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  •  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." — Zhang XiaogangZhang Xiaogang is a contemporary Chinese painter whose coming of age during the Cultural Revolution and artistic enquiry into the essence of Chinese identity famously culminated in the symbolist and surrealist works of his Bloodline Series. These canvases, reminiscent of studio portraits from the 1950s and 1960s, showed ordinary Chinese people mutely staring from surreal monochromatic tableaux.

     

    Caught up in the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution and subsequent dark, depressive episodes, including being hospitalised for alcoholism-induced internal bleeding in the early 1980s, Zhang Xiaogang was swept up by the '85 New Wave movement that heralded a philosophical, artistic and intellectual explosion in Chinese culture. This search for new artistic language and dialogue sent art­ists headlong into multiple lines of enquiry, instigating and reinventing a new culture from the ashes of modern Chinese art history after decades of corrosive political movements. In just a few years Chinese artists resurrected a parallel and alternative contemporary art history to the West that saw Chinese art mature from strict Socialist Realism to cutting-edge experimental and conceptual practice.  Spearheading the formation of the avant-garde South West Art Group in 1986, which included more than 80 fellow artists including Mao Xuhui, Pan Dehei, and Ye Yongqing, Zhang Xiaogang advocated for an expressive ‘anti-urban regionalism’ that also explored individual desires. However, the Tiananmen Square incident abruptly ended this period of liberal reform.

     

    Zhang Xiaogang with Yellow Baby
    The artist with a poster of his work at Galerie de France, 1999

     

    In 1992 Zhang travelled through Germany for 3 months, a period that revitalised his desire to embrace his Chinese identity and to become ‘an artist of China’. [1] He was particularly inspired by Gerhard Richter, and his ability to channel the history and meaning behind photographs into his work. Zhang’s attention turned to the history, culture and aesthetics behind pictures and question of how to distil these things into his own artistic language. Returning from Europe, he began to survey the faces of the people around him, and experienced a major conceptual breakthrough after discovering old family photos at his parents’ home:

    “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." [2]

    He turned his focus towards portraiture, perfecting a smooth and seamless multilayered painting technique which softened the modelling of his subjects. The beautified, sfumato, aesthetic approach mirrored the effect of popular Chinese portraiture in the late Qing and early Republican period, especially commercial advertising calendars, playing with its ability to create ‘false photographs’ and to ‘re-embellish already “embellished” histories and lives’. Yet beneath their polished, blank gaze, his everyman subjects carry the weight of China’s history, unspoken tensions between the individual and the collective inherent in their ambivalent portrayal.

     

    Yellow Baby was painted in 1998, at the height of Zhang Xiaogang’s career and four years after the birth of his daughter Huanhuan. It marked a turning point in his oeuvre, a decisive move from portraying “human beings as types and symbols” to something more. Explaining the effect of his daughter’s birth on his work, Zhang reflected:

     

    “It affected my personal life greatly. I associated the appearance of a child in the sitting room with my own childhood and youth. This added some depth to the ‘family’ concept. It was no longer a superficial idea about public and private relationships.” [3]Yellow Baby displays Zhang’s hallmarks: his trademark painted red ‘bloodlines’, influenced by Frida Kahlo who used them to signify the relationship between one life and another, were used by Zhang in his group portraits to literally string his subjects together, creating a family between individual relatives, friends or strangers. Here the thin line loops and tapers off-canvas, tying the baby to an ambiguous future destiny and illustrating the fragility of bloodlines and the Chinese traditional phrase ‘血浓于水’ (‘blood is thicker than water’).

     

    Zhang Xiaogang Yellow Baby
    Detail of the present lot

    The soft light of the flat grey background, painstakingly executed with a technique honed after a year of continuous trial and error for the artist, speaks to ‘a sense of history, of changing times and of poetry’. [4] This pared-down style, which reduced the image to its essentials, was inspired by the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, whose ‘plain and simple, yet subtle, language of painting reorganises situations and objects from real life, placing them in a conjectured space and producing a sense of psychological dislocation and illusion’. [5] Endowing his subjects with a multitude of meanings and perspectives, Zhang similarly sought to draw the viewer into this dream-like state of contemplation through his paintings. The iconic figure of the little boy sat alone in his highchair is a joyful yet poignant symbol: heir to the hopes, dreams and struggles of preceding generations, and a harbinger of those yet to come.

     

    “Your personal life and petty emotions become insignificant in the presence of greater times. 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.” 

     

    [1] "Dialogue with Zhang Xiaogang" in Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980-1990, Asia Art Archive, 2009

    [2] Zhang Xiaogang, quoted in ‘Zhang Xiaogang in Conversation’, phillips.com, April 2018, online

    [3] Zhang Xiaogang, quoted in ‘Zhang Xiaogang: Bloodlines and Family, mplus.org.hk, 28 November 2018,  online

    [4] Lu Peng, Bloodlines: The Zhang Xiaogang story, Milan, 2016, p. 301

    [5] Lu Peng, Bloodlines: The Zhang Xiaogang story, Milan, 2016, p. 299

    • Provenance

      Private Collection
      Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 24 October 2005, lot 703
      Private Collection
      Opera Gallery, Hong Kong
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Paris, Galerie de France, Zhang Xiaogang: Les Camarades, 1 April - 15 May 1999, p. 14 (illustrated, titled as Camarade No. 1)
      Finland, Sara Hildenin Art Museum, Zhang Xiaogang, 22 September 2007 – 13 January 2008, p. 98 (illustrated)
      New York, PaceWildenstein, Revision: Zhang Xiaogang, New York, 31 October – 29 November 2008, p. 95 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Gary G. Xu and Jonathan Fineberg, Zhang Xiaogang: Disquieting Memories, London, 2015, pp. 99, 103 (illustrated, p. 103)
      Hanart TZ Gallery, Umbilical Cord of History: Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Hong Kong, 2004, pp. 114, 165 (illustrated)

    • 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.

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Ж196

Yellow Baby

signed and dated 'Zhang Xiaogang [in Chinese and Pinyin] 1998' lower right
oil on canvas
129 x 99.8 cm. (50 3/4 x 39 1/4 in.)
Painted in 1998.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
HK$1,200,000 - 1,800,000 
€127,000-190,000
$154,000-231,000

Sold for HK$3,654,000

Contact Specialist

Danielle So
Associate Specialist, Head of Day Sale
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 7 June 2021