Lot 1026
  • 1026

Zhang Xiaogang

25,000,000 - 35,000,000 HKD
bidding is closed


  • Zhang Xiaogang
  • Bloodline: Mother and Son No.1
  • oil and photo collage on canvas
signed in Chinese and Pinyin and dated 1993, framed


Private Collection
Christie's Hong Kong, 24 May 2008, lot 152
Acquired by the present owner from the above


China, Chengdu, Sichuan Art Museum, 1990's Chinese Art: The Chinese Experience, 1993


Chinese Fine Arts in 1990's: Experiences in Fine Arts of China, Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, Chengdu, China, 1994, p. 85
Hanart TZ Gallery and Galerie Enrico Navarra, Umbilical Cord of History: Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Hong Kong, China, 2004, p. 41
Karen Smith, Nine Lives - The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China - The Updated Edition, AW Asia, New York, USA, 2008, p. 299
Victoria Lu ed., 100 Contemporary Chinese Artist Collection - Zhang
Xiaogang, Modern Press, Beijing, China, 2009, p. 172 (installation view at artist's studio)
Zhang Xiaogang: Disquieting Memories, Phaidon Press Limited, London, UK, 2015, p. 79


This work is in good condition. Under UV light, minor infillings are visible at the upper right and upper left corners and on the black jacket of the right figure. Please refer to the Contemporary Art department for the professional condition report.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

The Beginning of Bloodline
Zhang Xiaogang

Before I went to Germany, I had never truly, intently looked at a Chinese person's face ... why do we paint people brought to us by books and catalogues, and not paint the real, living people around us? --Zhang Xiaogang

The year 1993 was an extremely important one for the contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang, marking a turning point in his career as he boldly threw aside his previous explorations of Surrealism and Symbolism in favour of paintings of actual people. Taking the faces of Chinese people as his blueprint and Realism as his stylistic idiom, he adopted family ties as his subject for the first time. Bloodline: Mother and Son No.1 (Lot 1026), which portrays the artist and his mother, is a highly personal work of art. It is Zhang's most exemplary work from this series of paintings, and within it, the artist's meticulous painting skill brims with profound force. This painting had a far-reaching influence. The artist subsequently expanded his depictions from the mother-son relationship to the entire family, leading to his creation in the same year of Family Portrait No. 1, a painting from the Bloodline: Big Family series, which portrays father, mother, and son. Without a doubt, Bloodline: Mother and Son No.1 marked a crucial turning point in the artist's creative career.

Prior to Bloodline: Mother and Son No.1, Zhang Xiaogang had painted portraits of Ye Yongqing and Mao Xuhui, two members of the Southwestern Art Group. Bloodline: Mother and Son No.1 inherited the progress of these two portraits as the artist began his exploration of family ties while also introducing virtually the entire artistic vocabulary that would characterize his subsequent Bloodline: Big Family series. Among these motifs are the two red lines that join the mother and son to a television and a speaker, as well as the patches of light that cover a quarter of their faces and the combination of the television with a picture of the mother. The entire tableau is framed by a layer of bricks, richly expressed in oil paint, and similar bricks also make up the background, a structure akin to that of the artist's Tian'anmen series of the same year. Occupying the space between their faces is a letter from the son to the mother: "Hi, mom... I am well, you needn't worry. My life is happy, I have work, a place to live, and I needn't worry about clothes, food, or money. My life seems to improve with each passing day. What else is there to be unhappy about, what do I have to be dissatisfied with? What is there to be worried about?" The letter, combined with the musical score of a popular song in the upper portion of the painting, lends an intense contemporary context to the work. These forms of collage and symbolism are integrated into the portrait in a way that expresses how people in China at the time looked back at the country's recent history, including their internal narratives of the Cultural Revolution. These faint reverberations of a unique period in Chinese history are an artistic encapsulation of the weight of society and history: a distinctive feature of contemporary Chinese art. Zhang Xiaogang only produced two paintings on the mother-son theme, the other being Bloodline: Mother and Son No.2, a painting with a yellow base-tone.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Zhang Xiaogang painted dreamy soliloquies in expressionistic and surrealist styles. 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, organized by the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California. But Zhang was 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.”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.”2  

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. Exposure to foreign cultures 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.’”3 Zhang Xiaogang’s stylistic transformation became truly manifest in his painting in 1993, a crucial period during which the painter explored a broader artistic language and recorded his thinking on contemporary Chinese art.

Works from this period are thus extremely rare and precious. After his travels in Europe, Zhang Xiaogang borrowed Mao Xuhui's studio and buried himself in creative work. He first created three Tian'anmen paintings that took as their subject the place that represents supreme power in China. Then he turned to his friends for subject material, painting seven portraits based on their photographs. "Before I went to Germany, I had never truly, intently looked at a Chinese person's face ... why do we paint people brought to us by books and catalogues, and not paint the real, living people around us? It's a puzzling question". Upon returning to China, Zhang Xiaogang finally looked in earnest and in detail at the Chinese face. This epiphany played a tremendous influence on his subsequent work. The people around him became important material as he embarked on a long artistic journey in search of the Chinese face. Zhang sought inspiration in old photographs of his parents in their youth and his own childhood, including sibling and family portraits. These photographs were made during the Cultural Revolution period, prior to China's Opening and Reform era. The faces in them are filled with hope for a future better than the past. The conflicts concealed within these faces seemed to suggest the insignificance and powerlessness of the individual amid the grand tides of history; here, Zhang Xiaogang discovered new possibilities for expressing Chinese history.

These portraits, Bloodline: Mother and Son No.1 among them, depict models including the artist's friends Ye Yongqing, Mao Xuhui, and Chen Weiming. While these paintings retain the Expressionistic brick floor, the portrayals of the people, painted in a Realist fashion, are more fine and detailed. These people are completely different from the artist's later, more androgynous and anonymous portraits, and they represent an important experiment in his early exploration of portraiture. All of these paintings from the period following Zhang's return from Europe share a distinctive visual lexicon, including the Expressionist style, the frame of bricks, and the weather symbols and popular music scores that occupy the artist's canvases from 1993. These styles and symbols only appear in Zhang's work of that year, forming a preface to his later Bloodline: Big Family series. For that series, the artist added through subtraction, simplifying some visual elements and discarding others. His compositions gradually became more flat and smooth, his brushwork more subtle, his subjects more androgynous. As he smoothed away the differentiating characteristics of the people in his paintings, they ceased to resemble individual people and began instead to represent the entire nation.

1 Excerpted from an interview with the artist from the Asia Art Archive’s “Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980-1990,” 1999
2 Ibid
3 Ibid