The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China


Zhang Xiaogang
All three are signed in Chinese on the reverse, framed
oil on canvas
Each: 125 by 97.5 cm.; 49 1/4 by 38 3/8 in.
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Left : Christie's Hong Kong, 27 May, 2007, lot 390
Centre and Right: Great Wall Museum, Beijing



China, Chengdu, Southwestern Modern Art Exhibition, 1988
China, Beijing, National Art Gallery, China/Avant-Garde, 5 to 19 February 1989, plate 73


Art, March 1989, p. 34
Valerie C. Doran ed., China's New Art, Post-1989, Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong, 2001, p. XCV
Zhao Li, Yu Ding, Documents of Chinese Oil Painting 1542-2000, Hunan Fine Art Publishing House, 2002, p. 1450
Anne Lemonnier, ed., Alors, la Chine?, Editions du Centre Pompidou, Paris, France, 2003, p. 246
Gao Minglu, The Wall: Reshaping Contemporary Chinese Art, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, University at Buffalo Art Galleries, New York and Millennium Art Museum, Beijing, 2005, p. 99
Tang Xin, Hua Jiadi - Interviews of Contemporary Chinese Artists 1979-2004, China Talents Press, 2005, p. 48

Dian Tong, China! New Art & Artists, Schiffer Publishing, USA, 2005, p. 19
Yang Qianqian, Lü Peng ed., Zhang Xiaogang, Sichuan Fine Art Publishing House, 2007, p. 38
Art Value, No. 29, Sept. 2009, China, p. 60
Victoria Lu ed., 100 Contemporary Chinese Artist Collection - Zhang Xiaogang, Modern Press, 2009, pp. 35-36
Lü Peng, A History of Art in Twentieth Century China, Peking University Press, Beijing, China, 2009, p. 922


Please note that one panel of the triptych was sold after it had been exhibited at China/Avant Garde in 1989. The same panel was then retrieved at auction, so as to reunite the entire triptych once again for the first time since 1989.


The majestic triptych of Forever Lasting Love (Lot 808) is the first creative pinnacle of Zhang Xiaogang's illustrious career. It is also a grand finale to an early phase of his artistic journey, laying the groundwork for all that is to transpire. Included in the seminal exhibition "China/Avant-Garde" held at the National Art Gallery in Beijing in 1989, the work is a synthesis of his early, important Lost Dreams Series and Ghost Series. Very few works were executed in this style, one that is characterized by a modernist lyricism, as if
they were pictorializations of private poetry. Directly out of this early body of work arose Chapter of a New Century—Birth of the People's Republic of China shown at "The First Guangzhou Biennial, Oil Painting in the 1990s" and Bloodlines: Big Family Series shown respectively at "The São Paulo Art Biennial" and "The
Venice Biennale," marking the trajectory of Zhang Xiaogang's artistic maturation.

Forever Lasting Love represents the artist's most concerted effort at his search for life. Zhang Xiaogang recalls, "I was reading quite a bit about Eastern philosophy at the time, theories on Mysticism as well Surrealism. The thematic basis of this painting is built upon the dichotomy of life and death, thus I gave it the name 'Forever Lasting Love." It is also my very first triptych ever." Its visual field expansive, its content multicultural, the picture touches upon the shared cultural condition of the earthly realm. Standing apart from the Northern movement of "Rational Painting," Zhang Xiaogang and Mao Xuhui of Kunming championed instead the "Current of Life Painting," an axis of the "Southwestern Art Group" that they later co-established with other artists. Group members would delve into their mental landscapes in pursuit of an inner life-force, which they then transmitted onto the canvas so as to incite a resonance and to build a rapport with their audience. Pensive and introverted since the very beginning, Zhang Xiaogang garnished Forever Lasting Love with strong religious overtones, betraying compelling influences from Western philosophy and art. It reveals also the artist's relentless quest for the "far shore" of his psyche, spiritually as well as artistically. An emancipation of the self? Or a salvation of the self? Such are the hopes of Zhang Xiaogang as he wends his dogged way toward discovering his internal truth and his desired expression, a mission that will ultimately set him apart from all the other artists of his generation.

