"We were, in earnest, living together in a "big family". In this big family, one had to learn how to manoeuvre a variety of "bloodline" relationships — biological bloodlines, social bloodlines, cultural bloodlines, and so on."
Superlatively iconic and consummately executed, Bloodlines, The Big Family was executed in 1999 at the apex of Zhang’s career, when his seminal Bloodline visual lexicon had reached full maturity in terms of both style and technique. Zhang Xiaogang’s era-defining Bloodline series, created in endless permutations over the years, is an epochal visual encapsulation of the inescapability of familial and socio-political ties that bind people together – laterally, within present society, as well as throughout history. Exhibited and critically acclaimed in many important international art festivals, most notably the Sao Pãulo Biennial and the Venice Biennale, the series was initially inspired by old family photographs from the Cultural Revolution. Intrigued by the stiff dispositions and facial demeanours within these photographs, the artist documents the scarred memories of his previous generations with his wholly unique visual language – one inspired by photo-realism as well as magical realism and which engages poignantly with collective national memory and Chinese identity. The series began in 1993; after a few years of development, Zhang’s aesthetic evolved from his previous expressionist style towards a unique surrealist vision – one which solidified the series’s idiosyncratic theme of national memory. A mature and accomplished archetypal work, Bloodlines, The Big Family features the most prominent three-person composition of the series, and while the majority of Zhang’s paintings feature sons, the present work features the considerably rarer combination of a mother, a father and a daughter. The daughter in the painting dons the red neckerchief of the Young Pioneers, imbuing the lot on offer with heightened historical meaning and metaphor in relation to the idiosyncratic course of Chinese history.
Zhang gave birth to the Bloodline series in the summer of 1993 in Kunming. The immediate prototypes of these works are formal group photographic portraits from the 1950s and 1960s, including those of Zhang’s own family. From these old black-and-white pictures Zhang derived the series’ most defining 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 vintage and damaged photographs. Rooted in the primordial importance of the concept of family in Chinese culture, the series’s origin in the genre of the family portrait evokes extraordinary resonance and compelling psychological power. The critic Johnson Chang has written, “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” (Johnson Chang, “Between Reality and Illusion,” in Diancang, p. 168). 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” (Umbilical Cord, p. 37).
As the series progressed and matured, Zhang’s works achieved increasingly a signature aesthetic. The facial features, lit from the right without exception, exhibit faded contours in a diffused chiaroscuro to merge dreamily with the grey backgrounds. The watery eyes hint at traumatic memories beneath the dazed and blank faces, pointing to history as well as interiority - Zhang’s own emotional investment in his subjects. On the other hand, the eyes - the key to the subject’s presence in traditional portraits and religious icons alike - are unrealistically jet-black and oversized, and being invariably unfocused or directed off-axis, they remain spiritually vacant. The translucency is achieved through numerous virtuosically applied layers; Zhang reflects: “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”. 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”.
With solemn, quietly unsettling and icy cold exteriors, Zhang’s portraits unravel hidden tensions in politics and history. Prominent critic Karen Smith writes of Zhang’s 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 hand-colored photographic snapshots of the proletariat post-1949, these are sensibilities that Zhang Xiaogang renders accessible to all”. While Zhang is sometimes uncomfortably labelled as a Cynical Realist, Arne Glimcher observes that “Zhang Xiaogang’s works are anything but cynical”, aspiring instead to create a personal vision. Stemming from Zhang Xiaogang’s personal preoccupation with the memory of his family, the iconic Big Family series 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. A superlative painting from Zhang's most prominent series, Bloodlines, The Big Family encapsulates the artist's paramount position in Chinese art history.