In the 1980s, the Chinese art circle still saw the National Art Exhibition as the only orthodox form of art. At that time when modern art was still a long way from gaining recognition among the public, Zhang Xiaogang together with his fellow Mao Xuhui and other artists from the Southwestern part of China initiated a revolution. Between 1985 and 1986, they held for four times a self-financed exhibition titled The New Figurative Paintings Exhibition, with humanitarian care and passionate pursuit of life as their spirit of creation. Through the establishment of the Southwestern Art Research Group and the joint effort from modern art societies in the country in the '85 New Wave Movement period, they successfully countered the Academic School-dominant situation, and brought prominent historic significance to the Art circle.
Zhang's artistic style has undergone a prominent transformation in 1993 - inspired by a collection of old photos at home, he returned to Realistic style from Expressionism and Surrealism, and began to immerse himself in studying the facial features of Chinese people. His breakthrough in depicting objective reality and the character's psychological activities is reflected in his work like The Yellow Portrait. He has made a huge progress on the international stage at the 1994 Sao Paulo Biennale and the 1995 Venice Biennale. Zhang successfully created an image for the history and spirit of Modern Chinese with his Bloodline Series: Big Family - the characters' uniform facial features not only highlighted the weight of familial blood ties in the Chinese mindset, but also hinted at the control and manipulation that the regime had over its people's mind during the age of revolution. All characters in the painting wear a dull and speechless face and stare absently, but just as Zhang put it, "it is storming in their hearts"; it is a generation which has experience from political waves to the disintegration of belief. Their faces are puzzled, yet they appeared so poised under the artist's brush. Bloodline Series: Big Family is a summary of the unique fate and memory of modern time Chinese, who were part of the"blood-tied family" as well as the "revolution family."
2001 No.8 (Lot 40) is another evolution of Zhang's artistic form. It carries on with the simplicity and sharp contrast manifested in the composition of Bloodline Series: Big Family - it has an obvious connection with old-style family photos prevailing in the age of revolution, as a significant part of the picture is dominated by the head of the two characters; with the conceptualized big family features retained on the characters' faces, such as the oval face, almond-shaped eyes, single eyelid and small mouth, as well as the signature mark on their face, the non-random generality hidden among the characters is highlighted. The most significant difference between the two is the removal of symbolic items from the characters, such as the identical uniform, military cap, and Chairman Mao badges alike. The characters' identity is made ambiguous with their bodies unclothed. If revolution costume is deemed a derivative ideological prop of dictatorship, the artist might well consider it as a form of fetter. As the characters are released from political symbols and face the world with their own real body, it marks the completion of the process in which individuals confront, acknowledge and overcome the pain of history, and brings comfort and reunification to their hearts.
The figures created by Zhang transcend the realm of objectivity to reach and touch the heart of its audience. Comparing to features of the characters' head in the previous Big Family series, the figures in 2001 No. 8 are absent of any specific representation by the characters' hair style in addition to the sophisticated delineation of their facial features; moreover, there is not a single sense of emphasis on curvature in both the blunt-bang hairstyle of the grey-toned figure on the left and the Shaolin monk-hairstyle worn by the redtoned figure on the right, rendering the figure's head in a simple and perfectly round shape, which almost resembles the pure and perfect condition of a new born baby, thus reflecting joy and beauty of primitive life. Western Modern sculptor Constantin Brancusi presented The Sleeping Muse (Fig. 1) head sculpture in a clean and brief form to narrate the noble spirit enclosed in it. This piece of work echoed with the characters of 2001 No. 8 in every way of artistic expression, from the clean rendering of facial features, the graceful lines, as well as the smooth and flawless face, to the tranquil and elegant tone of the works, and it further echoes with Zhang's persistent exploration of one's inner world. It is in close association with the idea of "presenting the spirit through appearance" put forth by Gu Kaizhi, famous Chinese figure painter in the Eastern Jin Dynasty, the idea shows that Chinese figure painting has long held the tradition of putting less weight on objective depiction of external details, and considering abstract representation that highlights the figure's individuality and spirit as the highest level of painting. The evolution from Yellow Portrait and Big Family to 2001 No. 8 manifests Zhang's continual refinement on Realism practice and the enrichment of his artistic language by absorbing the nutrient of Chinese art.
Zhang Xiaogang's painting retains the mysterious atmosphere exclusively present in the work by artists in Southwestern part of China. He made use of an insubstantial way to manage the relationship between the foreground and background, figures in 2001 No.8 and Big Family are situated in a place with infinite depth of field, which is a piece of spiritual land beyond the studio of reality, resembling the deep boundless world of Surrealistic painter Yves Tanguy (Fig. 2). Such vague and pale atmosphere is of close resemblance with the intangibility and artistic conception that traditional Chinese Painters pursued, while the empty space in the work has opened up room for imagination. The unforgettable red mark on the figure's face, like an irremovable birthmark, symbolizes the collective memory branded deep inside the soul of the Chinese people. In terms of visual effect, the mark seems like a naturally worn-out part on old photos, and even more so as a foreign restoration or interference, which bestows a new meaning to the generally familiar image; a similar practice is Marcel Duchamp' addition of a moustache to a replica of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa (Fig. 3). It is therefore reasonable to take the practice of both Duchamp and Zhang as a rebellious act against authority and tradition.
The significance of Chinese Contemporary art in the recent three decades lies on the rise of individuality and rebellion against centralization, it also marks the nation's rebirth and progress after a long suffering and suppression in history. After several important revolutionary movements such as The Star Exhibition, the '85 New Wave Movement and the China Contemporary Art Exhibition, Chinese artists began to trace back to the root of traditional Chinese culture in addition to using modern artistic language of the West, they engaged in spiritual reconstruction based on the lesson they learned from history, created diversity for new Chinese culture and put a rest to the monopoly on Art. The development of Zhang's oil painting is at the same rapid pace and high intensity as that of China's Economic reform, thus Zhang is undoubtedly one of the representative figures who link the past and future of Chinese art.