Presenting an extremely rare rendition by highly sought-after contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: Big Family No. 9 offers a master work from his most compelling body of works- the Bloodline (1993 – 1999) series. The iconic three-member family portrait has been described as being modelled after a photograph of the artist's brother as an infant and his parents. Existing between the collective vision of socialist China and his own dissonant voice, Zhang created the very first 'family' painting as a mode to negotiate the conflicts of group versus individual identity in early 1990s China. As a result of this series of meticulously rendered solitary figures and family clusters inspired by the artist’s Cultural Revolution-era family photographs, Zhang’s reputation grew significantly, especially after the artist was invited to exhibit several paintings from this seminal body of works in the world’s most important venues including the 1994 São Paulo Biennial and the 1995 Venice Biennale. Since then, Zhang’s esteem and the particular distinction of Bloodline has only grown to garner increasing critical attention and international acclaim. (K. Markley, 'Zhang Xiaogang Artist Index and the Bloodline Series,' Artnet News, February 26, 2012) Fresh to the market, Bloodline: Big Family No. 9 exemplifies a mature work by an artist accredited as one of the leading figures of contemporary Chinese art.
Imbuing an intricate psychological dimension to the present lot, all three members of Bloodline: Big Family No. 9 stare solemnly straight-ahead towards the viewer. Around the right sides of the woman’s mouth, baby’s forehead and man’s eye, blocks or patches of light furthermore resemble birth marks, aged film, symbols of social stigma, or, alternatively, a “lingering sense of the sitter’s self-assertion.” (‘Zhang Xiaogang,’ Saatchi Gallery Artist Profile) Positioned around a baby based directly on the artist’s brother, illustrated in a bright red colour, the young man and woman—drawn from Zhang’s mother and father—wear modest cotton jackets and conservative haircuts, customs indexical to the Cultural Revolution era. While red is auspicious in Chinese culture, Zhang’s proclivity towards this hue also references the ubiquitous Mao-era slogan, “the Red, Bright and Illuminous” (紅、光、亮), a statement that prescribed the homogenised socialist realist style characterised by the “sleek surface” and filtered, “theatrical illumination” mandated of all art created during that time. (Gao M.L. quoted in 1995 in J. Chi Zhang, ‘The Meaning of Style: Postmodernism, Demystification, and Dissonance in Post-Tiananmen Chinese Avant-Garde Art,’ in R. Eyerman and L. McCormick, Myth, Meaning, And Performance: Toward A New Cultural Sociology Of The Arts, New York: Routledge, 2016) Infused from birth with the revolutionary colour of the red flag to furthermore signal the 'birth' of a new political regime, the red baby also appeared in Zhang’s earlier momentous painting exhibited at the 1992 Guangzhou Biennial, Genesis – Birth of a Republic No. 1 (1992). The central baby figure moreover remind critics of China’s controversial One-Child Policy introduced in 1978. Depicted with noticeably mature facial features in a realist style, both red babies convey peculiarly sombre and detached expressions indicating a preternaturally self-conscious awareness of being born into an era of political turmoil rife with tension and uncertainty. This is perhaps all the more significant considering that Zhang based the present work on a photograph taken on the occasion of his elder brother’s 100th Day celebration, injecting the work with a palpable sense of trepidation for the future.
Invoking the title of the series, barely perceptible red threads weave around the baby- connecting him to his parents and linking the father figure to a space beyond the limitations of the canvas. Throughout the Bloodline series, Zhang ingeniously references Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s use of red lines such as in the shared veins of The Two Fridas (1939). Though Zhang’s 'bloodlines' evoke the universality of memories of the Cultural Revolution, these red threads also recall how during that period, children were urged to draw clear lines between themselves and parents accused of transgression. Thus, in comparison to Kahlo’s explicitly exposed veins, Zhang’s 'bloodlines' are more elusive in meaning, denoting both the familial relations between figures and the troubling “chains that restrain them in the darkness.” (H. Yukihiro, Avant-garde China: Twenty Years Of Chinese Contemporary Art, Osaka: National Museum of Art, 2008) Though the image springs from a personal narrative, Bloodline: Big Family No. 9 can be interpreted as illustrative of a nation’s memory. “The way I understand the big family is always associated with the danwei [the state-sanctioned work unit] and my own family… being a member of a big family is an identity deeply rooted in the Chinese blood…” explains Zhang; “the phrase ‘big family’ stemmed from a Maoist slogan, ‘We all live in a big revolutionary family.’ This slogan emphasises collectivity and conformity, not individuality.” (Zhang Xiaogang quoted in J. Fineberg and G. G. Xu, Zhang Xiaogang: Disquieting Memories, London: Phaidon, 2015, p. 83).
Painted primarily in black and white, Zhang’s Bloodline series borrows the language of photography, a medium that was considered precious due to its costliness at the time, to represent individual histories within the strict confines of formula. In Autumn of 1992, Zhang spent three months in Germany experiencing in person for the first time the modern western art he had studied profusely as a student through reproductions in books. Zhang’s encounter with Gerhard Richter’s exploitation of photography in painting as a means of undermining the photograph’s assumed truth value irrevocably altered Zhang’s relationship to painting. According to art critic Huang Zhuan, Richter’s use of photography prompted Zhang to consider “how to create a psychological reality on canvas… that is simultaneously phantasmagorical and substantial, complete with feelings of time and distance.” (Huang Zhuan quoted in J. Fineberg and G. G. Xu, Zhang Xiaogang: Disquieting Memories, London: Phaidon, 2015, p. 75) The blemish-free, impermeable effect of Zhang’s figures lacking in any visible brushstrokes illustrate the artist’s interest in re-touched studio photographs that standardise and imbue ideological culture onto private family matters. (Zhang Xiaogang, quoted in Huang Z., ‘Experience, Identity and Judgement, Interview with Zhang Xiaogang’, Gallery, no.5-6, 1996. Cited in J. Chang T.Z., ed., Umbilical Cord of History: Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Hong Kong: Hanart TZ Gallery, 2004, p. 46).
Reading the Bloodlines series through the lens of the psychological trauma resulting from the Cultural Revolution does not comprehensively elucidate the emotional power of Bloodline: Big Family No. 9. Though Zhang’s repeated mechanisms in Bloodlines, including the stiff poses and colourless settings serve to group Zhang’s subjects as part of a collective referring to the lost concept of individuality, scholars have also pointed out that the issues of “dissonance between official and the remembered past, between individually perceived and publicly acknowledged truth, have global resonances too.”(J. Fineberg and G. G. Xu, Zhang Xiaogang: Disquieting Memories, London: Phaidon, 2015, p. 12) The blank expressions, exaggerated by the similar facial features of all members of the present lot, invite viewers to fill the void within the image with their subjective stories, experiences and reflection. Zhang has written that these figures represent "souls struggling one by one under the forces of public standardisation," with "faces bearing emotions smooth as water but full of internal tension," a description not necessarily having only to do with the cultural specificity of China but could also reveal the global issues affecting change in the world today. ( Zhang Xiaogang quoted in M. O’Dea, ‘Artist Dossier: Zhang Xiaogang,’ Art + Auction 34, no. 7, March 2011, pp.103-106).