American filmmaker Oliver Stone has been an avid and adventuresome collector of contemporary art for over twenty years. From the earliest of his filmmaking career, Mr. Stone's projects brought him to Asia, giving him access not only to locations suitable for his films, but also to the earliest stages of the breathtaking modernization projects that would propel the continent into the 21st century and set the stage for the most unprecedented breaks with traditional art and culture in recent history. Asian contemporary art became a cornerstone of his collecting interests, and with an auteur's eye, he sought out some of the finest examples from China's burgeoning avant-garde. Including paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Wei, Tang Zhigang, and Gu Wenda, Mr. Stone gravitated to works by artists who in turn have proved to be visionaries in their fields, artists whose works point to and precipitated powerful new and influential directions in Chinese contemporary art. Highlighted by major works from the period between 1992 and 1995, these paintings from the collection of Oliver Stone feature artists who emphasized subjective, intuitive and personal visions, asserting intimate and poetic experiences above the official narrative of Chinese history, creating a radical new vision of contemporary Chinese experience.
Following the first years of reform in the post-Mao period, China quickly entered a period of unprecedented economic and cultural transformation. Restrictions to foreign materials loosened, and by the mid-1980s, the nation was swept up in debates surrounding the direction of Chinese modern culture, culture befitting a modern nation-state. These utopic and euphoric debates took a decided turn after the Tian'anmen Square tragedy in Beijing in June of 1989. As a result, many avant-garde artists took a turn towards more personal and oblique visions, highlighting their own subjective and often disillusioned states, attempting to reveal conditions and impulses beneath the surface of everyday life, contributing to one of the most radical breaks with tradition in Chinese art history.
The centerpiece of the collection is Zhang Xiaogang's masterful Bloodline: Big Family, No. 2 (Lot 502) from 1995. Zhang Xiaogang's "Bloodline" paintings are among the best-recognized and most iconic works of Chinese contemporary art. 1995 in particular was a critical year for the artist, witnessing Zhang's first appearance at the Venice Biennale, cementing his status as one of the strongest voices of the Chinese avant-garde, and this monumental canvas represents one of Zhang's most profound and sophisticated statements. In this painting, Zhang uses his own family as a medium and metaphor for expressing his vision of contemporary Chinese life, the grave burden of the past and his fragile hope for the future.
Humanism & Portraiture Traditions
As a member of the Southwest China Art Group in the mid-1980s, alongside such artists as Ye Yongqing and Mao Xuhui, Zhang Xiaogang pursued a deeply personal, allegorical painting style, directing his academic training towards an attempt to address a kind of collective Chinese "spirit", one that transcends and yet is not quite exempt from the vagaries and traumas of history. From the earliest stages of his career, Zhang has sought to develop a visual symbolic system that could encompass both extremes of personal as well as collective experience. He drew from religious, Surrealist, and nativist traditions, a fusion that moved towards creating a vernacular Chinese art, independent of the strictures of "official", state-sanctioned aesthetic production, and one dialectically engaged with the issues confronting the country. His paintings were marked by themes of martyrdom, mourning, and sacrifice.
Zhang Xiaogang's humanistic concerns led him inexorably toward the genre of portraiture. Zhang's approach to portraiture represents his ongoing synthesis of Eastern and Western aesthetic traditions. In Chinese tradition, portraiture is less oriented towards a realistic representation and instead is often a "portrait" of social personhood as expressed in details contributing to mood, ambience, material possessions and, implicitly, social status. In the context of the aesthetic prerogatives of the People's Republic of China, "portraiture" as such was further remolded from the Western tradition of realism through observation to suit the ideological necessities of Chinese Socialist Realism, featuring either known historical figures or heroically idealized types.
