Property from a Private Collection of Chinese Contemporary Art

(B. 1958)
Bloodline: Big Family - Father and Son
signed in Chinese; dated '2001'; signed 'Zhang Xiaogang' in Pinyin (lower right)
oil on canvas
150 x 190 cm. (59 x 74 3/4 in.)
Painted in 2001
Yibo Gallery, Painting Genius: Academic and Un-academic, Shanghai, China, 2001 (illustrated, p. 89).
Queensland Art Gallery, The China Project, Queensland, Australia, 2009 (illustrated, p. 218).
Shanghai, China, Yibo Gallery, Painting Genius: Academic and Un-academic, May 2001.
Queensland, Australia, Queensland Art Gallery, Zhang Xiaogang: Shadows in the Soul, 27 March-28 June 2009.

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Felix Yip
Felix Yip

Lot Essay

In the monumental canvas, Bloodline: Big Family - Father and Son from 2001 (Lot 1021), we can see how, as Zhang expanded his series, the core myths became even more refined, his approach to the genre of portraiture at once more mysterious and deeply conceived, with Zhang revealing powerful statements on the nature of fate and history, simultaneously asserting an utterly unique view of painting, portraiture, and subjectivity.

Zhang Xiaogang was influenced early on by the photo-realist works of Gerhard Richter but after his first visit to Europe in the early 1990s, during which he visited museums to see the much-beloved artists of his student days, he became aware of how different his methods and interests were from these artists. Where Richter was seeking to create a painterly relationship with still photography, Zhang sought to create works that exaggerated photographic effects, and he has stated that he is "seeking to create an effect of 'false photographs' - to re-embellish already 'embellished' histories and lives". As such, Zhang is engaging our familiarity with a recognizable visual form - the archival family photograph and the painted portrait - to critically explore our own emotional associations and assumptions. A similar relationship to history and memory can be found in the works of Hai Bo, wherein he reproduces vintage family photographs alongside his staged reunions of the original subjects. These diptychs speak volumes in their absences and in their details - the missing presumably departed sister, the youthful likenesses now tired and aged. Zhang's project however is not merely documentary. Instead, it is driven by his interest in finding a way to visually articulate what he views as the collective disposition of his generation. Zhang said, "For me, the Cultural Revolution is a psychological state, not a historical fact. It has a very strict connection with my childhood, and I think there are many things linking the psychology of the Chinese people today with the psychology of the Chinese people back then."

These themes of memory and forgetting, of the individual versus the collective, and of the role one has in writing one's own fate, are foregrounded in "Father and Son". Here Zhang presents his figures as larger-than-life, their monumentality highlighting again their symbolic import over their conventional "portrait". The figure of the father is presented as young, his hair youthfully cut, emphasizing perhaps his innocence and naivete as he embarks on the project of fatherhood. His features are narrow and elongated, adding to the solemnity of the portrait. The baby boy is cherubic, but we see echoes of his father's looks in the arch of his eyebrows, the bridge and nostrils of his nose, and his petite set mouth. His genitals are on display, demonstrating the father's traditional pride in having a son, while also serving as the only attribute marking the child's gender. The boy is depicted as oddly mature and wise beyond his years, his forthright posture and gaze - elbows bent and arms resting on his high chair in a relaxed, conversational pose - renders him more self-assured than his father.

Our focus on the child is further highlighted by Zhang's surrealistic yellow flesh tone. The Chinese imperial color, it suggests the hopes and expectations placed on the first-born son in a traditional Chinese family upon whom the burden of maintaining the family name and legacy is placed. Zhang's discreet bloodlines wind through the canvas, drawing the figures together and into the broader field of filial ties not present. Uniquely though, the child seems to gently hold one of the threads in his hands, as if this uncommonly wise child is aware of the complex and burdensome world he has been born into.

As with the muted and poetic Bloodline: Father and Son canvas, Zhang employs a dramatic raking light, but his range of darks and lights is deliberately restrained, emphasizing the flatness of his figures as well a kind of emotionally claustrophobic space. This tone is further underlined by the artist's symbolic use of light. In his earliest portraits of friends and family, patches of light were literal and symbolic, suggestive of Zhang's feelings of hope and affection for his subjects. Here the "patch" becomes increasingly stylized and symbolic. The boy is the focus of our attention and affection, as he would be with the family. In this context, the increased stylization of the figures, the scale of the canvas, and limited palette, suggest that Zhang's figures are larger-than-life metaphors, monuments to China's past, present, and future.

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