Zhang Xiaogang - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Friday, October 6, 2023 | Phillips
  • “Painting should not present itself solely as painting, but through visual means, articulate concepts in order to engage the contemporary world.”
    — Zhang Xiaogang


    Painted in 2005, Bloodline is an exquisite work hailing from Zhang Xiaogang’s widely recognised series (first painted in 1993-1999). As an era-defining body of work which helped shape the discourse of Chinese contemporary art, it is representative of both Zhang’s maturity as an artist and of the development of the collective vision of socialist China by the end of the century.  Navigating the strict confines of traditional portraiture, as well as drawing from the history of photography, Zhang constructs a vague yet captivating reinterpretation of intimate familial memories to depict moments from the past, frozen in time. Dissecting the psychological disposition of an estranged generation, Zhang’s celebrated oeuvre succeeds in questioning contemporary notions of identity and gives a voice to the collective dream.  Fresh to the market, Bloodline, exemplifies a mature work by an artist accredited as one of the leading figures of contemporary Chinese art.



    Portrait of the Past


    Moving away from his earlier work of the 1980s influenced by the Surrealists and Expressionists, the artist’s Bloodline series in 1993 denotes a shift in Zhang’s practice towards investigating national and collective history through an intimate portrayal of ordinary Chinese people and their struggles. The subject of portraiture marked the beginning of Zhang’s distinguished and prolific career and remains a genre he uses frequently and furthers Zhang’s introspective and personal existential mediations.


    Triggered and inspired by the rediscovery of his Cultural Revolution-era family photographs, Zhang imbues an intricate psychological dimension to this body of work. In Bloodline, Zhang explores humanity, the relationships between people, and the links between the past and the present through the adoption of a new format – a smooth yet haunting aesthetic that borrows the language of vintage photography. As a dominant propaganda tool during the Cultural Revolution, photography production was also the very medium that catalysed transformation of Chinese visual representation, serving the state’s ideological aims and projecting a coercive revolutionary mode of social norms. It is in the Bloodline body of work that Zhang’s adaptation of the photographic medium truly stands out and breathes life into his subjects by connecting the personal to the history of the Chinese nation and its fraught emotions. In his own words, ‘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.’  i


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


    Left: Zhang Xiaogang's elder brother with their parents, on the occasion of his 100th Day Celebration, 1950s
    Right: A retouched studio photograph showing a group of young factory workers, dated 12 January 1967
    Collection of the Thomas Sauvin Archive
    © Beijing Silvermine 


    Invoking the studio portraits of the 1960s and 1970s in China, where families or work units typically sat or stood against a blank background and stared directly at the camera, Bloodline shows a solemn father-daughter duo with stoic expressions against a cool grey background, recalling the back sheet of a photography studio. Oscillating between realism and the dreamlike, Zhang masterfully replicates the look and feel of aged black and white photographs. The luminous effect, akin to a lens flare, achieved through Zhang’s meticulous work on the surface of the canvas and his delicate and layered brush strokes, contrasts with the dappled texture from the final touch of dry paint which evokes the mottling of worn images.


    Zhang’s trip to Germany in 1992 and his encounters with artist Gerhard Richter’s work was decisive in altering Zhang’s relationship to painting. Richter’s exploitation of photography through painting and as a means of undermining the photograph’s assumed truth value, encouraged Zhang to consider how a psychological reality can be created and expanded on canvas.


    “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.”
    — Zhang Xiaogang


    Gerhard Richter, The Wende Family, 1971
     Private Collection
    Artwork: © Gerhard Richter 2023 (0187)


    In an exclusive interview with Phillips in April 2018, Zhang spoke about the way in which Richter used photographs as more than mere reference points to painting but rather “he saw their history and their meaning.” By manipulating the photographic image and adding painted elements, Richter’s black-and-white photograph-paintings, as seen in The Wende Family (1971), blurs the line between reality and representation and plays with the sharpness and blur like actual photograph, creating a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty that invites the viewer to question their own perceptions of what they are seeing. Similarly to Richter’s approach in The Wende Family Zhang beautifully renders this father-daughter duo as eerily-calm figures through the use of the limited palette and the absence of discernible brushstrokes, in turn placing the emphasis on the psychological reality that remains and is left unsaid.



    Linked by Blood


    “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 […] 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


    Dressed in outfits typical of the Maoist era and, with rigidly blank expressions and conservative haircuts, the figures in Bloodline are representative of the universal memories of the Cultural Revolution in China. Despite the spatial closeness created by the confines of the painting’s dimensions, Zhang’s protagonists are restrained and seemingly distant from one another, their vacant stares directed towards an onlooking viewer and displacing a sense of unease. Despite an obvious difference in age, their faces are uncannily androgynous and strikingly archetypal, and the lack of definitive features removes any hint of individuality. A barely perceptible thread of crimson weaves around each person, connecting them to each other and to a space beyond the canvas’s limitations. While a familiar relationship is suggested by their similar appearance, it is these ‘bloodlines’ that undeniably unite these characters.


    Frida Kahlo, My Grandparents, My Parents, and I (Family Tree), 1936
    Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York
    © 2023 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Citing Frida Kahlo as the main inspiration behind his red-threaded ‘bloodlines’, Zhang draws parallels to her use of red lines as shared veins in My Parents, and I (Family Tree). Where Kahlo makes explicit references to her own family members, Zhang is more ambiguous in his representation of connections, imbuing his figures with layers of meaning beyond the familial realm. Although the ‘bloodlines’ imply that he is depicting familial connections,, Zhang never explicitly confirms their actual relationship. These red threads also recall how children were urged to draw clear lines between themselves and parents accused of transgression during the era of the Cultural Revolution. Zhang’s red-threaded ‘bloodlines’ are truly more elusive in meaning, denoting both the familial relations between figures and the troubling memories that restrain them, in turn shedding light onto the fragile nature of human bonds on a greater scale.


    Widely collected by private and institutional collections, Zhang’s portraits like Bloodline are extraordinarily poignant. As he invites his viewers to fill the void within each image with their own experiences and reflections, Zhang alludes to the dissonance between the past and the present. Successfully reinterpreting his own intimate familial memories, Zhang reflects upon the social undertones of a bygone era, deeply probing into his personal heritage, as well as giving a voice to the collective dreams, shared history, and psychological unrest of an estranged generation, resulting in a renewed vision that resonates with all people.



    Collector’s Digest


    • 1993 marked the beginning of Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline series, which earned the artist critical acclaim within the international collecting community. In June 1994, four paintings of the series were exhibited at the São Paulo Biennale, winning him 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.

    • His works are cemented in permanent collections of global institutions, including: 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

    • Provenance

      The Farber Collection (acquired directly from the artist)
      Phillips, London, 13 October 2007, lot 507
      Private Collection
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      London, Saatchi Gallery, The Revolution Continues: New Art From China, 9 October 2008 - 18 January 2009, p. 228-229

    • 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 an Esteemed American Collector


Bloodline Series - Father and Daughter

signed and dated 'Zhang Xiaogang [in Chinese] 2005' lower right
oil on canvas
199.8 x 260 cm. (78 5/8 x 102 3/8 in.)
Painted in 2005.

Full Cataloguing

HK$5,500,000 - 7,500,000 

Sold for HK$5,715,000

Contact Specialist

Danielle So
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2027

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 6 October 2023