"Scar Art" emerged from Sichuan after the Cultural Revolution. Around the year 1982, a trend akin to "Current of Life Painting" came into fashion, where artists sought to encounter daily life with sobriety and sincerity. Unfortunately, the movement quickly fell into the insidious claws of commercialism and thus compelling Beijing art critics to dismiss painting from Sichuan as "Folk Art." After a brief spell during which he produced his early expressionist works, the artist descended into emotional shambles. Plagued by physical illness, Zhang Xiaogang laid down on canvas his internal struggles and psychological ache with the help of expressionism and El Greco. The gnarled, dark and dank imagery points unceremoniously toward the artist's own despondence, distress, solitude and agony. In 1985, the "New Figurative Painting" exhibition mounted by Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui and fellow artists was a quintessential modernist show. Zhang, Mao, Ye Yongqing and Pan Dehai showed their individual interpretations of modern painting. The exhibition represented their earnest retort at the same critics who had previously trivialized the art from their resident region as folk. They were declaring that modernism was germinating in the Southwest and would continue to thrive. Another exhibition, "Southwestern  Modern Art Exhibition, 1988" was held in 1988 and it was for this occasion, Zhang Xiaogang painted Forever Lasting Love.

Forever Lasting Love was conceived at the onset of a time of professional success and burgeoning fame. Disenchanting and insalubrious experiences of the past were cast aside as Zhang Xiaogang went to become instructor at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts and started a family. The same poeticism then resurfaced in his work. The artist remained passionate about modern Western philosophy, literature and art, with which he was indoctrinated, and so never ceased discussions with his mates despite a transformation of disposition. Topics, however,  veered away from an absolute pessimism about life and onto its inherent significance as well as problems. Zhang writes in a letter to good friend Mao Xuhui, "Artists often appear to be vulnerable and helpless in social settings, yet they are the ones who possess a tremendous potential and an uncanny ability to express and capture the human soul in visual form."

A metaphor is struck, a world is constructed within Forever Lasting Love. Within a setting meticulously contrived, skulls of cows and goats, derived from the Zhang Xiaogang's not-sodistant memory of a Tibetan excursion, are complemented with a male figure, the artist's proxy, and his female companion. Animals and plants are life forms, so are human beings, who happen to fall in love, come into conflict or look into each other's eyes. The juxtaposition of a baby against corpses lying underground symbolizes the coexistence of life and death. The featured couple then corresponds to the artist himself and his partner in reality.

Compared to his earlier works that exhibit an expressionist lyricism, Forever Lasting Love has departed from a tendency to emulate Western representational conventions. Having escaped from a nadir in his personal life, Zhang Xiaogang reacquainted himself with an unperturbed and optimistic approach to life. Simultaneously completed, the Forever Lasting Love and the heavily Surrealist early works such as Lost Dreams Series, Christ and Buddha (Lot 809), etc., constitute the artist's repeated attempts at composing visual sonnets that sing of his very own soul. They are without narrative continuity yet rich with Zhang Xiaogang's spiritual consciousness. Aborigines, religious figures, animals, brown earth and the holy baby are motifs bursting with symbolism— they reflect the artist's penchant for careful studies on the nature of life as well as religion.

Zhang Xiaogang was experimenting with a new method of creation at this time. What he did was to spread paint onto the paper, at which point he would etch with a knife the contours of his composition. Afterward, he then polished selected areas of unevenness so that only a thin layer of paint would cover any given region of the surface. Wielding this method, Zhang Xiaogang would craft collages that combined painting with fabric strips. He would also make straightforward paintings, of which he has created very few. Forever Lasting Love is one such example, rare not only in its medium but also its larger size. Zhang Xiaogang and his "Southwestern Art Group" cohort shared a vision, "To transcend territorial confines and reach for a greater cultural condition, discover a unifying language for the human civilization." A utopianism ran rampant in China of the 1980s and Forever Lasting Love is a compelling pictorial testament to the broad, expansive vision of a Chinese contemporary artist of the times. Compared to his Bloodlines: Big Family Series, the more personal Amnesia and Memory Series and Green Wall Series, Forever Lasting Love is the artist's meditation on the condition of humanity, a care he rarely expresses. Bucolic in its atmosphere and primitivist in its mode, the composition captures praise and affirmation for life while inciting optimism and courage in encountering its daily challenges. For Zhang Xiaogang himself and for the Chinese nation, the work constitutes a visual document of the ambitions of Chinese contemporary artists of the 1980s, painting persistently to communicate with the world surrounding themselves.

The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China