Few works of art can be described as defining an entire era, but Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline: Big Family is such a work. In 1995, three paintings from the Big Family series were unveiled at the 46th Venice Biennale, and caused a huge sensation on the global art scene. Their uniquely Chinese aesthetic — the reserved, implicit style, and rich sense of history — presented the world with a refreshing new perspective on Chinese contemporary art. The series became a milestone, both in Zhang Xiaogang's career and in Chinese contemporary art history. This season, Christie's proudly presents Bloodline: Big Family No. 2, one of the three works shown in Venice. Painted in 1995, it represents Zhang Xiaogang’s style at the pinnacle of maturity, with its smooth, calm and controlled brushwork and intricate details all finely knit together. It links one’s personal history with the collective memory of the larger society against the socio-political environment of the era. It further documents an era that was defined by the one-child policy and "educated youth" (zhiqing) who were sent down to the countryside. An epoch-defining work, it was selected as the cover of the global 2nd edition of Lü Peng's Chinese Art History in the 20th Century.
From 1994 to 1996, the Bloodline series reached full maturity. During this period, Zhang Xiaogang created only five monumental Bloodline: Big Family paintings as large as 230 x 180 cm. Those paintings marked the first time the series was interpreted on such a large scale. Of the five, only two feature the one-child family theme so reflective of that particular Chinese era; this work, Bloodline: Big Family No. 2, is one. The other, Bloodline: Big Family No. 3, set a personal auction record for the artist in 2014 that has yet to be surpassed. From 1998 to 1999, Big Family No. 2 was shown in MOMA's PS1 in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the "Inside Out: New Chinese Art" touring exhibition. Zhang's Bloodline: Big Family No. 2 has become a landmark work representing Chinese contemporary art's entry onto the world stage.
During a period of exploration in 1993, Zhang created two important prototypes for his Bloodline: Big Family series by basing his work for the first time on family photos. Big Family No. 2 incorporates virtually all the classic elements of those pioneering works—the three-person family with an only child, reflecting China's one-child policy that began in the 1970s; the baby boy's yellow colour, which metaphorically reflects the desire to continue the family lineage; and the baby's unique hair style and “open crotch pants”, reflecting the cultural traditions of China. These characteristics are direct descendants of those first two pioneering works, but this one goes a step further. It makes those elements more abstract and symbolic, and in so doing it transcends the somewhat rough, expressionist realism of the 1993 works. Here, Zhang is already turning toward the iconic, smooth faces of his "big family" in a work that seems to encapsulate previous ideas even as it ushers in new directions.
Unlike most of the works in this series, which have strong political overtones, Zhang added details in Big Family No. 2 that create a deeper personal connection, making it one of the works in the series that holds the greatest emotional significance for the artist. The mother's short hair, the father's glasses, and the pen in the front pocket of his jacket represent the artist's interpretation of that era's "educated youth" (zhiqing) and their unique social identity. Zhang Xiaogang himself experienced the years of the "Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement", and his parents, as intellectuals, were likewise uprooted by the political turmoil of the era. One childhood memory that influenced him deeply was the way his mother would put white paper and crayons on the dining table for him to scribble on; in this painting, the mother's face becomes the only warm area in its overall palette of grey. An immediate model for this kind of female image can be found in childhood photos of the artist and his mother, and cloaked within this painting is a sense of Zhang's vivid memories of his mother and his feelings for her. The year in which Zhang finished this Big Family No. 2 saw him embracing his own newly-born daughter. With this work as background, they took a picture together, suggesting obvious meanings connected with carrying on his own family line.
Zhang Xiaogang's extreme sculpting of details injects strong, complex emotional undercurrents into a painting that, on the surface, projects solemnity and distance. He employs what could be called a Chinese mode of expression, using veiled or implicit elements that strike directly at the deep emotional core of the culture. The artist followed a rigorous procedure in order to achieve a specific sense of indifference and distance. He first applied one layer after another of very thin paint, and repeated this step four or five times, after which he used drier pigments to paint the patches of light on their faces. These produce the textural feel through which he evokes the sense of mottled, faded old photos after the passage of years. The red filaments that wind and twist through the painting, reminiscent of the lines of love and pain in Frida Kahlo's works, symbolize the fragile and easily broken bonds that link us. The background, like the dense fog of history, is hazy and indistinct. Whether in the soft and slightly undulating neckline of the mother's shirt and its floral neckline, or the stiff straightness of the father's tunic suit, Zhang tugs at the viewer's heart with a kind of nostalgia, a feeling engendered by the immersive, tactile experience of the painting.
In the early '90s, Chinese contemporary art came to a crossroads. The political turmoil of the past, and the constant influx of Western ideas, spurred many Chinese artists to re-examine their creative direction as they tried to express their society's questioning and disorientation. As they searched high and low, Bloodline: Big Family seemed to offer new possibilities for contemporary creative work. Zhang Xiaogang found inspiration in the standardized faces, one after another, that he found in old "family portrait" photos. They bore the private memories of the family, but also reflected an ideological outlook born of a specific time in history. The artist once said, "We really do live in a 'big family.' In this 'home' of ours, we have to learn how to deal with all kinds of 'bloodlines'—ties of family affection, of society, of culture. Given our various 'inheritances,' the concept of 'collectivism' has worked its way deep into our consciousness, creating a psychological complex that is difficult to escape." In his early creative work, the influence of Western expressionism pushed Zhang toward a rougher, more primitive style of painting. But after a 1992 trip to Europe during which he viewed the great works of many Western masters, he realized that the vocabulary of Western expressionism, its direct outpouring of feeling, would not capture the more reserved and "internalized" elements of Chinese psychology. He began to remove all traces of brush marks in his paintings, and their surfaces became smoother and calmer, but with darker emotional undercurrents. According to the artist, they convey "a certain kind of long-held aesthetic pursuit unique to the ordinary people of China, which makes their own personalities more vague and instead emphasizes commonality; along with that there is a kind of reserve and neutrality, yet one full of poetic sensibility." It is these elements that he feels form a uniquely Chinese kind of temperament.
Art historian Li Xianting once said, "The Big Family series, from 1993 to the present, represents not just Zhang Xiaogang's own period of artistic maturity, but a certain maturity in Chinese contemporary art as well. […] Even if he employed the language of Western contemporary art, he still, through expressing the feelings of contemporary Chinese people, successfully transformed it into a personal language." Old photos are vehicles for past memories, and perhaps the people and the stories that those photographs represent are no longer with us. But Zhang's Bloodlines: Big Family gives us a key with which to awaken those memories. Through the tranquil power of his paintings, Zhang Xiaogang ushers viewers into a spiritual place, a palace full of memories, where we find that our distant, tender memories of families and bloodlines, and our historical, collective, and inherited memories have been permanently engraved.