Zhang Xiaogang (B. 1958)
Yellow Baby
signed in Chinese; dated '2005-06' (lower right)
oil on canvas
200 x 260 cm. (78 3/4 x 102 3/8 in.)
Painted in 2005-2006

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Lot Essay

In the 1980s, the Chinese art circle still saw the National Art Exhibition as the only legitimate exhibition for showing artist works. At the time when modern art was still a long way from gaining recognition among the public, Zhang Xiaogang together with his contemporaries Mao Xuhui and other artists from the Southwestern part of China were pioneers in initiating reforms in the artistic community. Between 1985 and 1986, they held four self-financed exhibitions titled The New Figurative Paintings Exhibition, with works based on their belief in humanity and passionate pursuit of life as their inspiration. Through the establishment of the Southwestern Art Research Group and the joint effort from modern art societies of the '85 New Wave Movement, they successfully countered the dominating and decaying state of Academic Schools, and brought significant progress to Chinese art history.
1993 is a year of important change in Zhang's artistic style, inspired by a collection of old photos at home, he returned to Realistic style from the stand point of Expressionism and Surrealism, and began to immerse himself in studying the facial features of Chinese people. His breakthrough in depicting objective reality and the character's psychological activities is reflected in his work like Portrait in Yellow. He has made a huge progress on the international stage at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1994 and the Venice Biennale in 1995. Zhang successfully created an image for the history and spirit for Modern China with his Bloodline Series: Big Family. The characters' in this series of work have uniform facial features highlighting the weight of familial blood ties in Chinese tradition, but also hinted at the control and manipulation that the regime had over its people's during the age of revolution. All characters in the painting has a dull and emotionless face and stare absently, but just as Zhang put it, "it is storming in their hearts"; it is a generation which experience political turmoil and the disintegration of belief. Their faces are puzzled, yet they appeared so poised under the artist's brush. Bloodline Series: Big Family is a summary of the unique fate and memory of modern day China.
Yellow Baby (Lot 49) marks another moment in the evolution of Zhang Xiaogang. Continuing the distinct and simple mode of composition from the Bloodline series, the head of an infant occupies nearly all of the the painting, its face retaining characteristics of a large family, including the egg-shaped head, refined eyebrows, delicate mouth and relatively flat face. Differing from the Bloodline series, however, the figure has shed the symbolic articles of the identical revolutionary outfits, the military hats and red scarves; instead, the naked body gives the infant a pure identity. Revolutionary dress is an ideological instrument born of dictatorship that could be considered shackles of the spirit. Facing the world naked, without these political symbols, this newborn baby is yet to be baptized with reality.
Zhang's figures transcend the realm of objectivity to reach the heart of its audience. The contour of the head in Yellow Baby does not have any blemishes or imperfections; instead it is shaped with the smooth curve of a perfect oval shape, which can be interpreted as a symbol of the purity and unspoiled condition of a new born baby, thus reflecting the joy and beauty of a newborn life. Western Modern sculptor Constantin Brancusi presented Newborn I (Fig. 1) head sculpture in a clean and brief form to narrate the noble spirit enclosed in it. This piece of work echoed with the artistic language of Yellow Baby from the clean rendering of facial features, the graceful lines, as well as the smooth and flawless face, to the tranquil and elegant tone of the works, and it further echoes with Zhang's persistent exploration of one's inner world. It is in close association with the idea of "presenting the spirit through appearance" put forth by Gu Kaizhi (circa 345-406), famous Chinese figure painter in the Eastern Jin Dynasty, the idea shows that Chinese figure painting has long held the tradition of putting less weight on objective depiction of external details, and considering abstract representation that highlights the figure's individuality and spirit as the highest level of painting. The evolution from Yellow Portrait and Big Family to Yellow Baby manifests Zhang's continual refinement on Realism practice and the enrichment of his artistic language by absorbing the nutrient of Chinese art.
Zhang Xiaogang's painting retains Southwestern school mystery. He use the technique of illusion arrange the dynamic spatial relationships between the foreground, background and figure. In Yellow Baby and Big Family, the figure are situated in a space with infinite depth, beyond the camera lens, resembling the boundless realm of Surrealistic painter Yves Tanguy. Such vague and pale atmosphere is of close resemblance with the intangibility and artistic conception traditional Chinese Painters pursued, while the empty space in the work has opened up room for imagination. The unforgettable mark on the figure's face, like an irremovable birthmark, symbolises the collective memory branded deep inside the soul of the Chinese people. In terms of visual effect, the mark looks like old photographs, and even more so as a foreign restoration or interference, bestowing new meaning to the generally familiar image; a similar practice is Marcel Duchamp's addition of a moustache to a replica of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. It is therefore reasonable to take the practice of both Duchamp and Zhang as a rebellious act against authority and tradition.
The significance of Chinese Contemporary art in the last three decades lies in the rise of individuality and rebellion against centralization, it also marks the nation's rebirth and progress after a long suffering and suppressive period in history. After several important revolutionary movements such as The Star Exhibition, the '85 New Wave Movement and the China Contemporary Art Exhibition, Chinese artists began to trace back to the roots of traditional Chinese culture, using modern artistic language of the West, to reconstruct the artistic spirit based on the lessons they learned from history, creating a diverse Chinese culture and put an end to the centralization of art. The rapid development of Zhang's creativity is at the same pace as the China's economic reform, therefore Zhang's art is the link between the past and future for Chinese art.

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