(B. 1958)
Grassland Series: Night Wind
signed in Chinese; dated '84.7.' (lower right); signed, titled and inscribed in Chinese (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
78 x 95.3 cm. (30 5/8 x 37 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1984

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Lot Essay

As Chinese contemporary art began to make regular appearances in the international art circuit - from 1995 Venice Biennale (curated by Harald Szeeman and including nearly 20 Chinese artists) to the Inside Out exhibition curated by Gao Minglu organized by the Asia Society and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art - Zhang Xiaogang's stature quickly rose as one of China's foremost and most compelling painters. His haunting and solemn Bloodline: Big Family Series were powerful distillations of contemporary Chinese experience, offering metaphors both searing and poignant, revealing the mindset and collective disposition of Zhang's generation.

This was not the first time Zhang was singled out for his poetic vision. The roots of the Chinese avant-garde that crystallized in the 1990s began in the domestic art movements that sprung up nearly overnight after Chairman Mao's death in 1976 and after Deng Xiaogping's tentative steps towards "opening up" from 1978 onwards.
While artists in the 1980s were effectively free to experiment and invent new artistic idioms, they were nonetheless still reliant on the state and academies for their professional acceptance, postings, and exhibitions. To help mediate the uncertain life of an independent, professional artist, communities of like-minded artists relied on each other in formal and informal artist collectives to help solidify and reaffirm their own tentative impulses and intuitions. These groups contributed to the utopic and idealistic debates over the role of art and culture that were then sweeping the nation. 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 sought to develop a visual symbolic system that could encompass both extremes of personal as well as collective experience.

One of the earliest movements in the post-Mao era was that of Scar Art, and much of Zhang's early work can be seen as an extension and deepening of that movement. The rigorous realist techniques received by academically trained artists remained in many ways the backbone of all paintings, but artists working within the Scar Art movement, led by Luo Zhongli, Chen Chonglin, Gao Xiaohua, among others, took their socialist realist training and redirected its idealism towards a dramatic rendering of material realities, focusing on the pathos of suffering and loss experienced under the Cultural Revolution. These paintings were direct and explicit in their messages, focusing heavily on dramatic scenes, making them an almost literal inversion of the idealist principles of Socialist Realism propaganda.

Zhang's canvas, Grassland Series: Night Wind (Lot 1038), begins with similar
concerns but delves into a more personal and poetic direction. The exceptional work
featured here, painted when Zhang was only 25 years old, displays the singularity
of Zhang's vision and hints strongly at the solitary, mournful spirit inherent in his art
practice. It fully embodies the enormous struggle of the artist to find his own idiom
and voice, the distillation of his training, influences, philosophical investigations, and
own personal history.

As students, Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui, and Ye Yongqing would visit minority villages and countryside to sketch and study the local population and their way of life. They saw this practice as akin to that of Jean-Francois Millet and successive Impressionists and post-Impressionist artists, including Vincent van Gogh in particular, and their paintings of peasants and the French countryside. Zhang is very clear in his writing that these trips were not driven by any real ethnographic interest, but were a way of subverting the tenets of Socialist Realism - which they found emotionally and spiritually empty. Although technical influences can be found in Zhang's early employment of somewhat surrealist techniques and in subject matter, in fact these outings were less about technical influences than about seeking a spiritual kinship with these French artists, emulating their practices in order to break with the habits of their training and discover the "true soul" of their own works. These exercises are in some sense similar to those of Liu Haisu, Guan Liang, and other early
20th Century Chinese artists, who sought in their study of Western modernism to break with the stifling strictures of classical Chinese training and their artistic heritage in order to discover a new aesthetic spirit and vision.

Indeed, Zhang's works from this period may feature labourers and peasants in a manner similar to Millet (Fig. 1), and rough, expressionistic brushwork akin to that of
van Gogh's (Fig. 2), but the impetus for his works still lies elsewhere. As Zhang struggled with health issues, his thoughts turned increasingly to the paradoxes of life and death. In the extraordinary archive of letters that he and Mao Xuhui exchanged in the mid- to late-1980s, we can see the depth of Zhang's relentless soul-searching, his personal struggles, and the dominant philosophical themes that captivated his attention throughout the period. Zhang reflects on the background that inspired his Grasslands and related series: "At that time, my inspiration primarily came from the private feelings I had at the hospital. When I lay on the white bed, on the white bed sheet, I saw many ghost-like patients comforting each other in the crammed hospital wards. When night dawned, groaning sounds rose above the hospital and some of the withering bodies had gone to waste or were drifting on the brink of death: these deeply stirred my feelings. They were so close to my then life experiences and lonely miserable soulK"
At a later date, he wrote in a letter to Mao Xuhui, "the only thing I can do is to continue engaging myself in activities to do with morality and spirituality, while watching without cease martial arts films. What else can I do? You were right in saying that all those we encounter contribute to the way we deal with art, the outlandish and yet dear totem. Yet, the reality often is rather weird, so lonely and quiet that it has almost become something at your disposal, which you can deal with at will and yet will, like our hair, grow naturally. Has this been predestined? Just like sheep would never make the sounds of a nightingale? And are we like sheep?"

Throughout these texts we see not only Zhang's despair, but the ways in which he continued circle around the themes and images that would underlie his greatest works:
his fixation on the imagery of the empty white bed, the association of the white sheets
of a hospital bed with suffering, solitude and death, his dire sentiments delivering him
paradoxically to a kind of humanism, one that, for all his fatalism, compels him to honor the fragility and absurdity of life. Grassland Series: Night Wind then is one of the earliest distillations of these countervailing impulses, of Zhang's tireless ruminations on art and life, his influences, both chosen and inherited, his painful introspection coupled with his search for a visual idiom that could express the soul of the artist.

With Night Wind we have a solitary and heavily wrapped female shepherd trudging through an ambiguous landscape, her only companion a sheep that trails loyally behind. The palette is earthy and muted, the horizon set shallowly behind her, suggesting a kind of claustrophobia, a limited horizon, both metaphorically and literally. An aura of toil and suffering suffuses the work, but, unlike Scar Artists, Zhang intentionally locates the scene outside of time and place. The image of a woman-cum-mother figure leading the sheep is not incidental. While he does not
employ a particularly religious composition, the biblical subtext is unavoidable. Images of sacrifice and martyrdom, and the bonds of mother to child, would continue to be central symbols throughout Zhang's work, and, as in Night Wind , the relationship is often an ambiguous one, a combination of loyalty, self-sacrifice and devotion, coupled with a mother's ultimate helplessness over the suffering that the sheep/child might ultimately endure. The simplicity of the composition combined with the strength of the emotional message belies the ways in which Zhang's works marked a major turning point in Chinese contemporary art: his deeply personal vision was already approaching mythic proportions, offering us imagery that addressed universal human conditions. His ability to plum the depths of his own life and personal torments in order to create works that spoke to the larger nation and contemporary Chinese experience would ultimately make him one of the most powerful and profound painters of his generation.

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