On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Property from the Collection of Howard and Patricia Farber

(B. 1958)
Bloodline: Big Family Series
signed in Chinese; signed 'Zhang xiao gang' in Pinyin; dated '2000.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
80 x 99.5 cm. (31 1/2 x 39 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2000
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Felix Yip
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Lot Essay

Painting & Portraiture: East & West

An investigation into the depiction of light as a technical matter as well as a metaphor makes for a useful starting point for understanding Zhang Xiaogang's position in the history of portrait painting and his continued elaboration of his iconic Bloodline: Big Family series paintings. Beginning in the Renaissance, non-religious portraits became more and more common, and as society was increasingly lead by secular leaders and merchants, so too did the demand for realistic depiction of the subject and his social status increase. At the same time, oil replaced tempera and canvas replaced wood panel, both allowing for a greater richness in color and detailing. The works of Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, active in the 17th century, represent the pinnacle of these developments, especially in his use of light to convey tone and psychological interiority. This is evident in his masterful self-portrait from 1658. Rembrandt's use of chiaroscuro allows him to insist on the profound singularity of the man. He sits partially in the dark, his gaze in shadow but his features emerging from under his hat into the gently raking light, revealing in fine detail the wrinkles and blemishes of his loose and aging flesh. But such detailing is also suggestive of his virtuosity, underlined by the prominence of his right hand appearing in full light.

Rembrandt's portrait is consistent with Aristotle's claim that "the aim of Art is to present not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance; for this, not the external manner and detail, constitutes the true reality". For Rembrandt, everything about his appearance is suggestive of his psychological state - his clothes befitting a man who is proud as much as his subtle retreat into darkness suggests his weariness, a man who knew great wealth, poverty and tragedy in his life. The relationship between "inner significance" and "outward appearances" has had different meanings across history and cultures, and, in this context, Zhang Xiaogang's paintings are especially striking for their radical reinterpretation of this relationship.

In Zhang's Bloodline: Big Family painting from the collection of Howard and Patricia Farber, the artist offers two figures who are almost identical in their noses, the arch of their brows, the smallness of their mouths, down to the shape of their skulls. Indeed, the characteristics that set them apart seem more like jarring and unwanted aberrations - as with the girl's seemingly out of place pigtail and parted bangs, or the boy's buck teeth and crossed-eyes. They are, proportionally, among the largest Zhang has painted into a composition, pressed physically to the limits of the space, but, unlike Rembrandt's substantial figure, seem at the same time to be on the brink of disappearing.

Their eyes are the darkest and most arresting aspect of the painting. Rembrandt's depiction of his own eyes classically served as the windows to his soul, revealing his years and his wariness. With Zhang however, the eyes are limpid black pools, the dark pupils overtaking the color of the iris, drawing us to the intensity of their gaze, which is then revealed to be strangely unfocused and directionless. As a result, the figures appear depthless, as if in a protracted state of shock.

As such their internal psychological state is denied the viewer, but something of their nature is projected into the scarring patches of light adhering to their features. The girl's soft pink flesh renders her innocence mysteriously vulnerable; the red patches suggest the unspoken and unknowable experiences that might lie ahead in any life, and alter not only one's fate but the fiber of one's very being. As such, Zhang radically reorders the viewer's taken for granted notions of portraiture, representation, and subjectivity. Inherent to his practice are his concepts of memory and amnesia, the ways in which our view of the past is imbued with our feelings in the present, and vice versa. Unlike Rembrandt's portrait, this is not the vision of accumulated experience and depth of character. As a theory of individual subjectivity, it is hopelessly fatalistic; but as a metaphor for the collective state of the nation, it is profoundly humanistic, offering a powerful and poetic vision of a generations' uncertainty, turmoil, and hope. It is Zhang's unique ability to fuse painterly form with symbolism and metaphor that has established him as one of the great interpreters of Chinese experience of his generation.

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