(Chinese, B. 1958)
Bloodline Series: Big Family
signed in Chinese; signed 'zhang xiaogang' in Pinyin; dated '1999' (lower right)
oil on canvas
150 x 190 cm. (59 x 74 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1999
Hanart T Z Gallery, Hong Kong, China
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Hanart T Z Gallery, Umbilical Cord of History Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Hong Kong, China, 2004 (illustrated, p. 124; exhibition view in Korea illustrated, p. 174; work on exhibition poster in Japan illustrated, p. 166).
Kwangju, South Korea, The 3rd Kwangju Biennale, 2000.
Niigata, Japan, The Niigate Prefectural Civic Center Gallery, Invisible Boundary: Metamorphosed Asian Art, 29 July-20 August 2000.

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Lot Essay

As China emerged from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the intellectual and artistic conformity of the communist system, the country witnessed a profound and seismic transformation of its cultural scene. The subsequent decades heralded a new era of creativity that penetrated every aspect of art and culture. Relieved of the restrictions of a statecontrolled cultural production system, young art academy students across the nation were suddenly exposed to an extraordinary range of tools, techniques, and philosophies that they would digest and incorporate into their own visions and inspirations. This transformation of the cultural field would manifest itself for years to come, opening up traditional fields of art-making to new subjects, visions, and an almost unprecedented privileging of the artist's subjectivity over all else.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese artists broke with their academic training and began developing new artistic languages for a nation in transition, seeking to overturn inherited aesthetic paradigms for ones that bettersuited a post-Mao, rapidly modernizing nation. These artists were inspired by a new influx of information and materials about contemporary Western art practices, but also by their own experience of China's 20th Century. The confluence of these circumstances - the rigor of the training received in art academies, the turmoil and upheavals of, first, the Cultural Revolution and, second, the breakneck pace of modernization, globalization, and economic growth - laid the groundwork for one of the most extraordinary breaks with aesthetic tradition in recent memory.

Zhang Xiaogang began his Bloodline series in 1993, and they have quickly become among the most iconic and haunting images of the new Chinese avant-garde art. Zhang grew up under the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a program intended to further the revolutionary cause but which led instead to an extended period of chaos and trauma for millions, and the artist was inspired by a trove of archival family photographs from this era. For Zhang, these photographs contained an impossible contradiction: In sitting for studio portraits, the subjects were staking their claims against the anonymous passage of time, creating a document of their own lives and relationships. At the same time, such photos demonstrate the hegemonic influence of collectivist ideals on the individual, and we witness Zhang's figures simultaneously assert their identity and attempt to disappear under those ideals.

The driving force of China's contemporary art is the awareness of an awakening nation in the throes of radical change. Shifts in social, economic and ideological circumstance led to a flood of creativity and newfound artistic freedom, allowing a critique of traditional values and an expression of the doubt and perplexity of a society hurdling towards modernization. In this period, Zhang Xiaogang quickly emerged as a spiritual and cultural leader of the Chinese avant-garde art movement, a movement that has come to reflect this national upheaval, inventing a new kind of Chinese classicism that has helped define China's contemporary canon.

As an artist, Zhang Xiaogang visually expresses his concerns over the speed with which Chinese society is changing to the detriment of its cultural history. Zhang's concern with retaining ones culture and historical memory is expressed in the recreation of old studio photographic images prevalent in China from the 1920's onwards, images which form the basis of his iconic Bloodlines series. In the confines of a photo studio, the sitter is assigned the task of representing his or her best image for the camera to put forward a lasting impression that will become an artifact left to posterity. Zhang captures this unique situation through the deep, penetrating gazes of his rigid subjects, whose outward appearances suggest a calm composure, with the suggestion of considerable emotional turbulence just below the surface. At a deeper level, these works reflect the historical problem of the clash between family and nationhood; they unearth unhealed wounds and the impact of painful memories longing to be forgotten. The paintings provide a visible language documenting the process of coming to terms with China's recent history, in what Zhang perceives as the disjunction between progress and tradition, as the changes to Chinese society have been too fast and too important. As Zhang had once mournfully mused "We have sacrificed much of yesterday for tomorrow in China."

In the canvas of Bloodline Series: Big Family (Lot 39) here, Zhang's tropes are already well established. Figures pose together before mottled grey backgrounds drawn from conventional studio photography. Their features are deliberately simplified to minimize their individuality and heighten their resemblances to each other. (Although he rarely painted explicit portraits in the series, his own boyhood features as well as those similar to his mother and daughter can be found throughout.) But within the dictates of his near monochromatic series, Zhang finds infinite expression. He has progressed in his art practice from expressing the characters and inner spirit of his close friends and family to a deeper consideration of contemporary Chinese society, resulting in a powerful distillation of his thoughts on family, identity, memory, and the nation.

This composition is formed by a kind of inverted pyramid, the diminutive foregrounded son flanked on either side by the somber figures of his mother and father. They are posed frontally before the mottled background of a photo studio backdrop which references the original photographic inspiration for the series. But as Zhang's thinking on the future of the nation and its relationship to its past deepened, so too did his technique become more refined. Zhang models his subjects' features to heighten their resemblances to each other. Here the mother, father and son all display virtually the same nose, the same set of the mouth, the same arch of the eyebrows and eyes. This gives the painting a dream-like quality, one that is reinforced by Zhang's deliberately soft-focus handling of the paint. They appear as if from behind a fog. This is contrasted with the figure of the son, his features painted entirely in red, and the sharp lines of the "bloodlines" and the mysterious patches adhering to the figures' features.

It is clear that the figure of the son bears much of the conceptual burden in Zhang's work. Red has long-standing connotations in Chinese culture, associated with luck, success, wealth, happiness, and it was also, of course, the colour of the Chinese revolution. Additionally, the son wears a red scarf, bold and realistically modeled in contrast to the soft edges of the figures. The red scarf was a recurrent motif for many Chinese artists (Fig. 1); for this generation, it signified membership to the Red Guard, an exclusive student cadre group during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and this was a period during which the collectivist ideal encouraged identification with the nation as "one big family". It is no surprise then that the symbolic "bloodlines" linking these figures are uncommonly agitated and restless. The resemblances between the figures strengthen the viewer's intuitive sense of the closeness of this family, but the red flesh and red scarf sets the son precariously apart. As a member of the Red Guard, his affiliations should be with the collective ideals of the nation and not to the traditional Confucian values of the family. Indeed, it was during this period that the young members of the Red Guard were politically empowered to rebel against tradition, resulting radical breaches in community and family.

Finally, each figure bears the mysterious mark of a scar upon their features, further linking them to each other in a shared experience. For Zhang, these are the material residue of a formative experience or a trauma. The artist believes that transformative experiences, whether good or bad, become written into an individual's character as if written into the flesh itself. Through aggregate of these symbols and associations becomes a portrait of a generation, the unconscious scars that it carries in all that it endures. Zhang 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). The imagery of archival photographs easily invite in the viewer romantic speculation over the fates of those pictured. In Zhang's hands, these visual tropes and emotional codes become a metaphor for the psychological disposition of the nation, and his Big Families offer us a glimpse into the lives of families who seem to trembling in the face of the fates set out before them. Above all, the paintings of Zhang Xiaogang have been immeasurably important in their compassionate revelations of the conscience, desire and pain of a previously enshrouded nation. Zhang has proffered a unique and very special vision of modern China and has gracefully encouraged a deeper understanding of the rare history its people have endured.

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