Born in Nanjing in 1947, Zhang Hongnian began his professional training in art at the age of nine. During the Cultural Revolution, Zhang was sent for hard labour in the countryside for four years and in 1973, he returned to Beijing to continue his artistic career by entering Beijing Art Academy. The artist then went to America in 1985 and began his years abroad.
In the late 70s, as a member of the Scar Art Movement, Zhang Hongnian turned from idealized propaganda to realism in art and began his creative path in historical epic paintings. During the Cultural Revolution, artworks were often filled with positive and healthy images that were heavily idealized and propagandistic. In contrast to this period, Zhang sought to reveal the humanity of the people and the revolutionary leaders through realism. Before the Long March (Lot 1057) portrays the young Mao Zedong in 1934 alongside his generals, Zhou Enlai and Zhu De, preparing to set out against invading Japanese forces. The Long March was a massive military retreat undertaken by the Red Army of the Chinese Communist Party and represents a significant episode in the history of the Communist Party of China. The victory cemented the personal prestige of Mao and his supporters as the new leaders of the party. Despite the travails of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang's enormous respect for Mao as the central unifying force in the twentieth century China remains apparent. At the time, given everything the nation had been through, he felt it was essential to have paintings that conveyed allegorical and symbolic messages to recall the sense of idealism and spirituality China once had. Indeed, he feels this is the case even more so now, as the country continues to hurdle towards a fully consumerist culture.
The painting was prominently exhibited in China's National Museum of Art in 1977, in a show commemorating the one-year anniversary of Mao's death. The painting depicts Mao as a young man, confident and noble, looking out to the horizon, indicating the victorious battle on which they were about to embark. Zhang's technique of portraying light and shadow is extremely delicate and subtle; he employs a bright greyish white color on the figure to Mao's right to brighten the side of the painting where Mao is placed. Compositionally, the artist uses the gaze of the figures on the left, who look hopefully towards Mao, to direct the focus of the viewer. The young boy embraces Mao, leans against him trustfully, at the same time symbolizing and reinforcing faith in his leadership. The idealism of the painting is in many ways unique to Zhang's experiences, who at the time often painted scenes from peasant life along the Yellow River. But inclusion in a major national exhibition required that Zhang think in national terms, but his idealism is not that of the broad-chested, heroic, and hyper-realistic figures of propaganda, but in themes rooted fundamentally in the myths and truths that brought the nation together. Such insight may be even more prescient now - and Zhang certainly believes this is the case - as the country continues to hurdle towards a fully consumerist culture, leaving its capacity for idealism and collectivism further behind.