In 1993, Zhang painted an important, breakthrough series of portraits featuring relatives, close friends, and fellow artists. While each painting bears a distinct resemblance to Zhang's chosen subjects, the artist's object was less to create a likeness than to paint a portrait of the "human condition". This series also introduces the use of yellow or red in skin tones, marking the beginning of Zhang's exploration of a monochromatic palette to metaphorically represent his subject's purity. The figures appear in spartan interiors, sometimes resembling prison cells, with stones recalling the imperial tiles of the Forbidden City and Tian'anmen Square. Zhang's move away from allegory and towards portraits of individuals close to him represented a radical and critical change in his practice. These works are portraits in the traditional sense of the representation of a likeness, but they are also subjective representations of the uniqueness and innocence of an individual's spirit. These works also included some of the earliest appearances of the "bloodlines" as symbolic motifs; set against a stark room, Zhang's red "bloodline" is literally a conduit linking the individual with their relationship and obligations to society.
With the advent of his Bloodlines series in 1993, Zhang's themes and imagery reached an economy of power and new emotional gravitas. Having discovered a trove of old family photographs, Zhang began to center on the family - and in particular the loaded notion of the family during the Cultural Revolution - as the central metaphor for understanding his own and his country's history, and the way in which past events and experiences continue to haunt and inform the present. The innovation of an explicitly photography-based genre allowed Zhang to introduce a higher degree of formalism to his compositions, as well as more expansive cultural and historical resonances.
Zhang's appropriation of photography-based compositional styles honors both the spirit of ancestor portraits as well as the modern function of commercial studio portraiture in China. Traditional ancestor portraits were not conventional representations of individuals, but were sumptuous reminders of the pre-eminence of history and the value of honoring ones ancestors. They were typically painted posthumously, manifesting traditional Confucian ideals of filial piety, family loyalty, and continuity of family lineage. Modern studio portraiture in China held a somewhat similar commemorative function, but as an inherently democratic medium, studio portraits forego the idealization inherent to painted portraits; instead, they are depictions of individuals taken in real time, capturing their idiosyncrasies and humble particularities as they present themselves for posterity.
Significantly, the images Zhang references were taken during the Cultural Revolution, a tumultuous and traumatic period in Chinese history during which families were often torn apart with the ideals of collectivism, ideals that prioritized loyalty to the country - the "big family" - over that of the filial family. These images are inevitably fraught with the context of their times, individuals are caught in the paradoxical circumstances of asserting their identity, while also attempting to disappear into a collective mold. On the subject of the use of photographs as objects of inspiration, Zhang has stated, "On the surface the faces in these portraits appear as calm as still water, but underneath there is great emotional turbulence. Within this state of conflict the propagation of obscure and ambiguous destinies is carried on from generation to generation." It is at the intersection of these cultural, historical and aesthetic references that Zhang launched his extraordinary series of paintings.
The Real and The Unreal
"I am seeking to create an effect of 'false photographs' - to re-embellish already 'embellished' histories and lives." - Zhang Xiaogang
Zhang's appropriation of this hybrid representational form deepens his commentary on China's past, present, and future. In Bloodlines: Big Family No. 2, Zhang adds new layers of classicism, technical innovations, and personal history, making it one of the most powerful paintings of his career. Photographs taken of Zhang himself with his wife and newborn daughter, taken before this very canvas, reveal the ways in which Zhang's "Bloodline" series is a kind of palimpsest, a way of exploring his feelings in the present through the mining of the past. Zhang's young family bears a striking resemblance to those included in "Bloodline: Big Family No. 2" and it becomes apparent that these images from the past are very much rooted in the artists concerns for the future.
In his search for a style at once lyrical and profound, Zhang's practice evolved towards an efficient and symbolically dense set of images and technical innovations that brought the "Bloodlines" series to a new level of maturity and emotional depth. In Bloodlines: Big Family No. 2, Zhang heightens the inherent likenesses between the figures such that all three figures seem powerfully and irrevocably intertwined. The basic structure of each face, the arch of the eyebrows, the curve of the nose, is gently repeated in each figure. The family has formidable presence, and the solemnity with which Zhang treats the family points to his interest in the family as the central institution of Chinese life and experience; only through a few select details and in the shades of difference between the figures do we begin to see Zhang's more tenuous and subjective feelings.
