In terms of sheer iconic value, no single other series of contemporary Chinese paintings possesses the power of Zhang Xiaogang's signature Bloodline: The Big Family. Developed from a long string of painting explorations during the 1980s intricately tied to China's processing of the Western painting tradition, the Bloodline: The Big Family paintings mark the pinnacle of Zhang Xiaogang's early mature style. Drawing on compositional conventions taken from early twentieth-century photographic portraiture, and pictorially imbued with the visual language of a fading socialist tradition, these hallmark images have become nothing less than visual shorthand for the entire category known as "Chinese contemporary art." To those who would argue that such images are a modern-day "export art," playing on foreign fantasies of socialist memory, one need only counter with the countless Chinese magazine covers, subway murals, even popular movies in which these signal images have appeared. Indeed, Zhang Xiaogang's muted family portraits seem to have captured the very essence of the historical drama, even trauma, of constructing a prosperous contemporary society from the embers of a revolution.
Sotheby's is pleased to offer the most significant example of Bloodline: The Big Family, and perhaps of the entire Bloodline series, yet to come to the market. Titled Bloodline: The Big Family Number 3 and dated 1995, the present work comes from a group of four paintings executed by the artist in preparation for his inclusion in the centenary 46th Venice Biennale in that same year. These four canvases, at 180 by 230 centimeters each, marked Zhang's first confident articulation of the Bloodline aesthetic, their scale larger than any he had yet worked on. (All previous Bloodline works had been confined to canvases of 150 by 180 centimeters or smaller.) While this Venetian cycle began with a four-figure family of apparently similarly aged sitters (Number 1) and ended with a depiction of two brothers (Number 4), it is the two central paintings, featuring the now orthodox one-child family, which remain the true icons. Number 2 , with its yellow baby and bespectacled father, would go on to be exhibited in Inside Out: New Chinese Art, the show which first introduced American audiences to new art from China. But it is Number 3, focused on a young Red Guard to whom two seemingly earnest socialist parents have given birth, which stands out as the first painting in this long series to directly articulate—through the understated Mao badge on the central figure's chest—the political and historical tensions at the heart of the cycle.
The iconicity of these images belies the complex evolutions—artistic but also systemic—of which they are the direct result. In light of the familiarity which most viewers now have with the basic image—the gaunt, androgynous figures against dark backgrounds, faces rendered in colors of the People's Republic, light playing curiously off of highlighted patches—it becomes more interesting to look at how this image came to be. It is a story of an artist's transition at the end of a long decade of experimentation, but it is also a story of the beginnings of a Chinese presence on the international art world.
Zhang Xiaogang's style evolved constantly through the late 1980s and into the early 1990s. By 1993 he had developed, from his experiments with surrealist and quasi-cubist styles, a lexicon and palette for representing the human face and figure. Perhaps to heighten the sense of interiority inherent in these initial vistas, each composition was painted inside a trompe l'oeil wooden frame. Zhang's group of 1991 and 1992 paintings of disembodied heads and arms shown in the January 1993 China's New Art: Post-1989 exhibition, like his series of three progressively closer portraits of the Tian'anmen rostrum executed in 1993 all share this same framing device. Indeed, Zhang's initial experiments with what would become Bloodline: The Big Family were bound by this same graphic convention.
The painting from which Bloodline began was executed in 1993 during a summer in Kunming and first exhibited in December of that year at the seminal exhibition 1990's Chinese Art: The Chinese Experience at the Sichuan Art Museum in Chengdu. (That five-man exhibition, curated by the critic Wang Lin, also included Mao Xuhui, Ye Yongqing, Wang Chuan, and Zhou Chunya, and marked the culmination of the avant-garde movement formerly known as the Southwest Art Research Group.) Zhang exhibited ten canvases, including Family Portrait, a realistically proportioned portrait of a three-person family that might have been his own. They appear thin and frail, against a background that has not yet veered toward the wispy chiaroscuro of works to come; light shines in blocks upon the sitters, foreshadowing the discolored patches that would mark future works. That piece, retroactively titled Bloodline: Family Portrait, was collected by the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, marking the first time Zhang's work was collected by an international institution.
