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Bloodline: Big family, no. 9

Bloodline: Big family, no. 9
signed in Chinese, signed and dated 'Zhang Xiaogang 1997’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
149 x 189 cm. (58 5⁄8 x 74 3⁄8 in.)
Painted in 1997
Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong
Private collection
Christie's Hong Kong, 26 November 2011, lot 1046
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Hanart TZ Gallery and Galerie Enrico Navarra, Umbilical Cord of History: Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Hong Kong, Paris, 2004 (illustrated, p. 97)

Brought to you by

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

Lot Essay

“We do, in fact, live in a big family. In this ‘family’, we need to learn to how to deal with different kinds of relationships in our bloodlines — familial, societal, cultural and so on. We have all been inherited these concepts that are deeply embedded in our consciousness, and they reinforce our sense of collectivism in a concrete way. We are inextricably tied to them on an emotional level” Zhang Xiaogang

By skilfully combining local Chinese culture with a new contemporary artistic style known as Political Pop, Zhang Xiaogang was able to express the very essence of contemporary Chinese society in his seminal Bloodline: Big Family series. Painted in a highly distinctive style that underscores the mentality of an era, Zhang’s iconic series is widely lauded as a monumental achievement that marks the pinnacle of his artistic career.

Since 1993, Zhang Xiaogang has been using old photographs from the Cultural Revolution period as references for his Bloodline: Big Family series. By utilising a treatment that is similar to Pictorialism in Western photography, the artist homogenises all the faces in old family portraits — they all appear to be silent, stoic, and expressionless. Portrait after portrait, all the individualistic features of the subjects are transformed into a conceptual imagery. Any distinctive features that the figures once had are reduced and polished by Zhang’s sensitive brushwork into a unified presentation. The result is a strikingly realistic portrait of the collective consciousness from this era. The subjects in Bloodline: Big Family, No. 9 all have similar oval-shaped faces, almond-shaped eyes with epicanthal folds, small mouths and features that are consistent with other works in the series. The individual differences between figures are intentionally blurred to highlight a sameness that is decidedly not coincidental. When asked about his initial creative approach to this subject matter, Zhang Xiaogang explained: “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 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”.

Through the use of this unique system of symbols in portraiture, Zhang Xiaogang was able to convey a mental state that is latent in the collective subconscious of the society in this work. In the 1950s, Chinese society was guided by revolutionary ideologies. Organisations such as the People’s Commune were born out of the need for the political movement to systematise the population. Such change violently shook the traditional Chinese family structure — a “unit” was a system more rigid and concrete than the conventional family unit. It was stringently practiced so that it controls every aspect of the lives of its members. A “unit” replaced the family as a yardstick that measured a person’s worth and determined their fate. In a highly politicised environment, people were left with no choice but to follow its directions. We cannot know whether the three figures in Bloodline: Big Family, No. 9 belong to the same family by birth. However, without a doubt, we know that they do, in fact, live in the big revolutionary family as sons and daughters of the revolution — under the socialist system, they address each other “comrades”. A single red thread meanders through the entire painting. It pierces the bodies of the figures and connects everyone and everything together. As a metaphor for their tight-knit relationship, it symbolises blood vessels, veins, and life itself. It can also be read as a representation of the prevailing political ideology during the Cultural Revolution. The birthmarks on the faces of the figures are a stand in for the passage of time — they are reminiscent of stains on old photographs. They also hint at certain political ideologies inherited from past generations that are permanently branded on everyone’s collective memory.

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