(B. 1958)
Bloodline - Big Family: Comrade
signed in Chinese; signed 'Zhang Xiaogang' in Pinyin; dated '1999' (lower right)
oil on canvas
188.2 x 149.1 cm. (74 1/8 x 58 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1999
ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai, China
Private Collection, Switzerland
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Lot Essay

Over the course of Zhang Xiaogang's career, periods of personal crisis and introspection have always preceded further breakthroughs in his art practice, in the refinement and expansion of his tools, techniques, metaphors and ideas. This was the case as Zhang slowly found his way in the first few years after graduation in the early 1980s and into the mid-1980s, through the peak of China's "cultural fever", as he moved from his darkly personal Grassland paintings to this increasingly surrealistic canvases and portraits of those closest to him. Throughout the 1980s we can see the evolution of the artist's repertoire and the refinement of his technique, imagery, and prevailing themes. This was again the case in the years following the Tiananmen Incident of June 1989 when Zhang entered another period of intense personal and artistic self-reflection, a period which ultimately led to the paintings for which he is best recognized and most revered, his Bloodline: Big Family Series.

In his correspondence to fellow artist and close friend Mao Xuhui in 1988, Zhang had written, "Our life is built upon art, which we regard as the highest and most worthwhile value system in our life. In the depth of our heart, there is something solemn, something that is responsibility personifiedK Had it not been for this earnestness, we would not have been able to be so tolerant till to with tears in our eyes, of our most difficult time and when the whole society had locked their gate against us."

In this passage, we see not only Zhang's sense of himself as an outsider but more importantly, the sense of obligation he felt towards giving expression to his inner demons and passions as almost a higher calling, an obligation to himself and the world. Following the Tiananmen Incident, Zhang felt a heightened sense of not only responsibility but also futility; he felt that the language and style he had developed up to that point was not sufficient to address the new challenges facing the nation. At the same time, his first trip to Europe in the early 1990s, where he travelled in and out of major museums, seeking out the paintings he had studied for so long, left him to question his spiritual affiliation with these artists. He felt their concerns and their techniques were not his own, and that he needed to push his own art-making in a new direction, one that explicitly addressed the character of the Chinese nation and his generation. What emerged was his extraordinary Bloodline: Big Family Series , the series for which he has ultimately become best recognized, but also one that sees the full maturation of the fusion of his own personal visions and history with imagery that could also speak to the national character and situation. Once again, and not unlike the Scar Artists of the late 1970s and early 1980s, he reached back into the imagery and experiences of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to address contemporary realities, appropriating the imagery and format of formal family portrait photography to explore the psychological character of his generation through one of their most formative collective experiences. His concerns are in some sense entirely his own - questions of family debt and obligation, inherited fates and dispositions, the nature of memory, experience and history - but they were defined now by imagery that could address the wounds of the nation.

The Cultural Revolution was a prolonged period of political and social chaos in China. In his efforts to maintain a perpetual revolution, Chairman Mao suspended public schools and empowered his youthful followers, the Red Guards, as political and ideological leaders, encouraging them to struggle against whatever "backwards" and politically incorrect elements of society they chose to target. What followed were often traumatic and unpredictable movements, public and private humiliations that tore apart communities and families, often with families labeled "intellectuals" suffering the most. Throughout, Zhang's series might feature a three or four-member Chinese family, a parent and child, siblings, or sometimes just a single figure. In this large-scale portrait from 1999, Zhang offers an arresting portrait of a young adolescent boy, perhaps a teenager. He wears the standard unadorned cap and jacket of the era, the cap perhaps a little too large for his age and size. Borrowing again from the photo studio portrait genre, the format imbues the work with an inherent feeling of nostalgia. Zhang heightens that feeling by staying within a deliberately limited scale of grey. He has stated, "Grey gives people the sense of a being unrelated to reality, a feeling of the past. Grey represents my personal emotions and it is connected to my own temperament. It is a forgetful feeling that can also evoke a sense of dreaming" .

The photography format itself further evokes feelings of nostalgia and loss. The viewer senses that they are looking back into history at figures whose lives were on the brink of tumultuous change, and Zhang heightens the gravitas through his carefully painted details and references. The "bloodlines" of the title refer to Zhang's break with photo-realism and the literal inclusion of tendon-like threads linking individuals to each other, emblematic of the extended systems of debt and obligation into which one is born, especially in the traditional "Confucian" model of the Chinese family. The figure's eyes are also slightly crossed, and excessively dark, almost literally without a distinction between iris and pupil, his glassy eyes suggestive of a feeling of shock or emotional disembodiment. Zhang further adds a small red patch to the figure, seeming like the worry marks of a photograph well-worn over the years. In Zhang's hands, these discreet "imperfections" become the physical manifestation of an experience, written into the skin as if into the genetic code itself. The artist deliberately minimizes the details of his portraits and their features, to give them a universal quality and to heighten the symbolism of his choices. Zhang has stated, "In this process of re-ornamentation, I consciously implement the "painterly effects" that everyone sees in my works - such as my attention to colour and brushstrokes - with the greatest meticulousness, leaving only a piece of history and life that has been rendered vague and confused, souls struggling one by one under the forces of public standardization, faces bearing emotions smooth as water but full of internal tension, the ambiguous fates of life lived amidst contradictions passed back and forth among the generations." (Hanart TZ Gallery, 2004).

The earliest Bloodlines occasionally still depicted particular individuals - as with Zhang's portraits of his own mother and father or his paintings based on his "100th day" baby portrait. But as Zhang began to refine his themes and imagery, the series has increasingly played between the particular and the universal, the material and the conceptual. The second title of the series also references the Cultural Revolution, a period of extended chaos during which the entire country was conceptualized as one "big family", an ideology often at odds with the obligations and responsibilities associated with the traditional Chinese family. For Zhang though, the circumstances and challenges of the Cultural Revolution magnified the inherent paradoxes of existence, they speak to the character of his generation but also to the ongoing challenges of Chinese life. He has stated, "We are like a big family. In this family, we must learn to confront all our blood relations: family blood, social blood, cultural blood. The unavoidable collectiveness. In this "family", where we find concentrated so much individualism and intimacy, we constrain one another, we annihilate one another, and we depend on one another" (Xin-Dong Cheng Publishing House, Forget and Remember , Beijing, China, 2003, p. 17). Zhang's conceptual portrait is not just a likeness, but a presentiment over his fate and future. At the same time, through the artist's carefully calibrated details and references - from the title, cultural, personal and historical allusions, to the figure itself in an ill-fitting suit and cap for a child his age, Zhang creates a powerful, personal and universal image of a nation on the precipice of enormous change.

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