The sobriety of the black and white imagery contrasts with symbolic choices and discreet technical developments, highlighting a play between the real and unreal. The "bloodlines" referenced in the title are, literally, the tenuous links that Zhang has painted between the figures, linking them to each other and to others unseen, further highlighting the figures' embeddedness in family relationships and filial obligations. The couple's child, his genitals matter-of-factly on display, is placed at the center of the composition, highlighting the Chinese family's traditional expectations, focusing on the first-born male. The golden hue of the son's flesh and the red of the bloodlines contrast strongly with the otherwise somber and near-monochromatic composition. In both cases, Zhang has chosen colors with strong emotional and symbolic corollaries in Chinese culture. The red of the bloodlines is the literalization of kinship, but also the color of prosperity, success and happiness. The son's flesh is an imperial yellow, further emphasizing his purity and elevated status and the expectation surrounding his birth. At the same time, the yellow flesh, contrasted with the near-monochromatic tones of the parents, highlights the tension between generations during the Cultural Revolution, during which younger generations where encouraged to rebel against tradition and even their own family members in order to be considered politically correct. Of the three figures, only the child's eyes appear to focus and directly engage the viewer, whereas the parents appear disassociated and detached. Zhang has imbued the child with an almost preternatural awareness - alert to if not also slightly stunned - over the circumstances he has before him.
Zhang's technique here, too, bridges the real and unreal. Zhang employs the technique of traditional Chinese painting to slowly build up forms through the layering of paint. As such, what appear at first to be the clear edges of photo-realist inspired painting are softened and resist definition. The figures' eyes are liquid, lacking in focus or direction. On each figure's face is a corresponding patch of discoloration. These patches have had various interpretations in Zhang's works depending on his technical application. In some works, they appear like the distortions of a beloved old photograph, worried over and handled for years. At other times they appear more like scars, evidence of an external trauma that is written inextricably into the individual's character. Here they take on a less material form, appearing at once like a scar and like a patch of light, symbolic of the sliver of hope for the future in this otherwise deeply somber, haunting image.
Compared with his own family photograph, Zhang's daughter, as the central figure of the composition, has clearly had her gender reversed. As with his 1995 portrait of himself as an improbably wise and watchful child, it would seem that Zhang has projected himself into the position of his young daughter, as though his own intense identification with his daughter is inextricably linked to his own family memories growing up during the Cultural Revolution. Issues of heredity - both genetic and historical - underpin Bloodlines: Big Family No. 2. Zhang's own childhood was not idyllic; he felt the family was outcast due to his mother's perceived mental illness. His father attempted to hide her symptoms of schizophrenia, further unsettling the internal family dynamic. "Bloodlines: Big Family No. 2" is one of the few works from the series where natural skin tones are employed, here in the figure of the mother. Indeed, the mother and child are handled with special delicacy. The severity of the painting is softened by the discreet flower pattern of the mother's collared shirt; the vulnerability of the child is betrayed by his idle and delicate fingers. With these selections, Zhang highlights the sympathetic relationship between the mother and child, but her disassociative gaze and retreating presence points to Zhang's own concerns over the mother-child relationship. It is at once the central, formative relationship for the young child, but for Zhang himself, it was one full of anxiety, confusion and sacrifice.
Chinese filial relationships stretch into the past and the future; the weight of the past is borne by successive generations. For Zhang, the past haunts and collapses onto the present through the inheritance of the burdens of history, social obligation and genetic inevitability. The fatalism of such a view is nonetheless complicated by the extreme delicacy and empathy with which Zhang handles these themes, meditating on his closest relationships to explore themes relevant to the entire culture. "Bloodline: Big Family No. 2" is a deeply personal painting, but it is also a painting for the nation, uncertain of its direction, wounded by the past, surviving based on the hopes for the future.