Zhang Xiaogang - Contemporary Art London Thursday, June 21, 2007 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private collection, New York

  • Catalogue Essay

    Zhang Xiaogang’s legendary Bloodlines series is now an integral part of contemporary Chinese art. Born in Kunming in 1958, he was eight when the Cultural Revolution began and his parents, who were government officials, were sent to work in the countryside. He enrolled in the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 1976 after the Revolution, graduating in 1982. Like many artists of his generation, he moved to Beijing shortly thereafter aspiring to artistic fame. He enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the 1980s and suffered through the long, state-imposed chill on avant-garde art after the Tiananmen uprising in 1989. Today, he is perhaps China’s most recognizable contemporary artist both at home and abroad.
    The genesis of the Bloodlines series was the artist’s discovery of a picture of his mother in her youth. He was struck by the attractive young woman posed in this portrait photograph, in the formal, carefully poised manner in vogue at that time; he would embark on the first works in this historic series in 1993. In representing his subjects, he sought ‘“to create false photographs,” to hint at the turbulence and suppressed emotion below the surface of formal studio portraits.’ (D. Barboza, Painting that hints at past turbulence, The New York Times, Sep. 5, 2005) The early works in the series were largely monochromatic, marked by bursts of vibrant color such as yellow faces and red armbands. Prominent in these paintings were the red lines that ran haphazardly through each work, connecting the figures to some larger, unknown whole. The symbolism of the red lines has been given various interpretations: they are blood ties that hold paramount importance for Chinese families, the shared traces of Communist ideology, or skeins of hereditary disease that, incidentally, lay dormant in Zhang’s own family.
    Over the last decade, the colored highlights in Zhang’s paintings have turned increasingly pastel, their contrasts more delicate, as if Zhang’s figures were growing more pensive and remote with time itself. “The faces have become increasingly alike, and now all the people in a particular family portrait - male and female - have the same features. They are a single person, [the artist] says, a composite drawn from images of his mother and his own imagination… "I want everyone to be the same," he says. “During one period in China, all families were considered virtually the same family.”’ (Id.) This homogeny also reflects, without overtly criticizing, the traditional suppression of individuality in Chinese society. “He often swaps gender characteristics to make men and women seem almost neutered; he has described this maneuver as indicating, among other things, an oppressive degree of uniformity imposed by current Chinese society.” (C. Lovelace, “Zhang Xiaogang at Max Protetch,” Art in America, March 2001).
    The present lot is an exquisite example of Zhang’s later Bloodlines works. The subjects wear the Mao suits ubiquitous during the Revolution; they are airbrushed to a slightly surreal perfection, their eyes glossy and haunting. The chiaroscuro is enhanced and finely graded like that of the earlier Bloodlines works, while the paleness of the red stains on the men’s faces are a distinctly recent stylistic innovation. Again, the subjects’ inscrutable visages reveal no hint of personal identity or emotion, leaving the viewer to grapple with the tremendous backdrop of social history that lies like an invisible tsunami behind each work in the series.

  • 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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Oil on canvas.
49 x 59 in. (124.5 x 149.9 cm).
Signed and dated "Zhang Xiaogang [in Chinese] 2005" lower right.

£350,000 - 450,000 ‡ ♠

Sold for £580,000

Contemporary Art

22 June 2007, 4pm & 5pm