Guardian of the Grand Narrative
A Transitional Painting by Zhang Xiaogang
Created in 1991, Guardian (Lot 872) was one of the most important works by Zhang Xiaogang in the post-89 period. The work serves as a lineage to the monumental triptych Forever Lasting Love exhibited at the “China/Avant Garde” exhibition, encapsulating the artist’s overall reflection of life after the creation of Phantom and Lost Dream series. Bearing the surrealistic flare that is signatory in his early works, Guardian is an exceptionally mature work that illustrates the artist’s concern on the religious motif of life, death, and loneliness. Considering the period of its creation, Guardian was produced after the controversial political event of 1989, further highlighting the artist’s pessimistic feeling towards the unpredictability of life and the helplessness of one during periods of political turmoil. Aesthetically, the present work serves as a core foundation towards his later works, most notably on the immensely iconic dark colour tone that defines the Private Notes series from 1991, the Chapter of a New Century - Birth of the People’s Republic of China that exhibited at the first Guangzhou Biennial in 1992, and the Bloodline: Big Family series that participated at the São Paulo Biennial and Venice Biennale. It is difficult to find Zhang Xiaogang’s works that were produced in the period after Forever Lasting Love, hence Guardian is proved to be extremely rare and precious.
Works by Zhang Xiaogang in the 1980s were mainly focused on the artist’s personal reflection of life, merging the aesthetics of both post-impressionism and surrealism. Along with other members from the “Southwest Art Research Group”, these artists would represent the “Stream of Life”, a major artistic trend in the 1980s. After the Cultural Revolution, different stylistic waves have emerged, with “Scar Art” taking over the artistic scene in Sichuan. Although an honest attitude towards the reality of life, as advocated by the “Current of Life”, another major trend, was widely prevalent during 1982, the trend was short lived, with works quickly becoming kitsch and commercial items instead. Thus, critics from Beijing have widely despised the art scene from Sichuan, considering them to be “rural art”. After going through a brief phase of lyrical expressionism, during this period Zhang Xiaogang entered into the “Demon Period”. Heavily influenced by expressionism and early El Greco styles from 1514 – 1614 that stressed on the painful imagery and suppression of the inner mind, the pessimism and solemn vibe of the Ghost series slowly transformed into symbols of river, religious figures, baby, revealing a body of works that concentrates on a religious concern of humanity. Two examples are the Phantom series and Lost Dream series, where the artist presents religious settings and figures, persistently searching for the shore of enlightenment in his inner heart. Ancient tribal members, nude female forms, and devils, are important motifs that appeared in his works during this time, symbolizing life and death. The triptych Forever Lasting Love from 1988 would also be the masterpiece by the artist from this period.
In truth, 1989 was a year of clash and divergence. The exhibition “China/Avant Garde” at the beginning of the year marked the ending of the “Great Soul” discussion during the 85 New Wave movement. The political events that followed further defeat the pure and impulsive notion of idealism and literati passion within many artists. The changing society had certainly allowed the artist to think differently. Although works from 1989 to 1991 all continued the style and figurative elements of Forever Lasting Love, such as the character in qi pao (Chinese dress), white bed sheets, flower, and books, however, the subject matter has essentially been shifted to the theme of mourning and tragedy. Guardian and Vast Ocean and Insomniac Martyr from the same period are of the same origin, imbuing with a memorial sense of heaviness and solemn atmosphere. In the center of Guardian is a half figure lying on the ground, his closed eyes suggest that he might already have passed away, leading to the man next to him to quietly pray, protecting the last moment of life. This inevitably leads one to ponder on the fragility and insignificance of life, that resemble the helpless fate of Chinese people under the grand historical narrative. In the same year Zhang Xiaogang began to create the Private Notes series, where the artistic styles took on a darker, more solemn tone, revealing the scars in history and the artist’s examination of fate. Of these, we can already find them from Guardian, thus showing that this work is no doubt one of the most important works that witness the artist’s major stylistic transition in early 1990s.