and “melon-seed” face, the later works are abstract portraits of the Chinese people. Zhang means for these faces to be stereotypically and immediately recognizable as “Chinese.” The “big family” of the series title thus includes the nation as a whole, and the “bloodlines” that crawl beyond the canvas enfold the viewer also. Stemming from Zhang Xiaogang’s personal preoccupation with the memory of his mother and with the genetic implications of her illness for him and his daughter, the Big Familyseries finally gives voice to his generation’s collective traumas and dreams, illusions and disillusions. It does so not by any direct “representation” of the past, but rather by enacting in painting the uncanny ambivalences between self and other, between self and collective, and even between self and self.
1 Umbilical Cord 46.
2 Johnson Chang, “Between Reality and Illusion,” in Diancang 168
3 Umbilical Cord 37.
4 Smith 256.
5 Ancestral Leaves xiv.
6 Revision 1.
7 Umbilical cord 90.
8 See Yuejin Wang, “Anxiety of Portraiture: Quest for/Questioning Ancestral Icons in Post-Mao China,” in Politics, Ideology, and Literary Discourse in Modern China: Theoretical Interventions and Cultural Critique, eds. Liu Kang and Xiaobing Tang (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), 243-272.
9 Umbilical cord 60.
10 Umbilical cord 46.
11 Avant-Garde China: Twenty Years of Chinese Contemporary Art, 67.
12 Umbilical cord 52.
13 Ancestral Leaves 294.
14 Umbilical cord 110.
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