The Chinese art scene was filled with passion and idealism in the 1980s. After the Cultural Revolution, artists were exposed to foreign ideologies and artistic movements from abroad, which they studied diligently so to develop their own artistic content. Graduating from Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 1977, Zhang Xiaogang was one of the most outstanding students in the Oil Painting Department. At the time, he lived and painted together with his friends Zhou Chunya, Ye Yongqing, and Mao Xuhui. (Fig. 1) They formed tight-knit artistic community in the South-West region of China. The goal of the group was to develop work that explored the essence of life. Later, they all would become important figures in the development of Chinese contemporary art. The political and social turmoil that concluded the 1980s deeply influenced Zhang's painting style. Life and mourning became the focus of his subject matter at the time and he frequently employed the motifs of decapitated heads and dismembered limbs in his work from this period. His treatment of body parts were similar to offerings placed at an altar, unmistakably scenes of mourning. These elements of life and sacrifice continued to appear in his esoteric paintings well into the late 1980s, however, the works became much more symbolic and regional elements diminished. The images produced during this period are filled with an air of oppression. (Fig. 2, 3)
The year 1989 was clearly a pivotal moment for Zhang Xiaogang in which he evolved greatly as an artist, judging from the twenty works he completed in the course of that year. In terms of medium and compositional arrangement, The Black Songs Trilogy: Terror, Meditation, and Melancholy (Fig. 4) are without a doubt the most impressively scaled paintings that he produced that year; Three Black Songs: Melancholy (Lot 62) in particular, holds special significance amongst the three. Between late-1989 and early-1990, Zhang Xiaogang had painted the two earlier works from the series, intending to only submit those two works into the China's New Art, Post-1989 touring exhibition. He later felt that there was still room for development and subsequently painted the perfect conclusion to the series – Melancholy . The following year, Melancholy was selected as a solo work by curator Richard E. Strassberg to participate in the exhibition entitled “I Don't Want to Play Cards With Cezanne" and Other Works: Selections from the Chinese "New Wave" and "Avant-Garde" Art of the Eighties held at the Pacific Asia Museum in the United States. This exhibition captured precisely the shock-wave that rushed through China in the late 1980s that heavily influenced Chinese artists. The group exhibition showed works by Wang Guangyi, Zhang Peili, Ye Youngqing, Xu Bing, and other artists whose works embodied the spirit of the decade. The touring exhibition was ultimately cut short because of a lack of funding, to such an extent that the works could not be returned to China. As a result, those works serendipitously made their way into the homes of local collectors. Mao Xuhui's 1989 painting Human Figure in White: Escape (Fig. 5) also offered in this season's auctions was also included in this historic exhibition.
The bold and decisive brushwork in Zhang Xiaogang's Melancholy shattered the stylistic constraints of his previous nuanced and delicate Surrealist works. By collaging objects onto the canvas, the sense of space in the composition is intensified, recalling American Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg's composite works. The wrinkled burlap sack on the upper left corner enhances the heightened sense of three-dimensionality and realism on the otherwise flat surface of the work, emphasising the texture of the piece to a great effect. Similar to the works of 20th century Italian painter Alberto Burri, the materiality of the media stimulates hidden emotion within the audience. “The trauma of the painting” reveals the psychological damage that cast a long shadow on society after the World War II. (Fig. 6) The rusty window frame on the upper right corner creates a sort of trompe l'oeil that further enhances a sense of spatiality within this confined universe. The red collage featured on the middle-right side of the painting is especially prominent. Viewers will immediately associate this element with danger warnings, blood, and violence. Placed in the context of the social environment at the time, it cautions viewers to rationally examine issues of life and death. Like an epic poem, this work urges the viewer to consider the past, present, and future. This kind of longitudinal thinking is not dissimilar to the core concepts found of works by German painter Anselm Kiefer.
While the figures in the other two Black Song paintings look like ceramic mannequins, the portrait in Melancholy is very life-like. The rendering of this figure conveys genuine emotion, vividly expressing his personality. Holding his head in his hand, the figure contemplates silently with his eyes closed. Confronted with all the uncertainties within society, Zhang has channelled his tremendous sense of misery and grief through this figure. The facial features of the figure and the stationary from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute on the desk suggest that this work is autobiographical; yet, the shaved-head and highly stylized treatment of the figure denies any references to a specific person. The figure takes on the symbolic role of the everyman, and metaphorically, the painting expresses how the great waves of a collective society can drown the individual. A single peach blossom branch in the foreground provides a strong juxtaposition to the gloomy atmosphere of the overall work. Symbolizing the way in which natural world cyclically rejuvenates itself, through the passing of winter and the coming of spring, the branch also represents the confidence and optimism that the artist has for the future, thus resolving the trilogy on a hopeful note.
The Three Black Songs: Melancholy features a refined system of symbolism, the expressive brushwork heightening the spatial tension within the picture. In contrast, this unified composition is also rife with emotional turmoil. It expresses the conflicted feelings that the artist experienced during this time, in an era when foreign knowledge was beginning to spread. Countless Western literature, philosophy, and art books became the intellectual nourishment of this generation. Zhang Xiaogang was engrossed in the Existential philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. The three fundamental propositions of Existentialism are “existence precedes essence,” “the world is absurd, humans are miserable and lonely,” and “humans have the freedom to choose, and they have to be responsible for their choices.” It succinctly declares that society cannot satisfy the pursuits of the individual. In addition, Zhang Xiaogang strongly identified with the tragic music of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky– echoes of these heartrending melodys can be sensed in his early works, especially in Melancholy. On one hand, Zhang admired the diverse ideologies and aesthetics from the West; on the other hand, he also painstakingly reflected upon the nature of his Chinese identity. This process of internal cultural collision set Zhang Xiaogang on a path of new artistic exploration. By using a myriad of symbols in his paintings, he weaves together a network of ideas and philosophical musings. Melancholy is the milestone that marks his achievement in developing this personal visual language.