(Chinese, B. 1958)
Bloodline: Big Family - Father and Daughter
signed 'Zhang Xiaogang' in Pinyin; dated '2000' (lower right)
oil on canvas
100 x 80 cm. (39 1/4 x 31 1/2 in.)
Painted in 2000
Chinese Contemporary Gallery, London, UK
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Chinese Contemporary Gallery, Critical Mass, London, UK, 2004 (illustrated, p. 112).
Tampere, Finland, Sara Hilden Art Museum, Zhang Xiaogang, September 2007-February 2008.

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Felix Yip
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Lot Essay

Chinese young artists in the eighties embraced modern and Western art practice with an unbridled enthusiasm. During the "85 Art Wave", a number of different independent modern art groups cropped up across the nation. The possibility of personal and independent expression offered by Western styles and techniques was perfectly suited to a new generation of academics. Zhang Xiaogang, along with fellow classmates Mao Xuhui and Ye Yongqing, established the "Southwest Art Research Group" in Kunming, Yunnan, and held four group shows under the theme New Image. For the group, "new image" meant "the heart's image, the soul's image", and their works stressed the relationship between art, life and the soul. Following the June 4th incident in 1989, China's art world experienced a rude awakening, losing the optimism of the earlier decade and entering into a new stage, equally introspective, but with respect to the larger implications of their social and historical context, ultimately inspiring a renewed search for a "modern" language that had its roots in China's contemporary cultural identity. For Zhang Xiaogang this meant the pursuit of a visual language and symbolic system that could speak to both individual and collective experience. It was the discovery of old family photographs that gave him inspiration, leading to his extraordinary breakthrough painting series, Bloodline: Big Family.
In 1997, Zhang Xiaogang held his first solo exhibition at the Beijing Central Academy of Art. The Bloodline series was widely recognized and became his representative works. The figures in Zhang's paintings were painted according to the image in traditional Chinese family portrait photographs. Yet, Zhang deliberately depicted them as inert, cold, and stiff individuals with vague facial features and expressions. He also highlighted their uniform, unisex revolutionary uniforms. Zhang implied that these figures formed a "whole", without their own family but to be merged in the "Big Family" of their country. With the ideologies of the Cultural Revolution, where political movements and social mobilizations followed one another, political slogans such as "Chairman Mao should relate to you closer to you than your father and mother" were widespread across the country. Such movements destroyed the traditional value of the core family, where the nation had officially replaced the family units. Political and social identities had overshadowed natural affections within a family; collectivism and uniformity were valued over individuality and the intimate familial relationships. Zhang Xiaogang has once stated: "We all live in a big family. The first lesson we have to learn is how to protect ourselves and keep our experiences locked up in an inner chamber away from the prying eyes of others, while at the same time living in harmony as a member of this big family. In this sense, the family is a unit for the continuity of life and an idealized mechanism for procreation. It embodies power, hope, life, envy, lies, duty and love. The family becomes the standard model and the focus for the contradictions of life experiences. We interact and depend on each other for support and assurance." Such obscured family relation is indeed the personal experience of the artist. It is also his treatment to interpret the changes of different layers of relationship between individuals, families, and the country, which has thus become the core theme of the series.
In the canvas featured here from 2000, Zhang presents an unusual vertical format with Bloodline: Big Family - Father and Daughter (Lot 2034). The figure of the father anchors the composition, with his daughter presumably sitting on his lap. As the series evolved, Zhang highlighted his core themes with a more conceptual execution in his motifs. He began to focus less on capturing the "soul" of individuals, family members, and his close friends, and instead highlighting the emotional and associative experience of the viewer through his carefully calibrated aesthetic choices. Here, the father seems young, wrinkle-free, almost straining to fulfill the responsibilities of adulthood by adopting a stoicism and seriousness beyond his years. His smooth features and unfocused eyes render him a vague and illusive presence. In contrast, the little girl on his lap is highlighted in a sentimental pink color, staring plaintively out of the canvas at the viewer. She sits slightly askew, as if toppling slowly off her father's lap, or displaying the restlessness of a child unable to sit calmly for a formal portrait. Nonetheless, she has the same seriousness of expression as that her father, a likeness reinforced by the resemblances between the set of their mouths and the arch of their noses.
Zhang applies monochrome colours flatly in many layers, imitating the technique in traditional Chinese charcoal painting, and transformed it into his own artistic language. The result illustrates a misty and soft tone and creates a surrealistic sense of distance to express the artist's nostalgia. It seemingly brings viewer back to a past era to reminisce a sad story. In terms of the treatment of light, Zhang continues with his Expressionist and Surrealist style. The light seems to be shining on the figures from the back, yet it is difficult to identify the source. It makes one wonder if the source of light is indeed coming from the front. The birthmark-like patches of colour on the figures are seemingly accentuated by the light, or they are indeed patches of light shining on the faces of the figures, continuously changing their positions. These patches resemble discoloured marks on old photographs, amplifying the nostalgic feeling of the works, at the same time seems to reveal the anxiety, confusion and sensitivity of that generation of people. The figures of Zhang are rid of the boundary of time. They no long belong to a specific place and time, instead telling the story of their time in an eternal imagery.

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