Bloodline Series : The Big Family No. 10

Bloodline Series : The Big Family No. 10
signed in Chinese, signed and dated ‘Zhangxiaogang 2000./5’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
200 x 300 cm. (78 3/4 x 118 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2000
Galerie de France, Paris, France
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2002
Galerie de France, ADDC Dordogne, Portraits de Chine Contemporaine, exh. cat., Paris and Perigueux, France, 2000 (illustrated, p. 63).
Galerie Enrico Navarra, Made by Chinese, Paris, France, 2001 (illustrated, studio image, p. 239).
Phaidon Press, Zhang Xiaogang: Disquieting Memories, New York, USA, 2015 (illustrated, plate 75, p. 113).
Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing House, Zhang Xiaogang: Zuopin Wenxian Yu Yanjiu 1981-2014 (3), Chengdu, China, 2016 (illustrated, pp. 498-499, 880 & 953).
Perigueux, France, Espace Culturel Francois Mitterrand, Portraits de Chine Contemporaine, June-September 2000.
Paris, France, Galerie de France, C’est moi, c’est nous, Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang, January-March 2001.

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Lot Essay

The iconic family portraits of Zhang Xiaogang have become one of the most representative images of Chinese avant-garde painting since the 1990s. His black and white front-facing visages, impassive – in appearance at least – connected by a thin red thread, characteristic of his Bloodline: The Big Family series, serve as a metaphor for a society that is in constant struggle with its own past, present and future.

When in 1992 Zhang came in direct contact with the West, he found in himself a growing consciousness of his cultural identity. The notion of “Chineseness” became the main theme of Zhang's artistic pursuit, trying to transcend its prescribed, solemn and outlying signification. His intention was manifested in the letters he wrote to Li Xianting, a noted art critic, during his trip to Germany: "Chinese art, if entering the Western garden unescorted by her own cultural background, is bereft of value and meaning." In 1993, while at home, he uncovered some old family photographs. He was struck by the surprising beauty of his young mother, in such contradiction with the image of a troubled and drab lady he had known his entire life. This event was life-changing for Zhang and prompted him to start his meticulous study of the faces of Chinese people.

Painted in 2000, Bloodline Series : The Big Family No. 10 , is a rare work for several reasons. Its monumental size makes it one of the largest works among the Big Family series, with none exceeding it. It is quite unusual to find a family structure of two parents flanking two children, a boy and a girl. While Zhang used to portray his subjects by copying real photographs, the four figures in this painting are without a doubt the fruit of his imagination. Looking closely, the daughter and son are smaller replicas of the mother and father, wearing the same Mao-era conservative clothing, identical down to the pen sticking out of the front pocket of the male subjects and the mole on the side of the nose of the female subjects. Their crisscross patterned shirts are also quite uncommon as the artist usually chooses plain clothing or uniforms.

While in Germany, he undeniable adopted Western artistic techniques and styles. Gerhard Richter’s black and white family portrait series painted from real photographs in the 1960s immediately come to mind. Deliberately fuzzy, featuring the classic two-parents-twochildren unit, front-facing slightly awkward rigid poses, give the impression of rubbed off individual traits in favor of a picture-perfect illusion. From the Western vantage point, Zhang reflected on his own culture and society to extract the distinct “Chineseness” that he could bestow upon his contemporaries, seeking the uniqueness of his fellows, their essence, their tragedies and struggles.

Composed in absolute symmetry, and placing the man to the right of the woman, as is customary in traditional family portraits, the figures come face to face with the viewer with such rigidity that it calls to mind the stately, indoctrinatory portraits of the traditional Chinese culture. Sitting upright stiffly against the shadowy grey studio background, the portrayal exudes a magnetic charm of theatricality and historic gravitas. Such a reticent mode of expression shares the same thread with the Confucian dictum of moderation, which holds that a perfect state of balance is to be attained through abstinence from extremity in both behavior and thoughts so that, as one conforms to rites, one finds the perfect balance between deficiency and excess. This, in the eyes of Confucius, is the finest praxis of morality, and although such sentiments as happiness and sadness are natural and instinctive, they have to be moderately restrained to achieve a perfect syncretism between life, ideal and reality.

Devoid of facial expressions, the calm exterior of the figures exude a sense of timelessness. Only their moistened eyes subtly indicate the painful memories of the past left behind by the political and cultural upheaval of the 1950s and 60s. They allude to heavy secrets, infinite distress and a severity that become poetic. Zhang has stated, “On the surface the faces in these portraits appear as calm as still water, but underneath there is great emotional turbulence. Within this state of conflict the propagation of obscure and ambiguous destinies is carried on from generation to generation.”

Born in 1958, Zhang Xiaogang grew up during the Cultural Revolution, an extended period of chaos which left millions traumatized and shaped the experience of childhood for an entire generation. Conformity was a requirement during this stifling era, wiping away the individuality of each. Fascinated by the tensions between forces of public life and individual privacy, Zhang has created an imagery that is representative of his generation, mortified by the Cultural Revolution and immediately propelled into an era of modernization, globalization and economic growth. In Bloodline Series: The Big Family No. 10 , the children’s features are identical to that of the parents but unlike them, they can no longer hold back their true colors, which seep through their impassible faces. The daughter glows of yellow and the son of pink, setting them apart from their somber parents. Their private history can no longer be held within.

In recapitulating the collective experience of violated privacy, Zhang has created convincing images of the suppressed psyche of China’s recent past: he shows us that no standardized portrait can hide the personal history of private pain.

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