The monumental Big Family No. 16
is a tremendously rare masterpiece from Zhang’s seminal Bloodline
series – one of only three works with a five-person composition ever created by the artist. An earlier version, created in 1997, is smaller in dimension, while the other is a painting from 2008, featuring a straight-line configuration of figures, and resides in the collection of the Fondation Louis Vuitton. The present Big Family No. 16
was executed in 1998, half a decade after the inception of the series when his Bloodline
visual lexicon had achieved full maturity. Attaining classical perfection in compositional symmetry and rendering, the portrait features a young androgynous couple with three children, each in distinctive attire: the father in a Mao suit, the mother in a unisex shirt and cardigan, the brother in revolutionary cap and uniform and the sister in a Westernized school dress. At the center is a toddler perched on a highchair: naked from the waist down with his little penis exposed, he is singled out in a vivid shade of magenta. Standing rigidly, emotionally isolated from each other and from themselves, the five figures are nevertheless joined by Zhang’s iconic red bloodlines. In the early 1990s, Zhang’s Bloodline
paintings received instant international acclaim for encapsulating the psychological disposition of an entire generation; as one of only two works from the 1990s with the five-person composition, Big Family No. 16
symbolizes one of the greatest achievements in the artist’s career.
Inspired by old family photos, the singular aesthetic mode opened up by Zhang’s Bloodline
lexicon is underlain by a rich range of influence from artistic trends and personal experiences during two dense decades of societal and cultural shifts. Zhang’s teenage years coincided with the Cultural Revolution: in 1968, his parents were sent away for re-education, his father to the countryside and his mother to Chengdu. Afterwards, as part of the first graduating class of 1982 from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, Zhang’s earliest artistic influences beyond Socialist Realism included Jean-François Millet and Vincent Van Gogh. Zhang soon mastered technical command of various lineages of Western oil painting, and for his graduation project, he travelled to the Tibetan plateau, painting the ethnic peoples with experimental lyrical expressionism and emotion-filled brushwork. After graduation, Zhang’s works across the 1980s engaged with Surrealism, symbolism, trompe l’oeil
and a number of modern Western styles. In the ’85 Movement, Zhang played a leading role in the Southwestern Art Research Group: while the Northern Artists Group, led by Wang Guangyi, focused on rationalism and idealism, the Southwestern Group focused on Western modernism and individualistic expression.
From the ’85 Movement to the nascence of the Bloodline
series in 1993, two important milestones occurred. The first is the defining political events of 1989, which sparked a critical transition in Zhang’s mindset from individualistic introspection to emphatic explorations of the linkages between art and reality, self and history. It was during this period from 1989 to 1992 that the patches of light, so prevalent within the Bloodline
paintings, first appeared in Zhang’s works. Always spilling from the right side of the canvas and illuminating sections of his subject’s faces, these pools of light manifest as presences of the real world – “acknowledg[ing] the reality of the natural world, and yet [maintaining] a strong subjective resonance” (Jonathan Fineberg and Gary G. Xu, eds., Zhang Xiaogang: Disquieting Memories
, London, 2015, p. 66). The connection between the subjective self and external reality forms a key part of Zhang’s artistic and philosophical enquiry: for him, the “ambiguities” or “in-betweenness” of art brings him “closer to reality” (ibid
). Zhang began to develop what he called “psychological realism” – one that “projects shadows onto [his heart]” (ibid
). Gradually, the patches of light became abstract and expressionistic, eventually taking the form of the aberrant splatches of colour in his Bloodline
works. Reminiscent of aged film or birth marks, these patches interrupt the otherwise greyscale palette of the series, representing vestiges of individual histories within nationalistic collectivism.
The second milestone leading up to Bloodline
was Zhang’s four-month trip to Germany in 1992. During his brief time in Europe, two artists influenced Zhang profoundly: Gerhard Richter and René Magritte. Whereas Richter’s treatment of photographs inspired Zhang’s attention to the private and collective histories behind photos, Magritte’s whimsical fantasies influenced Zhang’s gradual detachment from anguished pathos and tormented turmoil towards a more distanced, collected approach to art and expression. Zhang wrote: “Calm yet irrational, imaginative but restrained, realistic and terrifying but at the same time alienating, using visible objects to bring thoughts into an invisible tunnel, depicting an indescribable, mysterious philosophy […] this charisma of Magritte’s has enchanted me all these years. It has also become the standard to which I hold my art and the state that I hope I will someday achieve. Through [Magritte and de Chirico] I learned how to ‘keep a distance’ when examining our heavy history or facing our ever-changing reality” (Zhang Xiaogang, ‘My Soul Mate Magritte’, in Art World
No. 5, 2001).
Beginning shortly after Zhang’s return to China, Zhang’s Bloodline works resonate with a uncannily enthralling aura that combines the poignancy of old photographs – lost moments in time – with a disquieting surrealist style. By usurping the photographic medium’s claims to objectivity, Zhang reopens a chapter from the past and enlivens its discourse with painterly ambiguity. The impassive and icy stares of his protagonists, inaccessible and indifferent, do not coerce us into an emotional response or any reading of narrative; rather, their grey apparitions beckon silently as flat relics of a familiar history, now emptied of its currency and rendered obsolete. Albeit united via facial features, posture, uniform, and the symbolic red bloodlines, Zhang’s figures remain disconnected, inaccessible not just to viewers but to each other, bringing to mind the provoking indifference and emotional isolation of the figures in Manet’s Le Balcon. As such, Zhang constructs an open-ended remedy for dealing with a complex cultural past; his relived uneasy nostalgia of an ideologically extreme period, now a bygone era, and the traumas it enacted and left behind. Through his expressionless and disconnected figures the artist looks back on the flux of history with no certain terms, taking back the claimed objectivity of a family photograph and questioning notions of subjectivity, selfhood, and otherness within the complex construction of modern China’s identity.
The enduring aesthetic resonance of Zhang’s era-defining Bloodline paintings constituted an instant and enduring impact on the history of Chinese contemporary art and the globalized cultural dialogue of which it has become a profound contingent. Within the tides of international trends, Zhang remains wholly idiosyncratic: while he 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 genuinely personal vision. Along a similar vein, although the Bloodline paintings are often described, even by Zhang himself, as completing his transition from an “expressionistic” to “surrealistic” mode, such terms of Western modernism are not entirely accurate. “Repressive” is perhaps a better description, for the moments of surrealism are not there to express, but instead to conceal, resist, and thus draw attention said concealment. With one formulaic beautiful face after another, each connected by exquisitely fragile crimson bloodlines, Zhang’s superlative oeuvre encapsulates the artist’s private familial memories, the collective psychological histories, dreams, and disillusions of an estranged generation, as well as his epochal position in global art history.