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Haunting memories: “Bloodlines” by Zhang Xiaogang

Updated: Aug 30, 2019

It is not unusual to come across an artwork is so pessimistic or unusual that at first glance it can be difficult to appreciate. The same artwork can be so powerful that a viewer feels compelled to spend some time carefully studying it, researching its context, background, personal history of an author, until, at one point, the meaning starts to reveal itself. Recently, our Studio had a chance to work on exactly such an artwork, a print by Zhang Xiaogang, one of his “Bloodline” series.

Zhang Xiaogang (according to Chinese grammar, the family name preceds the given name) was born in 1958 in Kunming, a city in Yunnan province, in Southern China. Both of his parents were arrested and taken away for re-education. His mother died soon after. In 1976, Zhang himself became one of the “sent-down youth”, forcefully relocated to work at the remote village as a part of the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement”, a policy instituted in the late 1960s to eliminate pro-bourgeois thinking among “disloyal urban youth”. Fortunately for him, it was the year Mao died, and soon the new era started.

Having received a basic training in traditional watercolor painting from Lin Ling, in 1977 Zhang entered the Sichuan Academy of Fine arts. In his interview, Zhang reminiscent of his art teachers giving instructions based of Soviet handbooks from the former era, and the same teachers became more and more lost when artistic changes followed the political ones, eventually giving up and leaving the students to their own devices.

For Zhang Xiaogang, the phase of idealistic experiments and independent exhibitions was concluded by two events. The first was a dramatic performance act by Xiao Lu, Chinese female artist, who, on February 5th, 1989, shot a pellet gun at her own work “Dialog”, in Beijing National Museum of Arts, two hours after the opening of the China Avant-Garde Exhibition. The exhibition, for which some of Zhang works were also selected, was immediately closed by the authorities. The second happened few month later and on a very different scale, it was a crackdown of the Tiananmen Square protests, when approximately 10000 people died, according to the now declassified secret British diplomatic cable - a number vigorously contested by the Chinese authorities.

Zhang Xiaogang – Bloodline Series – Big Family No. 2, 1993

oil on canvas ©Zhang Xiaogang / Pace Beijing (after: Quartz)

Both shocks, first the artistic one, and then the one of overwhelmingly human nature, caused Zhang to rethink his position as an artist and his stylistic approach. After a period of reflection and travel abroad, the accidental rediscovery of old family photographs from Mao era. The effect was a start of the “Bloodline” series – a large scale paintings, many of them painted on paper, followed by prints, all inspired by old-style formal photographs, with each artwork serving as both symbol and metaphor for the concepts and attitudes related to the transformation of China. In most of the works, the black and white, “photographic”, stiff and formal figures of parents with smaller figures of children painted in similar style. Selected figures or parts of costume are strongly accentuated by colors. In some of the works, only children figures remain, in some other there are only head portraits.

The representations are always painted against the neutral background, the physical world communicated only through the figure itself, without any distraction.

Each one looks straight ahead, toward a viewer, but exactly not at him or her, somehow not registering the presence of the audience. In a way it is yet another reference to photographic family portrait, where the members of the family look at the lens of the camera rather than at the photographer. Despite spatial closeness force by the rectangle of the painting, each character remains separate, solitary, even though sitting or standing next to each other. They may be placed together, but, as Rudolf Arnheim once noted in his analysis of Pierro dela Francesca: “their interaction is never consummated”.

Zhang Xiaogang

Zhang Xiaogang, Beijing, 2007

Photograph by Peter Parks

© AFP/Getty Images (after: Artnet)

The facial features are reduced to the most important ones: deep eyes with large pupils, strong eyebrows, clear lines of noses and mouths; everything underlined with strong contrasts of light and shadow. Together they construct neutral facial expressions. No one is either happy or sad, nobody smiles or frowns. The indifference of characters is much stronger than can be seen in formal photographs of the 1960's and cannot be simply related to that one source only. The models seem afraid of displaying any kind of emotion and every frozen blankness resembles stage form of an actor, hiding himself behind a mask or a strong make-up – like those worn in Beijing opera. The characters wear formal clothing, some of them uniforms, limiting the information to the most elementary: “this is a soldier”, “this is a schoolgirl”, “this is an intellectual”.

Zhang Xiaogang - My Memory No. 1

Lithograph, private collection.

These are memories from the past, frozen both in the picture and in the mind that remembers them.

But these are also representations of real people, forever reenacting their designated roles; like actors on stage wearing masks, sitting motionlessly, performing the script handed to them by invisible directors and never daring to step away from its lines.

And yet, there is are clues guiding a viewer to a point where he or she has to question the masks, the hieratic poses, and even the power of our memories. Each painting contains carefully placed impurities, loosely scribbled lines or small areas of different color that, at first look, may seem accidental, local discolorations or smears, like unexpected consequences of child’s play. They remind a viewer how fragile are the seemingly timeless, formal representation captured in photographs and movies.


To see more artwork by Zhang Xiaogang check the PUBLIC DELIVERY online collection.

For the very frank interview with Zhang Xiaongang, about his own artistic formation and the young Chinese artists’ contemporary art movement in the 1980’s please have a look at video linked below:


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