Bloodline: The Big Family

Bloodline: The Big Family
signed in Chinese, signed and dated 'Zhang Xiaogang 1997' (lower right)
oil on canvas
128 x 99 cm. (50 3/8 x 39 in.)
Painted in 1997
Galerie Serieuze Zaken, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Private Collection, Europe
Galerie Serieuze Zaken; & Canvas World Art, Confused...Reckoning with the Future - Contemporary Chinese Paintings and Photography, Amsterdam, Netherlands; & Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1998 (illustrated, p. 25).
Amsterdam, Netherlands, Amsterdam RAI, Confused...Reckoning with the Future - Contemporary Chinese Paintings and Photography, 23-28 June 1998.


The family portrait is a medium of intimate memories. It tells the story of a family and commemorates important stages in live that the members have experienced. In other words, every family portrait is a unique picture of visual storytelling.

However, when Zhang Xiaogang looked at his old family photographs, he was deeply touched by how formalised these family portraits from the era of socialism were— everyone in the photograph stood stiffly, wore the same Mao suit, and had faces that carried the same demeanour. These observations made Zhang Xiaogang realise the multitude of loaded meanings in the word 'family'. Bloodline: The Big Family (Lot 10) was painted in 1997. At the time, the classic Bloodline series was continuing to mature. From the individual to the collective, from the family to the nation, Zhang Xiaogang captures the zeitgeist of the post Cultural Revolution era and painted a portrait that represents the entire generation.

What is Chinese contemporary art? As cultural exchange became more frequent in the 1990s, Chinese artists were facing the challenge of integrating themselves with the rest of the world. Zhang Xiaogang was invited to Germany to attend an academic conference, as well as to view the Kassel Documenta in 1992. The experience motivated him to formulate a new direction and position for Chinese contemporary art. Apart from mastering the vocabulary of international contemporary art, Chinese contemporary art shall not be detached from its cultural background and every day experience. Zhang Xiaogang has always been at the forefront of the Chinese avant-garde. In 1985, he organised and participated in the New Concrete Image exhibition— it was one of the earliest self-funded exhibitions in the '85 New Wave movement. Subsequently, Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui, Zhou Chunya, and Ye Yongqing formed the influential emerging artist collective Southwestern Art Research Group. After much contemplation, he completed the first Bloodline painting in the summer of 1993— it was a milestone in his career, as well as for Chinese contemporary art history. Other works from the series were shown in major international art exhibitions including the 1994 Sao Paulo Art Biennial, 1995 Venice Biennale, and the China! exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bonn in 1996.

As the title of this painting suggests, viewers are likely to instantly assume that the children in the pictures are siblings. However, it is possible that they are unrelated people of the same generation, especially during a time when political identity trumps individual determination, and the nation trumps the family. Earlier works from the series explore the lineage between two generations (Fig. 1). This work, in contrast, focuses on the nuanced relationship between people of the same generation. The red scarf is a key symbol in Zhang's work— it highlights how collectivism impacts traditional family values. The Young Pioneers of China is a national children's organisation that is led by the state. The red scarf that they wear belongs to the corner of the squadron's flag. It symbolises the blood of the revolutionary martyrs. Every young pioneer is required to wear the red scarf when they go to school. Numerous revolutionary posters featured children proudly wearing these scarves (Fig. 2). In the arms of the "big family" that is the nation, these children welcomed the future with optimism. Zhang Xiaogang remembers, "We were, in earnest, living together in a "big family". In this big family, one had to learn how to manoeuvre a variety of "bloodline" relationships — biological bloodlines, social bloodlines, cultural bloodlines, and so on." This is the utmost intimate experience of the artist. It is also his formulation of how relationships between the individual and the society, as well as the family and the state have changed in China in the last one hundred years.

It is not difficult to notice that many portraits were commissioned by royalties and aristocrats throughout art history. Details such as attire, background, and interior decoration often emphasise the identity and social status of the subject (Fig. 3). Bloodline: The Big Family subverts the traditional definition of portraiture as it does not related to any specific individual or family. In fact, it is the portrait of the collective psyche of an entire nation. This tendency is evident in way that Zhang Xiaogang's style has shifted— in the early Bloodline works in which the artist's family and friends serve as the models, the depiction of the figures is more naturalistic. Everyone has distinguishable facial features and characteristics. The execution leans towards expressionism (Fig. 4). Zhang later was determined to do away with individualistic depictions. In Bloodline: The Big Family, other than the different hairstyles, the boy and the girl share almost identical facial features— indistinguishable faces and neutral gender are two of the main characteristics of the artist's late Bloodline paintings, "What I want to paint is non-representational and un-individualistic portraits. I want to paint a kind of archetypal and symbolic people." The function of the portrait is no longer to reflect an individual's identity and experience. Zhang Xiaogang is not concerned with any specific time, place, or person— his focus is on the nation and the times. Through portraying the children with identical scarves and faces, the Chinese collective psyche of all ages and genders is revealed in front of the viewers.

In his photo painting series, German artist Gerhard Richter randomly chooses photographs from either his private collection or the printed-media and replicates them on canvas. The subject matter is widely ranging. Betty is based on a photograph of his daughter (Fig. 5). Richter uses an almost photo-realistic painting technique to replicate the original image. The level of details is astonishingly fine. Despite its high degree of facsimile, he purposely blurs the painting. As a result, the work radiates a dream-like quality. Similarly, Zhang Xiaogang draws his inspiration from photographs, creating a blurring effect that is comparable to Richter's. The palette and brushwork focus even more on constructing a strong sense of the picture having been retouched. Faces of the children appear to be impeccably smooth. Not a single flaw can be seen. As if they are marble sculptures from the ancient Rome (Fig. 6), the degree of perfection depicted is extraordinary. It conveys a sense of ideal beauty. This flawless finish constantly reminds the viewer that the figures in the painting were once based on reality, however, they have been rendered beyond reach by the artist's excessive finishing. The background does not concretely offer any clues to a time or place. The dissipating clusters of bubbles envelope the figures in an ambiguous dimension. The greyscale echoes vintage black and white photography. Through Zhang Xiaogang's expert manipulations, reality and fantasy are nullified as their boundaries are blurred. Bloodline: The Big Family not only captures the concept of a collective experience of a generation, but also to an equal degree can serve as a paradigm in the field of representational art.

Those who are in the midst of chaos are not able to see signs of the times. Bloodline: The Big Family bears witness to an era of change. This work opens a door for the viewer to a broader intellectual dimension beyond both reality and fantasy.

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