Zhang Xiaogang - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Thursday, December 3, 2020 | Phillips

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  • "Memories are a grave where we lay our souls to rest, a tomb that we build in the kingdom of illusions." —Zhang Xiaogang

    Zhang Xiaogang in the 1980s.

    Zhang Xiaogang's art emerged at the same time that Chinese contemporary art was born. His creative journey was arguably in line with developments in Chinese contemporary art history, continually engaging with the themes of collective and personal memory. These themes form the narrative framework of his works, which include contemplations of time and eternity, constant explorations of the meaning of life, and the romantic melancholy created by the coexistence of the known and the unknown. In the early 1980s, Zhang employed modernist techniques from the West, exploring 'life flow' art based upon rural subjects. However, he found that such realist techniques were incompatible with his sensitive and complex personality. Hence, from 1982 to 1985, during which time he created his Demon series, he actively sought a painting style that is Kafka-like in its essence. Images that are cold, absurd, yet extraordinarily realistic, as well as saturated with religious imagery loaded with strong metaphorical meanings, form the core of this series of works. Influence from Munch can also be seen in the mysterious expressions of phantasmal and nightmarish surrealist scenes. Further, the embellishing touches of the colors of Paul Klee imbue the paintings with a fantastical and dreamy feeling and create a powerful visual tension when juxtaposed with the semantically complex graphic language. With this, the artist has since created a visual maze that acts as a vehicle for his thoughts on 'existence' and personal memories.


    Zhang Xiaogang, The Dark Trilogy: Fear, Meditation, Sorrow, 1989-90.
    Zhang Xiaogang, Madonna and Child, 1989.



    Zhang Xiaogang's Demon series contains a psychological narrative that navigates the boundaries between rationality and irrationality. If the Demon series is fueled by fear and anxiety towards death and loneliness as a result of the artist's direct confrontation with the abyss of pain, then The Other Shore series created by the artist from 1986 to 1989 undoubtedly points to enlightenment and nirvana after the earlier struggles and anxiety. The artist once wrote: '... Escape from hell, and wander towards the realm of 'God', to search for the essence of life and death's mystery, and a constant and exhaustive law of art that eliminates inadvertent and specific elements of emotion, thus playing up the dreamy consciousness inherent in intuition, as well as a poetic state, not unlike a dirge.'i Fairy Tale, created in 1985, is an iconic work among Zhang Xiaogang's early paintings. Even though the tone of the painting is still very much filled with the sense of mystery and foreordination of the Demon series, the dreamy backdrop, large areas of bright colors, and religious attributes exhibited by the figures have shed the sorrow and struggles of the earlier Demon series. Instead, in this painting are peaceful prayers, a transcendence of the self, and a strong sense of religious solemnity. It lay the groundwork for The Other Shore, the next phase of the artist's creative career. Quoting Heidegger's views on phenomenology, 'Every time art happens, there is an inception; a thrust enters history and history either begins or resumes.'ii Thus, Fairy Tale, which contains rich imagery from the Demon and The Other Shore series, and which provides the logical progression of the artist's continuous creations, is undoubtedly the best piece of work from which we can learn more about the personal art history of Zhang Xiaogang.


    Gu Kaizhi, Nymph of the Luo River (detail), Six dynasties. Collection of The Palace Museum, Beijing, China.

    Fairy Tale


    Fairy Tale depicts an allegorical dreamland that is tumultuous and full of metaphors. The conceptual landscape backdrop evoking Gu Kaizhi's style creates a distant and mysterious feeling. On the left side of the painting stands a woman with her hair braided in the style of a Greek goddess. She is wearing a white robe, and her eyes are closed as she plays the flute. White robes (or white sheets) are symbolic visual motifs that run through the artist's Demon series. One reason for the persistence of this imagery is due to Zhang Xiaogang's traumatic memories of the white sheets he saw during his hospitalization, caused by a bout of alcohol abuse; another source of it is the painting Opening of the Fifth Seal by El Greco, whom Zhang Xiaogang sees as 'the true father of modernism'. The painting is based on the Book of Revelation and it shows Saint John witnessing Jesus unveiling the fifth revelation of God. White robes, which stand for justice, are Jesus' gift to everyone. Hence, the imagery of white robes carries not only painful memories for the artist, but also the idea of salvation of one's soul. On the right side of the painting is a tall woman. It can be seen from the ratio of the various visual elements and the brightness of the colors used that she is the main subject of the painting. Her ethereal eyes are vacant, and her hand gesture has a sense of solemnity, like she is performing a certain religious ritual. Her heavy eyebrows remind one of Frida Kahlo, a source of creative inspiration for Zhang Xiaogang, and whose story is also about death and transcendence. Kahlo's work undoubtedly inspired Zhang Xiaogang's paintings. Whether it is her simple yet spiritual brushwork or her highly autobiographical portraits, her works speak of the divinity of all beings. However, she denied that her art was surreal because the scenes she depicted were all born of the cruel and nightmarish reality that she found herself in. This is similar to the source of Zhang Xiaogang's work in his Demon series, as both artists drew from their own 'magical realism'. As such, they share the same symbolic language and surrealist paradox in terms of their visual language. 


