The driving force that is pioneering China's contemporary art movement is the awareness of an awakening nation in the throes of radical change. Such a shift in social, economical and ideological circumstance has led to an efflux of creativity and newfound artistic freedom, allowing a critique of traditional values and expressing the doubt and perplexity of a society as they gravitate towards modernization. Zhang Xiaogang has flourished as a spiritual and cultural leader of the Chinese avant-garde art movement that has come to reflect this national upheaval. The evolution of Zhang's stylistic passage presently spans over two decades, developing from an early expressionistic period to a form of classicism that has become a canon of contemporary Chinese painting. The five works offered here in the Evening Sale perfectly represent the conceptual evolution of Zhang's unique and consistently original oeuvre.
'Fairy Tale' (Lot 151), painted in 1985, is a work rich in emotional expression. It was at this burgeoning period in time that Zhang drew upon his interest in Western philosophy coupled with the emotional turmoil of his own period of self-discovery. In this surreal and deeply symbolic artwork, we find two Madonna-like figures standing before a boxed compartment that is akin to a puppeteer stage. One forlornly plays the flute whilst the other gazes at the viewer in an openly vulnerable expression, one arm is folded across her chest in a protective pose. Upon the first shelf of the box rest two heads, seemingly decapitated or else they are two figures coyly peering from behind the partition. This scene reverberates upon Russian folklore, emphasising the European antecedents of the puppet symbol in Russian Symbolist literature and theatre; an influence that was evidently strong upon Zhang at this time. On the top of the compartment sits the severed head of a lamb with eyes closed and a yellow hue engulfing the sad image. The culmination of the work emanates a mournful reflection, one of peace and acceptance of ones fate yet with a painful emptiness. The figures echo a biblical inspiration, heightened by the presence of the lamb as a sacrificial victim. The theatrical themes exemplified by the flute-player and the puppeteer box set are a haunting referral to Zhang's own sense of loss and discontent spent working as a stage scene painter for a small theatre post-graduation. The muted colours merged with bright yellows and reds present in this piece would later come to mark the unique contrast of colours that is characteristic of his Bloodlines series.
Forgotten memoriesAs an artist, Zhang Xiaogang visually expresses his deepening worry at the speed with which Chinese society is changing to the detriment of their cultural history, as Zhang reflects; "When the order comes to raze a place, then it is razed in an instant. Sometimes an ancient building that has existed for thousands of years gets in the way of a road and it just disappears. This can erase someone's memories overnight." Zhang's concern with retaining ones cultural history and memory is expressed in the recreation of old studio photographic images prevalent in China from the 1920's onwards, and that now comprises the entirety of his famous Bloodlines series. In the confines of a photo studio, the sitter is assigned the task of representing his or her best image for the camera, to put forward a lasting impression as this is the memory that will be left to posterity. Zhang captures this unique situation through the deep, penetrating gazes of his rigid subjects, whose outward appearances suggest a calm composure but underneath there is great emotional turbulence. At a deeper level, these works reflect the historical problem of the clash between family and nationhood; they unearth unhealed wounds and the impact of painful memories longing to be forgotten. The paintings are about the process of coming to terms with China's recent history, in what Zhang perceives as discontinuance from progressive tradition, as the changes to Chinese society have been too fast and too important. If there is an all-embracing message to Zhang's art, it is simply to move toward the future, but do not forget the past. As Zhang had once mournfully mused "We have sacrificed much of yesterday for tomorrow in China."
Family Bloodlines; Mother & Son'Bloodline; Mother and Son'(Lot 152), painted in 1993, marks an extraordinary pinnacle in Zhang's artistic progression. Flanked in time by both the 'Portrait in Yellow' series and the preceding, hauntingly powerful 'Tiananmen Square' (fig.1), this work stands as a unique and monumental transition in Zhang's artistic corpus.
By the time this work was executed, Zhang had progressed in his collected thought from expressing the characters and inner spirit of his close friends and family to a deeper analysis on contemporary Chinese society. This work is an exceptional, combinative expression of both his close family relationships and an antecessor to the furtive emotion portrayed in 'Tiananmen Square', as such reflecting Zhang's own tentative steps to enunciating his feelings on the horrific event of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, a calamity that shook the collected artistic foundation of all contemporary Chinese artists at that time. 'Bloodline; Mother and Son' was one of a selective ten works that Zhang displayed in the pivotal December 1993 exhibition '1990's Chinese Art: The Chinese Experience at the Sichuan Art Museum in Chengdu',(fig. 2) along with four of his close peers Mao Xuhui, Ye Yongqing, Wang Chuan and Zhou Chunya. This exhibition marked a distinguishing point in the dawn of contemporary Chinese art, where the culmination of the most defining artists stood united for the first time in their expression and discourse of the Chinese social situation.
