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(Chinese, B. 1958)
Bloodline Series - Big Family: Comrade
signed in Chinese; signed 'Zhang Xiaogang' in Pinyin; dated '1999' (lower right)
oil on canvas
188 x 149 cm. (74 x 58 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1999
ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai, China
Private Collection, Switzerland
Christie's Hong Kong, 27 November 2010, Lot 1039
Acquired from the above by the present owner
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Lot Essay

Over the course of Zhang Xiaogang's career, the Tiananmen Square Incident of June 1989 was a significant turning point. He felt a heightened sense of not only responsibility but most importantly futility; he felt that the artistic language and style he had developed up that point was not sufficient enough to address the new challenges the nation was facing. Thus the already sprouted idea of going to Europe to visit major museums had finally been realized. Standing in front of the paintings he had studied for so long, he experienced strong spiritual affiliation with these artists. He then kept exploring different art-making directions until the creation of Bloodline Series: Big Family, a series that explicitly addresses the character of the Chinese nation and the generation of his own.

With full maturation of the fusion of Zhang's own personal visions and history with imagery that could also speak to the national situation, Bloodline Series: Big Family has turned into the ultimate representing language of the artist, for which he has become best recognized and most revered. By reaching back into the imagery and experiences of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to address societal realities, Zhang appropriated the imagery and format of family portrait photographs to explore the psychological character of his generation through one of their most formative collective experiences. The generation's inescapable traumatic experience was a result of inherited fates and dispositions, the nature of memory, experience, and history. Having lived in this society, family had naturally become a fundamental and intimate unit that connects people. Bearing this in mind, Zhang could not help but questioning family debts and obligation - a concern that in some sense is entirely his own. In this large-scale portrait, Zhang uses the title 'bloodline' as a device to break with photo-realism, barrowing again from the photo studio portrait genre typical of family photographs. The eyes of the centre figure are slightly crosses and excessively dark, almost literally without a distinction between iris and pupil. His glassy eyes suggest feelings of emotional disembodiment that comes along with excessive shock. This sense of emotional disembodiment makes viewers want to care and even understand the psychological and emotional state.
The smooth transition between different tones of grey represents Zhang's personal emotions and is connected to his own temperament, evoking a dream-like sense. In this dream, a young adolescent boy has silk-texture skin that is a result of Zhang's deliberation in minimizing details of this portrait to give the boy an aloof personality that is often seen in Zhang's other portraits, ultimately heightening the symbolism of the artist's choices. The small red patch on the figures left cheek shares similarities with stamping, seeming like the worry marks of a photograph well-worn over the years. The portrait therefore looks imperfect. This imperfection exaggerates the existing sense of melancholy that also reflects upon the empty black pupils, ultimately bringing the image to a new spiritual level. Comparing to Zhang's earlier work Portrait in Yellow (Fig. 1) in which the spotlight on the face creates direct emphasis on the rebellious spirit of the figure, in this painting, the red patch transcends the figurative into a symbol representative of emotions and memory of the soul. The boy's imperfection has become the physical manifestation of Zhang's own experience, written into the skin as into the genetic code itself.
Zhang's conceptual portrait is not just a likeness, but a presentiment over his fate and future. Through the artist's carefully calibrated details and references - from the title, cultural, figural, and historical allusions, to the boy figure in an ill - fitting suit and cap, an ideology often at odds with the obligations and responsibilities associated with the traditional Chinese familial values is transformed into not just a character of his generation but also one of the many on-going challenges of Chinese life. For Zhang, the responsibility of an artist is to document the hardships and struggles of this time as a lesson and reference for the generations to come.

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