Zhang Xiaogang's haunting series of paintings, known as the Bloodlines Series, based on individual and group family portraits taken during the height of communism, have evolved over the years and allowed him to develop and isolate different aspects of the series. Known as a "symbolic surrealist", Zhang draws upon a finite repertoire of symbols through which to explore the psychological effects of a deeply troubled period of Chinese history, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), during which members of Zhang's generation were deeply affected by the seemingly arbitrary political winds of the times.
In the mid-1990s, Zhang began producing small individual portraits of young comrades in Chairman Mao's "revolutionary family". These images reference common studio portraiture and the identifying photographs required of every citizen. The figures are painted before a generic, mottled studio backdrop. Individual characteristics can only be found in the differences in hairstyle, in the slight distinctions in dress, the stray mole or in the mildly cross-eyed sitter.
In this exceptional example from 1997, the figures' frontal engagement with the viewer veers between matter-of-fact and innocently naive. As with all the figures in the series, there is a tension between this figure's apparent desire to assert herself as a specific and even idiosyncratic individual, and her passive willingness to disappear behind the conventions of their times. Zhang paints "bloodlines" extending out from the figure to remind us of the obligations and expectations both of the traditional Chinese family and this period in which the ideals of collectivism dominated. Zhang has said, "On the surface, the faces in these portraits appear as calm as still water, but underneath there is great emotional turbulence. Within this state of conflict the propagation of obscure and ambiguous destinies is carried on from generation to generation".