Featuring compliant, impassive individuals in groups, pairs or alone in a bluish melancholic tint, the series explores notions of identity and the formation of memory in relation to family and history.
Zhang was born in Kunming, China in 1958. His childhood was mostly shaped by the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. Zhang’s parents were sent to ‘study camp’ when he was still a child, and Zhang himself was sent to the rural areas as part of the ‘Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside’ movement in 1976 after he graduated from high school.
A year later, following the end of the Mao era, Zhang gained admission to the prestigious Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. He studied painting and was exposed to the history of Western art and many masterworks of the modern period, from the Renaissance to Post-Impressionism and Surrealism. His works from the 1980s, such as Madonna and Child (1989), reveal his early approach in emulating the aesthetics of 19th and 20th century artistic movements.
By the 1990s, Zhang had recalibrated his practice to focus on self-examination and personal history. This resolution was reinforced by his first trip to Europe in 1992, where he was confronted with the Western masterpieces he had long idolised. His ‘Bloodline’ series was shown in The Other Face: Three Chinese Artists at the Italian Pavilion at the 46th Venice Biennale.
In December 2020, Bloodline Series: The Big Family No. 2 (1995) — depicting a group portrait of a couple and a yellow-tinted baby threaded with a thin red line — fetched $12,646,903 at Christie’s. This set a world record for Zhang Xiaogang at auction.
After developing the ‘Bloodline’ series for nearly a decade, Zhang began work on a new series, ‘Amnesia and Memory’, in the 2000s. Although the painterly technique the series adopts is in a similar vein to ‘Bloodline’, it features close-ups of individual visages which deepens the sense of an inner psychology within his characters.
In 2009, a survey of Zhang’s three-decade practice, The China Project: Zhang Xiaogang—Shadows in the Soul, was staged at Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia.