Zhang Xiaogang - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Wednesday, June 22, 2022 | Phillips

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  • Introduction


    As one of the defining painters of his generation, Zhang Xiaogang is widely recognised for his series of Bloodline paintings that are instrumental in shaping the discourse of Chinese contemporary art, catapulting the artist onto the purview of the international art world. Questioning contemporary notions of identity and navigating the construction of memory, Zhang’s portraits are extraordinarily poignant. Inviting his viewers to fill the void within each image with their own experiences and reflections, Zhang’s celebrated oeuvre succeeds in reinterpreting the artist’s intimate familial memories, as well as giving a voice to the collective dreams and psychological unrest of an estranged generation.



    The artist on the inspiration behind the Bloodline series: ‘Zhang Xiaogang: Bloodlines and Family’ 

    Video courtesy M+ Museum, Hong Kong


    From the Personal to the Collective


    “I am more concerned with personal memories. I believe that large memories are accumulated from small memories and that is why I chose to approach my work from a familial angle. Families are basic units of little memories but they contain the memories of the entire nation and its people.”
    — Zhang Xiaogang


    Triggered by the discovery of his own family photos, Zhang started his Bloodline series inspired by the personal history and associated emotions they encapsulate: ‘So many things are embodied in history that we have neglected in the past. When I looked at the family photo, I saw my parents in their youth which contrasted with ours, and I was deeply moved.’ 



    Zhang Xiaogang's elder brother with their parents, on the occasion of his 100th Day Celebration, 1950s


    Zhang Xiaogang’s works are also anchored firmly in art historical traditions. Citing Frida Kahlo as the inspiration behind the ‘red line’ motif in his portraits, Zhang adapts this idea into his own, threading his protagonists together. However, as opposed to Kahlo’s choice of representing relationships between blood relatives with a straightforward family tree composition, Zhang wanted to make connections between people who were unrelated as well: ‘They might be relatives, friends or unrelated. I wanted to string them together like a network to create the feeling of a family’ ii. Zhang’s scarlett lines are also noticeably thinner than Kahlo’s example; they coil and tangle around each person in soft, delicate lines, capturing the fragile nature of human bonds.



    Frida Kahlo, My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree), 1936
    Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York
    © 2022 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Zhang’s choice of connecting unrelated people acts as metaphors for the legacy of China’s Maoist era, reflecting a greater societal status quo:


    "For me, the Cultural Revolution is a psychological state, not a historical fact.”
    — Zhang Xiaogang


    Zhang’s portraits are a cultural product of a specific era, symbolic of its time. In contrast to his peers such as Fang Lijun or Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang diverges away from Social Realism depictions in portraiture, instead creating solemn characters that share the same large, watery eyes, pale skin, only differing slightly in hairstyles. Their individuality is almost indiscernible, suppressed under social conformity, each wearing a similarly restrained, stoic expression; their stifled emotions only conveyed delicately through subtle variations. In works such asBloodline Series - Big Family, Zhang brings together ideas of personal heritage, collective history and cultural inheritance, crystallising snippets of the past onto the canvas, creating works that reflect on the social undertones of a bygone era that is able to resonate with the viewer emotionally and psychologically.



    Between Painting and Photography: The Chinese Family Portrait


    With distinct painterly prowess, Zhang labours arduously over the surfaces of his works with delicate brushstrokes, creating stippled textures and carefully shaded backdrops in a muted colour palette. Using very thin paint, the artist adds layer upon layers, with a final touch of dry paint on top to create a diffused, spotty texture that is reminiscent of mottled old photographs.


    Inspired by old family photos during the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Xiaogang’s portraits adapts the compositional framework of these photographs. Drawing from the generic poses of formal photo studio poses and a monotone palette, Zhang’s figures are rendered perfectly smooth, lacking in any visible brushstrokes, illustrating the artist’s interest in re-touched photographs, translating the language of photography into paint.



    A retouched studio photograph showing a group of young factory workers, dated 12 January 1967
    Collection of the Thomas Sauvin Archive
    © Beijing Silvermine  


    Ubiquitous to a whole generation, these standardised poses and styles in his portraits resonate with a whole generation, as one can easily find several albums of similar shots taken in the same style with  their own families, colleagues and friends. Based around this concept of a ‘family’ that is immediate, extended and societal, the artist is able to allude to nameless and timeless figures with individual histories and unnerving nuances. The occasional splotches of colour interrupts the otherwise perfectly rendered image, reminiscent of aged film or old tape that were used in photo albums, introducing a lingering sense of nostalgia and hazy emotional undercurrents.


    "I am seeking to create an effect of 'false photographs' — to re-embellish already 'embellished' histories and lives."
    — Zhang Xiaogang


    Before the commencement of the Bloodline series in 1993, Zhang had spent three months in Germany in 1992, studying Western art and experiencing artworks he had only seen in books before in person. His encounter with the works of Gerhard Richter irrevocably altered Zhang’s approach in painting, pushing him to consider how to bring an added dimension of psychological resonance into his work, creating unsettling distance.


