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 theWestern 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 amodern-day "export art," playing on foreign fantasies of socialistmemory, 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 one of themost significant example of the series, Bloodline: The Big Family (Lot 926). In 1995, Zhang Xiaogang made a total of five paintings that measured 180 by 230 cm for the series. This lot on offer is one of those five and was exhibited at the Haus der Kulturen das Welt in Hamburg, Germany at "Beyond Ideology: New Art from China." The remaining four were exhibited in the centenary 46th Venice Biennale of the same year.
"Beyond Ideology: New Art from China" was curated by preeminent critic Li Xianting, who had selected works by 14 contemporary Chinese artists to be featured. Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang, Wu Shanzhuan, Wei Guangqing, Feng Mengbo, Liu Wei, Song Yonghong and Qiu Zhijie were among those invited. In an earnest attempt to breach the Western inclination to decipher contemporary Chinese art in terms of its political insinuations or hidden protest, Li Xianting amassed an exhibition of works that instead, honoured versatility and diversity, doing justice to the hard work these artists have exerted at innovating and revolutionizing their art. In the text he had written for the show, Li Xianting held Zhang Xiaogang's 1994 onset of his Bloodline Series at a radical pivotal point in his professional career. "He has eliminated the expressionist quality of his previous realism and in
place, rendered his imagery pristine and smooth. Based on old photographs, the paintings betray nothing of the artist's hand. Facial features have been abridged in his pursuit of a semi-carcicatural appearance ofChinese folk portraiture." This new style of Zhang Xiaogang's is imbued with the weight of history, national sentiments of vicissitudes that are sedimentary memories of many Chinese generations. "An epitomized portrait of the Chinese people," Li continued, "repeatedly hoaxed by an unforgiving fate, often ravaged by
tragedies, yet retaining composure and preserving dignity in the face of adversity."
These five 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.) Number 1 and Number 4 respectively depict a family with two girls and a pair of brothers. Number 2 and Number 3, in turn, represent the results of the One Child Policy in a modern China. The lot on offer this season is of the archetypal three-member configuration: a mother and her two children. The mother is on the right, her youngest on the left and in between, her red-faced son. The artist's signature bloodline connects the three, yet their expressions of loss, confusion and vacancy as well as the air of detachment and distance that has permeated the space suggest otherwise. Memories of familial ties stifled and humanity distorted are summoned. The reddening of the son's face is then a painful
reminder of the trauma, repressed and unmentionable. Articulated so powerfully in Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline Series are the tensions that lie at the heart of a people, scars that are forever engraved in history.
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. Li Xianting goes as far as to proclaim that the artist's evolution mirrors the nuances of progress seen in contemporary Chinese art of the last two decades.
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 threeperson 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."1 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 São Paulo Biennial; Zhang Xiaogang was selected as one of six artists and exhibited alongside Fang Lijun and Liu Wei in "Wakefulness and theWeightless 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 $2.1million; 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 noted 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."2
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 themoment 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."3 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
Germany, Hamburg, Haus der Kulturen das Welt, Beyond Ideology: New Art from China, 1995
UK, London, Saatchi Gallery, The Revolution Continues: New Art From China, 2008, cover and pp. 92-93
179 by 229 cm.; 70 1/2 by 90 in.
China Artbook, DuMont Buchverlag, Köln, Germany, p. 613