'Bloodline; Mother and Son' is an immensely personal self-portrayal of the artist and his mother. Zhang has often reflected upon his childhood spent relatively sheltered from the direct terror of the Cultural Revolution. He was first taught to paint by his Mother who, believing he would get into trouble if left un-stimulated, encouraged Zhang to sketch scenes inspired by his favourite comic books. This work is immensely pivotal in the portrayal of the close relationship Zhang shares with his mother, the woman whom first inspired him to paint. In addition, this work also incorporates the very component that served as the inspiration behind Zhang's Bloodlines series; the photographic portrait of his mother as a young, attractive woman (fig. 3). In the summer of 1993 Zhang recalls the profound impact he felt by stumbling across old photographs, the collective ideal of which would then inspire him to create the Bloodlines series. By this time, Zhang had developed from his experiments with quasi-cubist style, a lexicon and palette for representing the human face and figure thus heightening the sense of interiority inherent in these initial vistas. This composition strongly echoes his inspiration of the style of 'Trompe L'oeil' frame structure (fig. 4). The patch of light hitting their faces is a prototype to the patches that adorn the austere faces of the later Bloodlines Series. These markings may be read in a combination of two ways; as an imitation of damage created over time to the photographic original or as a mark symptomatically evoking the memory of an external trauma that has left an enduring imprint upon the protagonist. The subjects are placed within a stark room of prosaic palette, a speaker and a television set flank the pair and Zhang's red "bloodline" is here manifested as a red electricity cable that travels from the socket to an old television set projecting the photograph of Zhang's mother as a young woman, navigating through both the mother and son before finally reaching the speaker. This conduit reflects the hereditary relationship between Zhang and his mother in light of the burgeoning and rapid change of Chinese society, here exemplified by the images of access to modern media. The musical text in the upper-central portion of the painting is an interesting quirk, which Zhang has revealed to be the particular song he was listening to on the radio on that day or time. With limited access to outside media, Zhang audibly devoured the radio stations as his only source of foreign music. The scribbled piece of paper that rests between Zhang and his mother is reminiscent of the later series 'Amnesia and Memory', where Zhang recalls the use of a personal diary; a literary release that Zhang as a young adult evidently enjoyed. Similarly, the weather notes in the right-hand corner refer to the forecast on that particular day, hence we gain the overall sense that this work is indeed a diary of some description.
It is clear that Zhang still draws upon his surrealist inspiration for this work, as epitomised in his works of the mid-80's such as 'Fairy Tale', as he uses certain expositional constituents to subtract the figures from reality, placing them into the conceptual realms of the artist's imagination.
Zhang's childhood was not idyllic however as his family, Zhang felt, was outcast due to his Mother's mental disease. Zhang's father attempted to hide her symptoms of schizophrenia and this had the biggest impact on the youngest child Zhang Xiaogang in particular as they were very close; "[my Mother] would be fine for days and then change, one minute crying inconsolably, the next laughing hysterically, [then] she would be normal again. Although she was always very nice to me, as a child I found it terrifying".
The prejudice towards such illnesses within the Chinese society at that time, coupled with the belief that all should contribute equally to society was difficult for the family under such unforgiving political protocol; "From as early as I can remember, I felt our family was not normal. Eventually relations broke down completely under the pressure". The effect of this was heightened when Zhang discovered that his mother had not indeed become ill after his birth as his father had maintained. Some small remnants of Zhang's disquiet about hereditary traits can be seen in the subtle implications of certain paintings, as evidenced in the genetic quirks and nuancial defects that touch certain family members throughout the portraits.
A Red Childhood Zhang's childhood reflection continues with 'Baby Boy with Red Face' (Lot 153), painted in 1995. Here we find an almost identical replica of Zhang's own baby photograph taken in 1958, capturing Zhang at one hundred days old (fig. 5). The colours of this work in comparison to the photograph are far more muted bar the red of the baby's skin, and the subject is placed before a blank, impalpable background. His choice of red as a self-identifying colour marks him as a child born into the Mao era of the Cultural Revolution and identifies his fellowship with the generation. The aesthetic re-touching of the original photograph is a a method Zhang uses both to express the idealisation of the sitter and as a reference to ones positively tainted recall of memory. It is also a further indication towards Zhang's inspiration in creating the Bloodlines paintings; the artist drew from the photographs as inspiration and evolved the idea to the next level. In comparison to the photographs of yonder years, Zhang's portraitures embark upon a greater realm of texture, brushstroke and indeed emotion, as Zhang's subjects proffer a more intensely emotional dialogue with the viewer. Indeed, Zhang has transferred the damage or discolouration apparent on the older photographs to a profoundly symbolic meaning of bad memory, individualised by colour. The notion of positively tainted memories is perhaps personally drawn from Zhang's individual experiences, as he has often expressed his surprise at his own pleasant memories during the time of the Cultural Revolution when collectively the society was suffering deeply.
