There is always one moment in childhood,’ Graham Greene once remarked, ‘when the door opens and lets the future in.’ In the case of the Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang, the subject of a new book by Jonathan Fineberg and Gary G Xu, that door was opened in brutal fashion — rudely booted in, you might say, by the teenage zealots of the Red Guard. On 1 September 1966, when Zhang was eight, he arrived at school to find all the teachers absent and his fellow pupils wandering aimlessly in the playground and corridors. ‘Finally our home-room teacher turned up,’ Zhang later recalled. ‘Wearing a sad look, he said that we no longer needed to go to school from that day on. That was the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in my personal memory.’
A couple of years later, Zhang’s father, a government official, was relocated to the countryside to work alongside poor peasants. Meanwhile, his mother was sent to Chengdu for her ‘re-education’. Zhang and his three brothers were left to look after themselves, and the family was not properly reunited until 1973.
The Cultural Revolution not only parted Zhang from his parents and disrupted his schooling, it also cut him off from Western exemplars during his formative period as a painter. Once the Maoist era came to an end, he found himself part of the first generation of Chinese painters to rediscover Western art. To assimilate Redon, Schiele, Kahlo, Van Gogh and Kokoschka all at once must have been an exhilarating experience for Zhang, but was in its way almost as unsettling as the foregoing revolution. He withdrew into a long period of introspection, during which he produced paintings suffused with surrealist imagery and Buddha worship. It took another seismic shock, Tiananmen Square in 1989, to jolt Zhang out of his inward-looking mood. ‘Because of what happened, I was pulled back into reality, awakened from my dreams,’ he said.
Zhang then began to paint the pictures that are his most distinctive works. First, a series of expressionist canvases filled with ghosts and snakes and severed heads; then, after a trip to Europe in 1992, came the many group portraits of figures in Maoist dress. The faces in these wonderful paintings are as still and smooth as Giorgio Morandi’s pots and vases, and almost as obsessively repetitive. The same porcellaneous visages occur again and again. Some of them are recognisably or explicitly portrayals of Zhang’s parents as young adults — that is, as the artist knew them when he was a small child, before the upheaval. The subjects’ expressions have the vacuity of identity-card mugshots, but this blankness is transmuted by Zhang’s brush into something beautiful and serene. It is hard to imagine these figures speaking, let alone laughing: they are as solemn and silent as Orthodox saints.
The people in the portraits don’t give anything away, but other elements of the compositions do. The alarming red babies, Zhang has said, are a symbol of the Communist Republic. More enigmatic are the differently coloured patches that appear on every face. They could be seen in various ways: as fragments of a mask, or as undisclosed thoughts passing like clouds through the sitters’ minds. However they are understood, these migrainous blots point to an inner life, to the private world that the regime had sought to extirpate.
Then there are the red filaments that bind the individuals together, snaking in and out of ears, emerging from ribcages, looping around the lapels of buttoned-up jackets. These fils rouges hint at the shared memories of family and, by extension, the nation — along with all the unhappy trauma that entails. In later works, the red thread reappears in concrete form as an electric flex, which is invariably connected to a hanging light bulb. This is Zhang’s most insistent and assertive leitmotif. It is unrelated to the brightly burning bulb that serves as a cipher for inspiration in Western cartoons and comic strips.
In Zhang’s world, the bulb is a wan and melancholy thing, not a source of light but a blind cul-de-sac in the larger electrical circuitry. The artist has said that he one day realised, in a moment of psychological insight, that the recurrent light bulbs represent his father – but there must be more to them than that. They seem more Jungian than Freudian: the lamp’s dark cord meanders across the canvas and plugs into the grid somewhere out of sight. It feels like an image of the individual’s connection to the collective unconscious, a shared well of experience and knowledge that is broader and deeper even than China’s ancient culture and turbulent 20th century.
It is hard to imagine these figures speaking. They are as silent as Orthodox saints
While red is the banner colour of communism, muddy green is the authentic hue of communal living. A generation ago, you would have encountered this shade of green — which lies between pond algae and army fatigues – along the corridors of public buildings in every town from Karl-Marx-Stadt to Ho Chi Minh City. In China, it was ubiquitous in apartments too, just as the artist shows it. But Zhang somehow suffuses these paintings of paint with a palpable nostalgia, and contrives to make the colour beautiful on the canvas when it was only ever drab on the wall. This is the transformational effect of memory on his art.
‘Sometimes remembrance feels more like questioning,’ he has said, and all the pictures that depict tableaux and snapshots from Zhang’s own remembered past are a kind of antidote to state-written history, its distortions and lies. This makes his work politically subversive even though — or rather precisely because — most of it is profoundly personal. It follows that the apparently optimistic and baggage-free motifs, such as the fragrant plum-tree branches that Chinese people like to bring into their homes in winter, are as loaded with significance as the sinister loudspeakers on tall poles, or the pillowcases printed with retrospectively ironic slogans: ‘Love Your Homeland’ or ‘Glory To Labour’. It is all part of the same protest, the same sense of mourning for lives warped by ideology inside a violently misguided country.
Boris Pasternak, who lived through Stalin’s attempt to annex the psyche of every Soviet citizen, later wrote that ‘it is always a sign of mediocrity in people when they flock together; only individuals seek the truth’. Zhang Xiaogang would surely know exactly what the poet meant, and why he had to say it.
Zhang Xiaogang: Disquieting Memories, by Jonathan Fineberg and Gary G Xu, is published by Phaidon on 20 April at £39.95