The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China


Zhang Xiaogang
Signed in Chinese and Pinyin, and dated 1996
oil on canvas
188.5 by 149 cm.; 74 1/4 by 58 5/8 in.
參閱狀況報告 參閱狀況報告


Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong


Belgium, Oostende, Museum voor Moderne Kunst, René Magritte and the Contemporary Art, 1998
China, Macau, Contemporary Art Centre of Macau, FUTUROE Chinese Contemporary Art, 2000, p. 62
France, Aix-en-Provence, L'Espace Sextus, Un Été Chinois, July-September 2004


The First Academic Exhibition of Chinese Contemporary Art 96-97, Lingnan Fine Art Publishing, China, 1996, p. 54
Umbilical Cord of History, Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong, 2004, p. 89



The 1989 exhibition "China/Avant Garde" is a true milestone in the life of artist Zhang Xiaogang. Xiao Lu's gunshot, a letter suggesting bomb threats, dramatic turns of events forced shut the show—charged with a brooding tension, the event mirrored the volatile political atmosphere of the time. In the reverberation of the Tiananmen Square Incident, contemporary Chinese artists are pushed to ponder their creative paths, a fate escaping not even Zhang Xiaogang. Bloodline: Chen Weimin (Lot 827) preceded Big Family Series. It is one of only seven exploratory works executed by the artist right before he embarked onto his most celebrated series of all time—the painting offers pivotal clues and illuminating evidence on how the artist arrived at his very own pictorial language.

"After 1989, I underwent a mental regroup of sorts and discovered that I'm not a culturally conscious artist. There is no sensitivity to macro concerns in me...what am I?...Pay more attention to societal issues? I don't think I can. Eventually, I decided that I am of the Kafka variety—I concentrate on the smaller things. I'm not sure how to describe it, perhaps internal monologue." Such is the conclusion of Zhang Xiaogang—his course is not toward an artistic revolution complete with battle cries and heated protest but a contemplative journey into his inner psyche.

Yet what is his art? In 1992, upon the completion of the pair of Chapter of a New Century's and the last two of his Private Notes Series, Zhang Xiaogang travelled to Germany. Works from this phase reveal a patent Expressionist tone in his use of vivid colours that contrast against each other and a pervasive aura of passion and dynamism. After seeing the original masterpieces of German Expressionism, however, the artist realized that "my works are nothing like theirs." Influences of Expressionism have since departed from his artistic imagination. After a visual inundation of Western modern classics, a desire to re-examine his native Chinese culture is incited. "I shall be a Chinese artist, I resolve to concentrate on Chinese contemporary art"—with this resolution installed in his mind, Zhang Xiaogang returned to China. "It is after my return from Germany that I truly saw, for the first time, the face of a Chinese."

Upon his return to Kunming, Zhang Xiaogang borrowed good friend Mao Xuhui's studio and worked furiously. The first group of works capitalized on the fraught space of Tiananmen Square, a site of the highest authority yet also the most communal. "Tiananmen Square looks somewhat different after my sojourn in a foreign country." The artist began to take pictures of his comrades and with these, he ventured into portraiture painting. A set of seven portraits was made, precursors to the Big Family Series, which alternatively was based on photographs from the Cultural Revolution. Bloodline: Chen Weimin is one of the seven and catches the artist in the midst of moving away from Expressionism and into Surrealism. Found also are the floating red hand from Private Notes as well as the bloodlines and colour patches that were to appear in Big Family Series.

Expressionism has become a mere stylistic tool for Zhang Xiaogang, wielded without the requisite fervour or underlying exuberance. The stone border that frames the composition constitutes the remnants of the artist's expressionist impulses. The protagonist, on the other hand, is deprived of any depth or volume, rendering the space in which he dwells Surrealist, as if trapped in a dreamscape. In acknowledgement of his artistic breakthrough, Zhang explains, "I've removed Expressionism from my art. Expressionism, to me, is a stylistic approach catered to the macro—on the cursory, it seems an outburst of ardour, a release of zeal, but in reality it is a grievance directed to the society, its flaws and its injustices. That is not what I want to discuss. Surrealism addresses the reveries of the individual. Aspects of a dream amount to an unadulterated reflection of an inner self, something that can never be grasped. However, a surrealist mode is capable of articulating only the subconscious. I am merely borrowing Surrealism to investigate the intricate workings of a Chinese psyche."

As was his impetus behind Big Family Series, Zhang Xiaogang sought in Bloodline: Chen Weimin to capture the collective consciousness of the Chinese people under a socialist regime. His portraits during this time each boasted individualistic characters with discrete attributes and personal idosyncracies, a creative decision that would lose more and more ground as figures in the later works of Bloodline become less and less differentiated. Zhang Xiaogang's pensive portraits of faces slightly distorted and refracted are his earnest efforts at drawing onto his canvas the face of China.

Old photographs provided a basis for Bloodline: Big Family Series. Sometimes a father, a mother and a child, sometimes two children, sometimes only the father, sometimes only the mother—facial features are deliberately simplified at every instance. Irrespective of actual identity, irrespective of gender, irrespective of attire, each family member is depicted staring straight ahead, yet in truth sightless, confused, hollow. The psychological distance made manifest by the absence of facial expressions shatters any residual assumption of familial attachment. A Surrealist rendering of the overall configuration enhances the feeling of detachment, an unfortunate result of the Cultural Revolution's assault on family ties and relations. The significance of Zhang Xiaogang's Big Family Series lies in this: is simultaneously a symbolic and literal representation of a disoriented generation, post-Cultural Revolution. Imprisoned within those hazy eyes, lost souls lament their ponderous legacy of a broken country.

An alter-ego of Zhang Xiaogang, maybe even an alter-ego of the community of Chinese contemporary artists, Big Family Series was shown at the 1995 Venice Biennale and the 1994 São Paulo Biennial. Invitations to these distinguished fairs and exhibitions of uncontested international standing propelled the artist's professional career to new heights. It was also at this time when his wife gave birth to daughter Huanhuan, affecting further changes in his way of life and direction of thought. Yellow Baby (Lot 828) is one of very few works based on Zhang Xiaogang's beloved daughter. "I never drew children, until I had a child. I started thinking about the bond between an adult and a child, then onto the connection between my and my parent's generations... in the process, I can't avoid exploring the relationship between my parents. I hope to experience all of these and see how they feel."

Babies have come to recur quite frequently in Zhang Xiaogang's oeuvre. In recent works, the artist continues to favour the motif—the baby is the artist, the baby is also the viewers, passing every day vicariously for them. Zhang Xiaogang states his philosophy, "what I am concerned with is the meaning behind, the value in, the position of an existence in this society." The baby arrives in China, much like Kafka's Gregor Samsa, observing, experiencing and living.

The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China