(Chinese, B. 1958)
Bloodline: Big Family, No. 9
signed in Chinese; signed 'Zhang Xiaogang' in Pinyin; dated '1997' (lower right)
oil on canvas
149 x 189 cm. (58 5/8 x 74 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1997
Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong, China
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Hanart TZ Gallery and Galerie Enrico Navarra, Umbilical Cord of History: Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Hong Kong, China Paris, France, 2004 (illustrated, p. 97).

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Lot Essay

When studying in the Sichuan Academy of Fine Art, Zhang Xiaogang was hardly fascinated by the virtually orthodox Soviet realistic art; what wetted his appetite was the vivacity and verve of Western impressionist paintings, most notably those of Vincent van Gogh, Jean-Francois Millet and Paul Gauguin. The oeuvre of these eminent modern artists proved to be an inspiration to Zhang, who later developed an effervescent style of artistic expression which contrasted starkly with the accepted academic realism. Throughout the 1980s, Zhang read widely in philosophy and literature, particularly those on existentialism by Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Franz Kafka. While his artistic language bore the footprints of influence from artists ranging from Theodore Gericault to Salvador Dali, he was also enchanted with the impressionist credo, and aspired, as did his fellow artists from the southwest, to liberate their minds and souls by channeling modern Western masters, which empowered them to walk a new path to artistry. When in 1992 Zhang came in direct contact with the West, he found in himself a growing consciousness of his cultural identity-as such, the notion of "Chineseness" became the main theme of Zhang's artistic pursuit, transcending over its prescribed, solemn and outlying signification. His determination was manifested in the letters he wrote to Li Xianting, a noted art critic, during his trip in Germany: "Chinese art, if entering the Western garden unescorted by her own cultural background, is bereft of value and meaning."

The year 1993 witnessed a turning point in Zhang's artistic activity. He left the Aba grassland of Sichuan, so also his eerie and demoniac surrealistic world of melancholy and irritation. While at home, he uncovered some aged old family photographs, Zhang started his meticulous study of the faces of Chinese people and, having contemplated the potential of realistic portraiture, he exerted himself to portray real people with reference to stocks of photographic images. Portrait in Yellow (Lot 1026), for example, is modeled on Ye Yongqing, a close friend of the artist, whose appearance is neatly portrayed with a delicate rendering of his facial features. Set against an dimly lit background, his face is exaggerated and distorted in as if with awide-angle perspective; this weird face, though, is cast with a large spot of physical light, the vividness of which stands in a striking contrast to the dinginess that might otherwise overwhelm the picture. Such disparity reveals the artist' s as well as the subject' s complicated state of mind, foreshadowing the emergence of Zhang's Bloodline paintings and the arrival of one of the central icons of Chinese contemporary art, one embodying personal as well as national narratives, the problem of genetic and historic heredity and inevitability. Essentially impressionistic, the "framed" work is characteristic of Zhang's canvases from the same period, literally indexing the painting' s reference to a framed photograph; all of Zhang' s subjects appear within this format, with their invariably stern expressions, carefully placed according to seniority, and linked together by a red line symbolic of "Bloodline, " all which unveil the Confucian family ethics lurking beneath a Chinese family photo. While images like the television, notebook, wooden box, music score and weather symbol, which appear like private notes to one' s self are scattered across the composition, areredolent of the surrealistic style Zhang was acquainted with in his early days, the work, in both its concept and expression, has incontrovertibly showcased a transfiguration of Zhang' s artistic language and maturity.
Created respectively for the 1994 Sao Paulo Biennial and the 1995 Venice Biennale, Zhang' s Bloodline: Big Family Series and Comrade paintings represent a breakthrough in the composition, subtlety and ambience of his works. His figures are set free from the pictorial frame, the upper part of their bodies abstracted and flattened, and symbolic elements, like those in the background of Portrait in Yellow, have been eliminated. Details such as the military cap, Mao badges and red armbands clearly indicate the artist's conscious withdrawal of expressions swamped with personal sentiment; instead, he confronts the history of his homeland, looking for a visual representation that acutely reflected the state of human existence in his contemporary world. Compared to his earlier endeavors, the dim background creates a stronger contrast with the the lighted spots on the men's faces and the red lines that cover and pierce their bodies. Notably side-lit, the portrayal exudes a magnetic charm of theatricality and historic gravitas. The subjects, with steadfast equanimity, seem to have shouldered a weighty load of social responsibility; each of them heedful of their role in the great play of an epoch, they appears composed to the point of appearing indifferent - though, as the artist remarked, "underneath these unruffled faces are their roaring hearts ."

Created in 1997, Bloodline: Big Family No. 9 (Lot 1046) is a rarity among the Big Family series for its atmospheric meditations on presence and absence. The stark background and the three figures in the painting reflect the correlation between the emptiness and the reality in Alberto Giacometti's work. Composed in absolute symmetry, the figures come face to face with the viewer, calling to mind the stately, indoctrinatory portraits of the traditional Chinese culture. These portraits embodied paragons of virtue, serene and lofty manners that were meant to be matched and followed- just as Zhou Lujing of the Ming Dynasty said in his Shape of Heaven and Tao: "when painting Gods and Buddhas we seek foremost their majesty and sublimity, to honor them with our sincerest respects. For this they are mostly posed erect and front-facing, as it is a posture of formality and nobility." Side-lighting is still the primary implement in conveying the work's ambience, but the chiaroscuro assumes a more subtle role: the contrast between light and dark is smooth, the work painted with serene clarity, and the facial features of the subjects have softened. All these characteristics bestow upon the men a sedate disposition. The outline of their figures intermingles with the pale grayish blue background, giving out a shadowy, poetic and yet obscure glamour. By adopting this filtering photographic effect, the artist lights the picture with an almost holy illumination, thus according it a splendor of stunning serenity and decency. Such a reticent mode of expression shares the same thread with the Confucian dictum of moderation, which holds that a perfect state of balance is to be attained through abstinence from extremity in both behavior and thoughts so that, as one conforms to rites, one finds the golden mean between deficiency and excess. This, in the eyes of Confucius, is the finest praxis of morality, and although such sentiments as happiness and sadness are natural and instinctive, they have to be moderately restrained to achieve a perfect syncretism between life, ideal and reality. It must not be forgotten that when Zhang worked on his art he was confronted by a scarred history: the political turmoil of modern China had spiritually defiled the Chinese masses, shattering their confidence and faith. Rather than being wretched and shattered, Zhang has showcased in Bloodline: Big Family No. 9 how the power of art can keep alive the hopes of his fellow countrymen, and how, through a harmonic composition, serenely austere lighting, and exquisitely modeled figures, the formidable weight of history that characterizes his early works can be elevated and transformed into an irresistible realm of perfection. What Zhang seeks to summon back is the ancient Chinese philosophy of equanimity, that in times of throes and plight we will stay unruffled and at peace.
The success of Zhang cannot be explained by merely surveying is adoption of Western artistic techniques and styles. From the vantage point of Western impressionism and surrealism, he reflected on his own culture and society to locate the a distinct, nativist philosophy and tone that he could bequeathe to his contemporaries, seeking, out of genuine affection, visual elements that symbolize the flesh and blood of his fellows, their essence, tragedies, and struggles, as well as their capacity for redemption. It is through such endeavors that Zhang enriches and reforms his artistic expression, which soothes, with the magical spell of art, countless wounded spirits.

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