Even in the Chengdu of 1993, far off the radar of an international art world just beginning, after a successful presentation of nineteen Chinese artists at Venice earlier that year, to nurture an interest in China, Zhang Xiaogang was beginning to feel some ambiguity about his symbolic power. In a 1993 group interview printed in the catalogue that accompanied the Chinese Experience exhibition, he argued that, "We cannot accept easy categorization. Categorization is often required by exhibitions, for example the recent Post-89 exhibition in Hong Kong resorted to categorization in the name of the need to offer explanations." What Zhang seems to say throughout this seminal text is that his artistic will must continue to express its power on its own terms, even as its fruits are drawn into an increasingly global conversation.
Ironically, it was at this very moment that Zhang's first international exhibition opportunities began to arise. Tsong-zung Chang, who had recently organized the Post-1989 exhibition, was now charged with the Chinese selection for the upcoming 22nd Sao Paulo Biennial; Zhang Xiaogang was selected as one of six artists and exhibited alongside Fang Lijun and Liu Wei in Wakefulness and the Weightless Present, one of the two three-man shows that comprised the Chinese presentation. Zhang here exhibited four paintings, all at the size of 150 by 180 centimeters, dated 1994, and under the title Bloodline. The first two canvases were subtitled Family Portrait (quanjiafu the same word which titled the Chengdu canvas), the second Two Comrades and Three Comrades. (The latter work sold at Sotheby's New York on March 21, 2007 for $2.1 million; another Family Portrait work of the same size and vintage sold there on November 14, 2007, for $4.9 million, currently the artist's record.) With a brighter palette and more stylized figuration than the Chengdu works, these 1994 canvases are the first in which discolored patches of red and yellow replace the plays of light that marked the earlier works. Figuratively speaking, another transition was afoot, as Zhang began to experiment with androgyny.
These modifications would continue into 1995, as Zhang was selected once more to present his work at the coming summer's Venice Biennale. Zhang prepared for this career-making opportunity by deepening his experiments with figuration. He has note how, "In 1995, I started to seek a Chinese language. I quickly felt the need to evolve the genderless feel of androgyny. This is a sense close to classical Chinese painting, ancient images of Buddha, Guanyin."
If 1993 was an opening salvo for china at Venice, with the work of nearly twenty artists hastily stuffed in a far-off pavilion owned by the city government, 1995 was a proper debut. Entitled The Other Face: Three Chinese Artists, this tight presentation fit into a larger international exhibition Identità e Alterità to mark the Biennale's centenary. The Chinese presentation was given prime billing inside the core Italian Pavilion, due in no small part to the efforts of sponsor David Tang and curator Tsong-zung Chang, culminating in a carefully choreographed visit by Princess Diana. Zhang was again shown alongside Liu Wei, as installation work by Wenda Gu, originally intended to complement the two painters, was removed from the curatorial plan at the last minute. He rose to the occasion with two groupings of paintings: a cycle of vertically oriented, single-figure Bloodline: Comrade paintings, and the monumental cycle of four Bloodline: The Big Family paintings described above. This cycle marks the first appearance of the subtitle The Big Family (da jiating) as opposed to Family Portrait (quanjiafu), a designation which Zhang Xiaogang would continue to employ well into the following decade. Owing to this titular designation, as well as to the stylistic advance which they represent over the 1994 Family Portrait paintings, it is this grouping that can truly be pinpointed as the moment where Zhang Xiaogang's signature series begins.
Writing in the catalogue preface for this Venetian presentation, Tsong-zung Chang noted how, "Zhang's [paintings] hollow and haunting, are confrontational in their presence. The subjects' features are beautified, sanctified almost, with smooth pristine skin; they present an impeccable image to the world of which the sitters would be pleased...these are images of mass-man today." More than a decade later, these "mass-men" have become symbols for a transition bigger than anything contained on a single canvas, and their creator has been recognized as one of the sharpest visual minds of his generation—a generation that came of age, like the figures he depicts, in the dark blues and olive greens of a bygone era.
 Wang Lin, Chinese Experience (Zhongguo jingyan), private publication, 1993, p. 50.
 Karen Smith, Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China, Scalo, 2005, p. 293.
 Tsong-zung Chang, L'Altra Faccia: Tre Artisti Cinesi a Venezia, 1995.
Oil on canvas
Venice, 46th Biennale di Venezia, June - October 1995
Denmark, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Made in China: Works from the Estella Collection, March - August 2007, p. 8
Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, Made in China: Contemporary Chinese Art at the Israel Museum, September 2007 - March 2008
179 by 229cm.; 70 1/2 by 90 1/8 in.
Umbilical Cord of History: Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Hanart TZ Gallery and Galerie Enrico Navarra, 2004, p. 64-65
Art Asia Pacific, Vol.3, No.1, 1996, front cover