In the 1980s, the Chinese government adopted a more liberal and open policy toward the development of art. The translation of large volumes of Western publications into Chinese brought an influx of new ideas on modern art, and the 1985 'New Wave' art movement was born: young artists, stirred by the influence of various schools in Western art, brought these new creative ideas to realization in their work. Questions about imitation and borrowing from the West and the complementary relationship between form and content sparked intense intellectual debate and discussion, particularly with respect to the issue of sustaining Chinese traditional art forms and adding creative innovation. Zhang Xiaogang presents a unique narrative view on these historical circumstances, a personal response to the difficulties and contradictions he faced with the ongoing transformations of family and society: "For myself, 'art' and 'life' were a single concept. Asking 'how do I do art' meant asking 'how do I keep on living.' Art symbolizes a kind of spiritual character, and it embodies the total significance of what we mean by 'life.' These feelings I had crystallized even further in the latter half of 1989, when the reality of the bloodshed had set in." The mass casualties of the Tian'anmen incident in June of 1989 brought an intense shift in Zhang Xiaogang's work. Survivor (Lot 1025), from October of that same year, gives clear indications of his deepening awareness: "The desolation and despair taught me to oppose this brutal reality with firm convictions, to try to understand the existence of death and tragedy from a positive viewpoint. Portraying the tragedy of life and the grandeur of death revealed to me both the mystery and the surreal quality of life."
Zhang Xiaogang's correspondence with friends during this period shows that he was reading Western philosophy and literature voraciously, even frenetically, and taking solace in music that he found noble or tragic. These influences began to produce an inner response, resulting in the symbolism and metaphor we see in Survivor . Earlier, in 1984, Zhang's longstanding drinking habit had led to serious illness, and after two months of hospitalization and therapy he felt increased apprehension and fear of death. The white fabric we see in Survivor is an image of white hospital sheets, alluding in part to his previous personal crisis. The stark contrasts of light and shadow and the clear division of the foreground, middle ground, and distance strongly suggest a theater stage, an effect deriving from the Zhang's short period of work in stage design after his graduation. These connections with Zhang's personal experience may seem at first glance unrelated to the painting's other visual elements, such as the severed head, the distorted human torsos, and the zigzagging, screen-like walls, but these are juxtaposed symbols of the artist's transcendental, a priori, and empirical knowledge and experience. The result is the creation of a unique space that merges dreams, reality, and hallucination. By contrast with earlier works with themes of martyrdom, the severed head in the foreground of Survivor does not seem to be a sacrificial offering. It gazes from the painting in helpless isolation, through grief-laden, troubled eyes, yet it seems insistent, even in the midst of broken bodies, on retaining a rational view of life. While in Survivor Zhang eschews intense or vehement emotional expression, the painting nevertheless provides an unusually thought-provoking experience in its portrayal of grief growing from personal experience. This theme, of the frailty of individual lives amid the accidents of history, would expand to reflect Zhang's thinking about common identity in his later Bloodline series.
In 1992, after a trip to Europe, Zhang admitted to being less moved than he had anticipated by some of the Western art he saw there: "They're the same in the West, talking about the cultural background of those works. But once you get away from that, a lot of the paintings aren't that compelling." Zhang began to think about modes of expression closer to his own cultural origins and personal experience. In 1993, he was especially struck by an old photograph kept at his family home in Kunming. That experience sparked the experiments that constitute his Bloodline and Big Family series. The Bloodline series was maturing in 1997, when Zhang held his first solo show at the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts Gallery, and his The Big Family No. 6 (Lot 1026) dates from the same year. The two faces in it-older sister, younger brother-seem so much cut from the same cloth that, based on the neutrality of uniform and facial contour, the viewer can almost imagine they are the product of a consanguineous marriage, suggesting the Chinese clan tradition of strengthening ties through close marriages, making them "doubly kin" to each other.
Zhang's painting style continued to exhibit a merging of traditional Eastern aesthetics with modern Western art, and his humanistic outlook began to draw him toward portraiture. Inspired by the softened outlines and poetic character of portraits by the German artist Gerhard Richter, Zhang applied a technique for building up soft but clear outlines derived from the ancient Chinese "fine brush" paintings, a presentation that distanced his subjects in a manner that seems at once realistic yet somehow illusory. In The Big Family No. 6 , Zhang retains the core themes and ideas of earlier works in the sensitivity and fragility behind his subjects' wooden expressions, but the intense and accidental lighting of his early surrealist pieces is transformed in this series into spots of light that seem like hereditary markings on his subjects' faces. Zhang's expression of psychological features derives from the traditional Chinese cultural concern for a total aesthetic experience; traditional portraits were judged by whether they revealed the "true, original character" of their subjects. This idea originated in early Chinese portraiture with Gu Kaizhi, who defined portraits as "vivid and lifelike portrayals." This intent distinguishes them from Western portraits that seek to capture an impression or likeness at one special moment in their subject's life. Instead, they seek to manifest the overall significance of that life through the portrait, so that viewers can sense their different mental states and life experiences. And this is why Zhang Xiaogang's subjects seem to break free of the constraints of time and space-they are no longer limited to a set of special circumstances, the particular time or location of the portrait, but instead, seem to be frozen into timeless images that tell us the story of their life and times.
In Confucian thought, "family" and "nation" were always inseparable concepts, and while Zhang Xiaogang's works mainly explore "bloodlines" and family relationships, they also present us with this parallel notion of family and nation. The Big Family No. 6 shows a brother and sister pair, dressed in uniforms; in the similarity of facial contours and the coolness of their expressions, the artist hints that in the age of the Cultural Revolution, immediate family relationships were superseded by one's status as "comrade." When there were conflicts of loyalty, one could be expected to sacrifice one's own kin to the state's system of justice. The distance communicated by The Big Family No. 6 tells us that these subjects have been cut off from the Confucian system of thought and ethics once passed down through the generations, while also reflecting on the gradual weakening of the Chinese family. Early in the early 20th Century, the "May 4th Movement" advocated that the individual dispense with family ties, and in the later Ba Jin novel Family , the most-reprinted novel ever in Chinese literary history, the author attacks the traditional, feudalistic Chinese family. The famous "model play" of the 1950s, Legend of the Red Lantern , depicts a family more bound by revolutionary ties than blood ties, thoroughly breaking down the traditional family concept. And, when the government idealized a nation in which its "700 million people were 700 million soldiers, and its thousands of miles of mountains and rivers all one military camp," the state had formally asserted its precedence over the family. The central thought conveyed in this work is that "blood ties may be unbreakable, but the family breaks down with a single blow." While the lines expressing blood ties between brother and sister are deep and ineradicable, in such an atmosphere of intense nationalistic ideology, they only serve to further highlight the inevitable splitting and fragmentation of the family. This deeply felt sense of conflict highlights the significance of Zhang's art for his era, bearing the stamp of the artist's personal experience, but at the same time stands as a witness to the conflicts and changes endured by the traditional notion of family under the special circumstances of modern China.
Zhang Xiaogang once said, " I believe all of my work relates to personal experience, including cultural experience and practical experience. " In the late 1980s, he explored issues of personal survival in relation to social dependency, themes which by the mid-1990s had moved toward the transference of roles and functions between family and state. This is an artist who recollects the past from an exceptionally broad and detached point of view, and who also finds the emotional link between collective and individual experience, behind which lies the transformation of social thought and values in China. Zhang Xiaogang's unique creativity traces relationships existing at different levels between the individual and the family, and between the family and the state, as they have evolved and changed over recent decades.