Almost as quickly as post-Mao China opened itself up to a new era of reforms, artist groups around the country emerged eager to reinvigorate Chinese contemporary art and spark a national debate about the direction of Chinese contemporary culture in general. Already by the mid-1980s, Zhang Xiaogang's name had emerged as a key member of the national '85 Art Current and leading member of the Southwestern China Art Group.
By the early 1990s, in the wake of the Tian'anmen Square tragedy, Zhang Xiaogang's own outlook and art practice rapidly altered. He began to search for a visual repertoire that would express his own feelings of loss and devastation, one that might evoke the intersection of the personal and the historic. At the same time, the emergence of such contemporary movements as Cynical Realism and Political Pop further spurred Zhang to develop his own critical voice.
1993 was a turning point for the artist, a year in which Zhang produced some of his most provocative and historic works. It was during this period that the artist created canvases that bridge his tragic-romantic humanist worldview, with the later and more conceptual Bloodlines works. The freshness of these works, their poignancy and directness, quickly catapulted Zhang to the forefront of the Chinese contemporary avant-garde and to international acclaim in such venues as the 1994 Sao Paolo Biennial and the 1995 Venice Biennial.
Painted during this critical period, Mother with Three Sons is a rare and exceptional work including one of the earliest treatments of the Bloodlines imagery and theme. Inspired by aging family photographs taken during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the figures are based directly on images of Zhang's own mother and his childhood friends. Unlike the more stylized later works, here signs of individuality are retained with such idiosyncratic details as the slightly wayward pupil or the unruly cowlick. Zhang had originally intended to paint the work only in black and white, but decided instead to add the surrealistic pink and yellow hues of the flesh. Zhang has said that his favorite natural colors have always been the colors of roses, and that he altered the figures' skin tones to signal their purity of spirit and character. Zhang further adds a humble faux-bamboo frame along the edge of the canvas, along with the musical notation for a popular song he enjoyed while painting the work, further personalizing this intimate family portrait.
This affectionate attention to detail reaffirms Zhang's impulse towards elevating intuitive, direct experiences, but the artist also pushes these representations towards an imagery that can encapsulate both individual and collective experiences. The Bloodlines series is also known as the Big Family series, referring to the period in which the Chinese nation was conceptualized as one "big family" and individuals struggled to devote themselves to this collective ideal. Zhang's figures are dressed in the era's de rigeur five buttoned Mao jackets. They stand in the conventionalized hierarchical poses of commercial studio photographs. The direct engagement with the viewer simultaneously evokes devotional ancestor portraits. The figures are linked to each other by the red "bloodlines" that act as conduit between the generations, linking them in cycles of debt, expectation and mutual obligation. At opposite ends of the bloodlines are knife and book images, that appeared repeatedly in Zhang's works dating from this period. In such a seemingly nostalgic portrait, they are powerful but ambiguous symbols. In the context of Zhang's works, they represent perhaps two opposite poles in the dialectic of experience, the uneasy co-existence of the idealistic, spiritual, and emotional realms versus the pain and suffering of material, embodied existence.
The brilliance of Zhang's works lies in their simplicity. His economical combination of images, his reduced palette and compositional elements engage the viewer directly and viscerally, communicating the distinct and conflicting qualities of contemporary Chinese experience. This masterful canvas from a critical period in Zhang's career is itself a powerful example from the artist who would come to redefine the face of Chinese contemporary art history.