    Gerhard Richter, Familie Ruhnau (The Ruhnau Family), 1968
    The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
    © Gerhard Richter 2022 (0115) 


    In 2018, Zhang Xiaogang sat down with Phillips in an exclusive interview to further elaborate on how Richter had inspired his Bloodline series:


    Phillips:We are curious about the photographs on which the Bloodline series are based and how old photos impact your work. You have cited Gerhard Richter as an artist who greatly inspires you; has his use and manipulation of photography influenced your work?


    Zhang Xiaogang: In 1992, when I travelled throughout Germany, Richter inspired me the most as a contemporary artist. I was not expecting this; at the time, Richter had little exposure in China. It was also impossible to gauge his level of influence and social standing. When I was in Germany, where Expressionism prevailed, Richter's works were truly a breath of fresh air. In the past, artists used photographs in the painting process, but only as informational tools and reference points. Richter, however, looked at photos and saw their history and meaning, which greatly inspired me. I started to pay attention to the history, culture and aesthetics behind pictures and distilled these things into my own artistic language. Through old pictures, I was able to learn about the ideas of traditional Chinese aesthetics, including how people delighted in the process of taking and developing film. They also went to great lengths to beautify the subjects of their pictures, just like how we still are constantly refining history and polishing memories. I also went through my own process of refining old photos—though, my purpose was to reconstruct old memories. For me, the journey from old photos to my Bloodline series was a process of re-embellishing.


    Read the full interview here.



    Collector’s Digest


    Beginning his artistic career in the 1980s, Zhang Xiaogang had taken part in instrumental exhibitions in Chinese art history, namely China Avant-Garde in National Art Museum of China in Beijing in 1989, and the Neo-Realism exhibition held in Shanghai and Nanjing in 1985. An active painter of over four decades, Zhang has witnessed and influenced the development of contemporary art discourse in China and his work, in particular his Bloodline series, is regarded highly within the international collecting community.


    “The 'Bloodline' series represents one of the most important periods and turning points of my artistic career.”
    — Zhang Xiaogang


    Beginning in 1993, the Bloodline series marked the year in which Zhang Xiaohang abandoned expressionism and moved away from Surrealism and personal existentialist meditations, and towards investigations on national and collective history. In June 1994, four paintings from the Bloodline series debuted at the São Paulo Biennale, winning the artist a bronze medal. The following year, 13 large Big Family paintings were exhibited at the Venice Biennale, marking the beginning of Zhang’s distinguished and prolific career.



    Another work from Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline Series (Right), Bloodline: Big Family No. 17, 1998
    M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong, 2021
    Courtesy: M+, Hong Kong; photograph: Los Cheng


    Widely collected, Zhang’s work has also found places in the permanent collections of institutions such as: HOW Art Museum, Shanghai; Long Museum, Shanghai; M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris; National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul; Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum, Japan; and National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, amongst others.



    i Zhang Xiaogang, quoted in M Plus Museum Hong Kong, ‘Zhang Xiaogang: Bloodlines and Family’, 28 November 2018, online

    ii Zhang Xiaogang, quoted in Zhang Wenjia, ‘Zhang Xiaogang: In Conversation’, Phillips, March 2019, online

    • Provenance

      Private Collection
      Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 7 April 2007, lot 157
      Private Collection
      Ravenel, Hong Kong, 30 May 2011, lot 46
      Private Collection
      China Guardian, Hong Kong, 29 May 2017, lot 616
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Artist Biography

      Zhang Xiaogang

      Chinese • 1958

      Relying on memory and inspired by family portraits from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Zhang Xiaogang creates surreal, subtle artworks that explore the notion of identity in relation to the Chinese culture of collectivism. Using a muted, greyscale palette, Xiaogang repeatedly depicts a series of unnervingly similar figures, often dressed in identical Mao suits, to create an endless genealogy of imagined forebears and progenitors. Their somber, melancholy gazes are interrupted only by thin red bloodlines intimating familial links as well as occasional pale splotches of color resembling birthmarks.

      Xiaogang investigates how to express individual histories within the strict confines of a formula. His sitters, while appearing muted and compliant, are given physical exaggerations: oversized heads, tiny hands and long noses. These distortions imply stifled emotions and give a complex psychological dimension to the artist's work.

      View More Works


Bloodline Series - Big Family

signed and dated 'Zhang Xiaogang [in Chinese] 2006' lower right
oil on canvas
160 x 200.5 cm. (62 7/8 x 78 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2006, this work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist.

Full Cataloguing

HK$7,500,000 - 10,000,000 

Sold for HK$8,115,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 22 June 2022