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Bloodline: Big Family No.8

Bloodline: Big Family No.8
signed, dated and signd in Chinese 'Zhang Xiaogang 1996' (lower right)
oil on canvas
149 x 189 cm. (58 5⁄8 x 74 3⁄8 in.)
Painted in 1996
Collection of the artist
Galerie de France, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1997
Galerie de France (ed.), 4 Points de Rencontra, exh. cat., Paris, 1996 (illustrated, p. 34).
H. Zhuan (ed.), Zhang Xiaogang 1981-2014, Chengdu, Sichuan Art Publisher, 2016 (illustrated, p. 406).
Paris, Galerie de France, 4 Points de Rencontra. Chine, 28 November 1996 - 25 January 1997.

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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

‘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.’——Zhang Xiaogang

Painted in 1996, Bloodline: Big Family No.8 is part of Zhang Xiaogang’s epoch-defining Bloodline: Big Family series which is highly regarded as the monumental emblem that not only marks the pinnacle of Zhang’s art as a painter but also asserts the maturity of Chinese contemporary art. As art historian Li Xianting once stated, ‘The Big Family series, from 1993 to the present, represents not just Zhang Xiaogang's period of artistic maturity, but a certain maturity in Chinese contemporary art as well.’ (X. Li, ‘Zhang Xiaogang: The miniature artist of Chinese contemporary art, and his miniature portraits of Chinese’, CAFA Art Info, 21 December 1988). Following the notable presentation at The Other Face: Three Chinese Artists at the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995 that launched the series on a global stage, the present work is an exemplar that epitomises Zhang’s painterly prowess that reached new maturity while continuously probes into the realm of socialist that defines an unforgettable era.

Spanning six feet wide, Bloodline: Big Family No.8 captures three figures dressed in Zhongshan suits in family portraiture—a typical three-member setting of the series. Suffused in melancholic and muted monochrome tint, these figures appear to be austere, indifferent, and expressionless. Zhang deliberately strips away any individual facial features of these figures through his feathery brushstroke, turning the presence of these individuals into a conceptual and unified imagery that, essentially, underlines the collective consciousness of the era. Developed over a decade since 1993, the series was inspired by the old family photographs from the Cultural Revolution that Zhang came across after his trip to Europe in 1992. As the artist explains, ‘I was beginning to understand that along with the weighty historic background behind those standardised family portraits, the strong sense of formulaic polish was what deeply moved me. It is an ideal of beauty in Chinese folk culture that has a long tradition. Such a concept can be seen in their attempt to leave individual personalities ambiguous or to call something “full of poetic connotations” as a neutral sense of aesthetic. Moreover, a family portrait is supposed to be a collection of visual symbols that are private to its members. Yet, in this format, it is standardised and ideologised’ (X. Zhang, quoted in ibid.)

‘The family is a mirror of society, and the act of questioning the meaning of family entails a probing of the relationship between collectivist ideology and individual experience.’——Mami Kataoka

Graduated from the prestigious Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in the early 80s, Zhang was trained under the influence of Western art history and aesthetics which formulated a more expressive and primitive style in his early years. 1992 is considered a pivotal year for Zhang where he travelled to Europe for the first time and notably encountered the photo-paintings of Gerhard Richter presented at the Documenta IX. Zhang realised the vocabulary of Western Expressionism would never aptly capture the more reserved and modest quality of Chinese sentiment. He began to elicit all traces of brushstroke in his painting and painted his canvas layer after layer of very thin paint to create a translucent porcelain quality in which the sense of mottled, faded old photos is evoked. Zhang employs what could be described as a Chinese mode of expression—using subtle elements that strike straight to the emotional core of the culture and society he belongs. Its complex emotional undercurrents lie beneath the smooth and pristine pictorial plane where solemnity and distance surfaced.

It remains unclear whether the three figures in Bloodline: Big Family No.8 belong to the same family by birth. Yet they are no double part of the big revolutionary family within the socialist system where they are inseparable. The red filaments that linger and crawl on the figures like blood vessels allude to family relations, or the fragility of these obligated ties that bind them. The colour yellow holds an important metaphorical meaning in Zhang’s oeuvre. While the colour recalls Van Gogh’s portrayal of light and life, it also evokes the royal power in Chinese tradition. Zhang integrates these meanings into his subject matters to evoke the possibility of the new generation. In the present work, the central female figure is painted in vibrant yellow while the others have the same warm hue cast partially on their faces like natural light. This natural light from an unknown source is perhaps a trace of the outside world, and projects hope for the future generation.

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