    There is a tower-like structure that looks like an altar in the background. Every imagery in the painting exudes a strong sense of religion and solemnity. The altar and the elements in the foreground, including the flute-playing woman in a white robe and the woman making a religious sign with her hands, come together to create a divine scene. The strong and labyrinthine branches and vines that symbolize robust vitality are holding up the head of a sacrificial sheep on the highest point of the altar, illustrating salvation. Beneath the head of the sheep are two red human heads and books behind them. These human heads are inspired by Redon Odilon, a renowned French symbolist painter, who created an introspective world that is far removed from reality with his highly allegorical illusory imagery. The books symbolize the records of history and memory. By bringing together a creative language inspired by Redon and imageries that contain his personal memories, Zhang used delicate lines and poignant colors to infuse the painting with yet another layer of symbolic meaning. Additionally, the lit candle on the altar may imply sacrifice or hope, and the ethnic Yunnan style pattern on the lowermost part of the structure reflects the artist's circumstances in life and state of mind at the point of the painting's creation. Through the manipulation of various elements, such as composition, colors, and shapes, Zhang Xiaogang has constructed a fantasy world distinctly removed from worldly life; a world that is polytheistic, plural, bizarre, full of paradoxes but in no way contradictory. This time around, instead of sharing nightmares and bad dreams, the artist has built an absurd and curious dreamscape. Here, there is death, but also rebirth. The artist reaffirmed the value of life in the face of death, thus achieving self-transcendence and redemption.

  • After graduating from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 1982, Zhang Xiaogang was posted to a social dance troupe in Kunming to be an 'art worker' in an era in which one's survival was determined by other people. It was also at this time that Zhang began to read books from the West on topics such as modern art theory, philosophy, and literature, and he was particularly fond of the ideas of existentialism and surrealism. During this period, he focused on thinking about 'existence' and 'life and death', the exploration of 'individual consciousness', and experience of the 'soul'. Zhang hoped that, through his art, people could discover the overwhelming perplexity and anxiety that 'mankind' has towards its 'existence'. Thus, the Demon paintings produced between 1982 and 1985 are filled with a kind of spiritual loneliness that is unusually pure and full of a sense of predestination, not unlike what is described in One Hundred Years of Solitude. After 1986, Zhang sought his artistic calling in the realms of religion, both Eastern and Western philosophy, as well as traditional Chinese culture, and gained new understandings of 'life and death' and 'love.' Therefore, during the artist's The Other Shore phase from 1986 to 1989, he worked with a creative language that is both romantic and classic. The rich imagery in Fairy Tale reflects the transition and transformation of the artist's works between the Demon phase and The Other Shore phase. The symbols derived from legends and religions do not merely point to the state of the artist's psyche, but also became symbolic imageries used throughout The Other Shore. In this painting, not only did Zhang Xiaogang cleverly portray and create a representation of his fantastical spiritual reality, but also explore the intricate complex visual connections between the conscious and unconscious self. Compared to his works in the 1990s, which revolve around the theme of "a search for images that are uniquely Chinese" and which engage in discussions on the issues of historical memory and personal memory, a topic closely tied to the zeitgeist of the times, Zhang's creations throughout the 1980s are more about his personal philosophy. These paintings are a manifestation of his complete artistic concept and creative fundamentals.


    i Zhang Xiaogang, ‘Self-Statements and Notes’, Zhang Xiaogang Zuopin Wenxian Yu Yanjiu 1981-2014, Chengdu, 2016.

    ii Martin Heidegger, Holzwege, Shanghai, 2004, p. 65.

    • Provenance

      Private Collection
      Christie's, Taipei, 14 October 2001, lot 47
      Private Collection
      Christie's, Hong Kong, 24 May 2008, lot 151
      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

Property of a Distinguished Private Asian Collector


Fairy Tale

signed 'Zhang Xiao Gang [in Chinese and Pinyin]' lower left
oil on canvas
91 x 73 cm. (35 7/8 x 28 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1985.

Full Cataloguing

HK$6,500,000 - 8,500,000 

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

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

Hong Kong Auction 3 December 2020