'Girl with Braids' (Lot 155, executed in 2006) and 'Bloodline; Big Family Series' (Lot 154, executed in 1996), represent the polar phases of the Bloodlines series. In 'Girl with Braids' Zhang has moved away from depicting families to individual subjects, a work series subtitled Comrades. Throughout these works, there occur sporadic details that suggest an adherence to the ideas and values of the Cultural Revolution. Through Zhang Xiaogang's formative years, the concept of a 'comrade' in China was all-inclusive, referring to all kinsmen of the nation. Here we find a solemn female figure in a green army uniform, standing rigidly beside a bare tree. Upon her left arm is a red armband identifying her as a member of the Red Guard, the brilliant red hue is the more potent as Zhang's paintings are usually subdued in colour. The forlorn young girl has an outwardly authoritative air, the Mao costume she wears is far too mature for one her age and we gain a sense of a young girl forced into maturity. Her hands clasped behind her back give an indication of dissemblance and a will to hide her emotions in order to maintain the outward appearance. The tree in this painting is at first glance seemingly dead as its base is contained within a concrete slab. However, in traditional Chinese painting and cultural symbolism, this tree - the plum or ume tree- carries a wealth of meaning. The flowering plum is one of the most important aspects of classical Chinese painting, as it represents renewal and strength of will, resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity, and has also been used as a metaphor to symbolize revolutionary struggle. The tree flowers in late winter and as such is linked to this cold season. The plum tree is collectively known as one of the "Four Gentlemen" which in Chinese art refers to four plants: the orchid, the bamboo, the chrysanthemum, and the plum blossom. The term stems from the Song dynasty and compares the four plants to Confucianist junzi, or "gentlemen", as each is revered for the strength of admirable character. This tree is also closely correlated with scholarship and learning, as it is during the winter period, when agricultural work is impossible, that those of a learned mind turn to books and philosophy. Despite the connotations of strength and revolutionary struggle, it is still very interesting that Zhang chooses to incorporate this traditional motif with its heavy classical symbolism into his works.
Zhang's artistic evolution that is marked by the combinative expression of the Bloodlines and Comrades series - of which the works are far more realistic in terms of anatomical form and specific identity - represents a clear maneuver towards his burgeoning dialogue on contemporary society. Zhang's sensitive focus and concern throughout both series addresses the plight of the individual and the notion of self-identification set against the crushing weight of the required conformities of society.
Progeny of the Cultural Revolution The family portrayal of two siblings in 'Bloodline; Big Family Series' (1996) exemplifies the Big Family sector of the Bloodlines series. In this portrait, we find a head & shoulders portrait of two young adults. The yellow patched hue they both share - more prominent on the female figure - indicates their shared genealogy and solidifies their family bond. The characteristic squint of the male figure typifies a feature often adopted by Zhang in the mid to late-90's, a quirky feature that may also manifest itself in the form of a mole or buck teeth. Retrospectively, it emerges that the pioneering Bloodlines series that Zhang produced in1993, where Zhang painted a father in an army cap with a magenta-coloured baby, is in fact one of Zhang Xiaogang's elder brothers, who was born with a slightly cross-eyed squint and is thus recognisable in subsequent works by this physical trait. This characteristic personifies the sitter and - for good or bad - marks them as unique, it also again draws upon Zhang's own personal turmoil of hereditary defects and both physical and mental inheritance. Once again, the sitters betray an emotional turmoil beneath their poised exterior, as their eyes - whilst superficially impassive - hold a powerful, watery stare. Zhang has often commented at the difficulty with which he renders the eyes of his subjects, commenting that it is by far the longest process of his creative focus.
The progression of Zhang's opus marks an extraordinarily talented artist with a fearless approach to innovation and one who possesses a rare honesty of emotional articulation. His dynamic evolution in style consistently challenges both the artist and the viewer, re-considering and re-interpreting political and ideological motivations as they weave through a shifting contemporary society. Above all, the paintings of Zhang Xiaogang have been immeasurably important in their compassionate revelations of the conscience, desire and pain of a previously enshrouded nation. Zhang has proffered a unique and very special vision of modern China and has gracefully encouraged a deeper understanding of the rare history its people have endured.