Portrait with Grey Background

Portrait with Grey Background
signed in Chinese; signed 'Zhang Xiaogang' in Pinyin ; dated '1994' (lower right)
oil on canvas
99 x 85.2 cm. (39 x 33 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1994
Hanart T Z Gallery, Umbilical Cord of History: Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Hong Kong, China, 2004 (illustrated, p. 58).

If you wish to view the condition report of this lot, please sign in to your account.

Sign in
View condition report

Lot Essay

When viewers see a portrait, the first question that many of them will ask is, "Who is this?".

Da Vinci's Mona Lisa can be considered as one of the most widely known portraits in art history. For centuries, people are still debating the identity of the sitter. The concept of identity is paramount in the development of western art - whether they are royalties, aristocrats, or religious leaders, they all want to highlight their noble identities and be immortalised through portraitures. Equally intriguing as "Who is this?" is another question that is the vital concern of many artists: "Who am I?". Through the spirit of self-reflection, artists are motivated to paint many masterworks of self-portraits.

The portraits painted by Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang in the early 90s examine the eternal question on identity. The classic Bloodline series approached this issue with the realistic face of an individual as a point of departure (Fig. 1-4). In 1994, Zhang Xiaogang spent a month meticulously completing the painting Portrait with Grey Background (Lot 37). The work is a conceptual re-invention of the Chinese representational portrait - it is a virtual face that has completely extricated itself from the tradition of naturalistic depiction. This revolutionary single portrait had blazed the trail for Zhang Xiaogang's subsequent creative output. It is the archetype and predecessor of the Bloodline Series: Big Family (Fig. 5) that participated in the 1994 Sao Paulo Art Biennial and the 1995 La Biennale di Venezia. Compared to other works from the same period, this matchless work stands alone as a landmark of the artist's creative career. Because of its experimental nature, historic significance, and high degree of rarity, Portrait with Grey Background is considered to be the classic amongst classics.

"In 1994, I stopped painting again for about three months - I was slowly searching for the right feeling. After that hiatus, I returned to Chongqing in March and spent a month painting a portrait. I painted a man wearing a military hat and a military uniform. He is an intellect who wears glasses. Suddenly, I found the right feeling. (Portrait with Grey Background, 1994) I do that very often - when I am at a stage where I need a change, I would take a painting and paint it to death. I would spend a lot of time tackling it until I have frustrated myself desperately trying to flesh out and express that certain feeling. I would not paint anything else - that painting would become particularly special to me. I would thoroughly eliminate any traces of expression from it. When that painting is completed and the feeling is found, it is like a floodgate opened, and a series new painting is born. However, some of the elements in the painting are gradually discovered at a much later time. From this painting, I discovered several new approaches: One is to paint flat, and the other one is to not to paint in the style of Realism. I was emulating the feeling of old photographs. For instance, the treatment of shadows: I had to achieve the effects of restored and doctored photographs, such as the finish of charcoal drawing, through painting techniques. This kind of painting does not require structure and form. The form would materialize from complimentary shading."
-Zhang Xiaogang
(Text courtesy of artist's studio)

Zhang Xiaogang's investigation into the question of identity is an awakening that covers the multiple layers of meaning concerning the individual, the society, and the country. The artist firmly believes that the identity of the 'I' can be affirmed. Throughout the 80s, the entire artistic output of Zhang Xiaogang was based on the catharsis of the individual's feelings. These works did not directly touch on the subject of identity. It was not until 1992 when he let go of the nightmares and pain of the Devil Period, the religious mysticism of the Shore Period, and the loneliness, melancholy, and misery of the Notebook series, did he genuinely concern himself with the human condition in the world. His inspiration came from the old photographs of his family. Borrowing their imageries, he created a few portraits in a representational style with slightly distorted and exaggerated facial shapes. The particular identity of family members began to direct the content of his paintings for many years. Family members represent a specific kind of identity - they are the relationships that are formed by the interactions between people. Sociologists identify this phenomenon as social roles. A similar idea was expressed in William Shakespeare's play As You Like It, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts."

As a result, the main character in Portrait with Grey Background could simultaneously take the role of the father, the husband, the son, and the worker. As an artist, Zhang Xiaogang also acts as the viewer and the judge. He evaluates the multiple roles of the sitter and chooses their roles in the art world.

Costumes or uniforms are always the most direct props that indicate the identity of a character. During the Revolution Period before the economic reform in the 80s, the revolution army uniform was the unified national garment in China. Ideologically, It can be considered as an expression of submission to the authoritarian rule. In Portrait with Grey Background, the man with the glasses does not have any remarkable facial features. However, it is the military uniform that expresses the fervour of the revolution - it characterises the identity of the modern Chinese. Like the countless men and women in that era, the stringent social norm compelled them to wear this costume in Chinese historical plays, and they endeavored to complete the mission that was assigned to particular roles. They worshipped the Communist idea of the family, and obeyed the intangible and fictitious social relationships. Evidently, he has been molded by societal pressure, lost his sense of individual identity, and became a Chinese character that shared this collective definition. This was how the role comrade was mass-manufactured under the Communist regime. However, history has shown us that the people could not play the assigned role of the comrade convincingly. Ultimately, sociological phenomena such as role strain, conflict, and exit surfaced. When the political identity overrides all other identities, and the fanaticism is replaced by disillusionment, the individual identity is hollowed out by an overwhelming sense of loss. Portrait with Grey Background distils all these struggles and turmoils into a face that is characteristic of the spirit of the era.

Portrait with Grey Background showcases Zhang Xiaogang's extraordinary painting technique: the incomparably delicate brushstrokes are meticulously layered on top of each other to form the near-perfect face of the sitter. The impeccable smoothness of the skin is an allusion to the photograph restoration technique in Chinese folk culture - The idealised treatment of the facial features exceeds the boundaries of the earthly world. It is a quest for perfection and eternity. This idea is echoed in the early works of western contemporary painter Gerhard Richter - the imageries in the paintings were transformed by a photographic finish, and as a result, a unique painterly aesthetic was achieved (Fig. 6). The way in which Zhang Xiaogang distances reality from the painting can be read as a metaphor for his optimism and anticipation for a better future. Despite having lived through the tremendous political turmoil, the artist still depicts himself with humanity, innocence, and radiance. His silence could represent helplessness, but it could also represent the sense of perseverance that is waiting for the dawn after the darkest hours. The side lighting accentuates the sculptural quality of the face and bestows the sitter with a sense of holiness. The otherworldliness that emanates from the painting is spiritually connected to German painter Albrecht D?rer's Self-portrait in fur Cloak that was painted over 500 years ago (Fig. 7). Combining the imageries of the idealized individual and Christ, the portrayal suggests the merger of the identities of the artist and the religious saint. The man in Zhang Xiaogang's painting is precisely this ideal character - his perfection transcends the pain and trauma in history. His eyes ponder at the unknown in the future. Relieving himself of the political role that was assigned by the society, he hopes to walk towards freedom and self-actualization.

Globalisation is a force that cannot be reversed - the relationships between people extend beyond geographical boundaries. It is very easy for individuals to lose their identities amidst all the different roles they have. Portrait with Grey Background combines the unique history of the nation, the social norm, and the idealized world of the individual - these elements deeply resonate with viewers who have shared similar history and personal experiences. Comparable to the masterpiece Father by Luo Zhongli (Fig. 8), it is a mirror of the society in which the viewer can find their 'self' and be moved by its enormity.

"... very often, we cannot help but carry the burden of work unit and identity. When you arrive at the international airport, you will experience the obligation to carry the burden of the country and the nation. To earnestly proclaim "I am who I am" is a concept that the Chinese had invested for a long time and had taken an immense effort in order to realize." (excerpt from a letter from Zhang Xiaogang to Mao Xuhui in 12th of May, 1991)

Perhaps the strongest desire for every person is what Zhang Xiaogang is expressing in this work - the opportunity to forget the massive burden of the numerous roles that are imposed by the society, and to live a carefree life that is genuine to oneself.

More from Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale)

View All
View All