China’s most important painter and his iconic series – Zhang Xiaogang
Zhang Xiaogang - Bloodline Series - Father and Son

Zhang Xiaogang – Bloodline Series – Father and Son, 2001, oil on canvas, 150 x 190 cm. (59 x 74 3/4 in.)

Zhang Xiaogang is a Chinese surrealist and symbolist painter. He is most famous for his Bloodline series, a body of work characterized by predominantly monochromatic portraits of Chinese people. His wide-eyes subjects featured in his stylized portraits of Chinese people are posed stiff and upright, deliberately reminiscent of family portraits from the 1950s and 1960s.

Biography

Early childhood

Zhang was born in Kunming in China’s Yunnan province in 1958 and was the third of four brothers. His mother, Qi Ailan, taught Zhang how to draw in order to preoccupy him so that he would stay out of trouble.

“From early on, my parents worried that I would go out and get into trouble. They gave us a paper and crayons so we could draw at home… I gained more and more interest in art. I had a lot of time because I didn’t have to go to school. My interest increased. After I became an adult, I never gave up art. So that is how I started to draw.”

Zhang’s parents were taken for re-education for three years by the Chinese government. By the time he becomes matured to understand what was going on, the country was under political unrest. It was during the late 1960s political disturbances historically known as the Cultural Revolution1. Growing up in this era had a massive influence on Zhang’s painting. Those years witnessed the annihilation of a significant number of historical documents, including family portraits. Family photos were a strong tradition in China before the revolution, and the change in the family portraiture tradition represents to many the loss of precious family memories that are addressed in the Bloodline: The big family series.

Portrait of Zhang Xiaogang in his Beijing studio, a few days before the September opening of his solo show at Pace Beijing, 2009
Portrait of Zhang Xiaogang in his studio
Photo: Natalie Behring/artasiapacific.com

First paintings

Aged 18, in 1976, Zhang found himself working on a farm courtesy of the “Down to the Countryside Movement2.” But before going to work on the farm, Zhang received some training from Lin Ling, a Chinese watercolor painter, studying formal watercolor and sketching methods. 

It was not after coming of age that Zhang wanted to be an artist. He recalls, “When I was 17, I told myself I wanted to be an artist…I felt that art was like a drug. Once you are addicted, you can’t get rid of it.

In 1977, Zhang joined the Sichuan Academy of Fine arts after the government of China reinstituted the entry examinations in colleges. At the university, he studied oil-based painting. He continued learning about different styles of Revolutionary Realism3, ideologies established by Mao Zedong. But these principles only served to repel Zhang and his peers towards western philosophy.

Zhang Xiaogang - The Coming Storm, 1981

Zhang Xiaogang – The Coming Storm, 1981

Depression & Alcoholism

After graduating from college, Zhang hoped to venture into teaching but was denied the chance. The denial affected him so much that he slumped in depression for about three years. Between 1982 and 1985, he worked at construction sites in his home town as well as a social dancer. Zhang was having difficulties fitting into society, something that led him to self-intense examination. He even became an alcoholic and as a result, found himself in the hospital with alcohol-induced internal bleeding. This was in 1984. 

It was during his time in the hospital that he started painting the series “The Ghost Between Black and White,” expressing his visions of life and death while in a hospital bed. 

Zhang Xiaogang - The Ghost Between Black and White No. 13:A Ghost Who Suffers from Insomnia - White Bed, What's the Fate of Your Beginning and Ending?, 1984, sketch on paper, 21cm x 29cm

Zhang Xiaogang – The Ghost Between Black and White No. 13:A Ghost Who Suffers from Insomnia – White Bed, What’s the Fate of Your Beginning and Ending? (黑白之間的幽靈十三號: 一個失眠的幽靈 – 白色的床,你的開始結尾是什麼樣呢?), 1984, sketch on paper, 21cm x 29cm

Speaking of the experience, Zhang said, “At that time, my inspiration primarily came from the feelings I had at the hospital. When I lay on the bed, on the white bed sheet, I saw many ghost-like patients comforting each other in the cramped hospital wards. When night dawned, groaning sounds rose above the hospital and some of the withering bodies around had gone to waste and were drifting on the brink of death: these deeply stirred my feelings. They were so close to my then life experiences and a lonely miserable soul.”

Art Groups & Teaching & Tiananmen

These experiences changed Zhang for the better. He started to collect the pieces of his life by joining a movement called New Wave4. The new movement led to the philosophical, artistical, and intellectual explosion of the Chinese culture.

Zhang felt he needed to do more than just joining a movement. Therefore, in 1986, he formed his own art group called South West Art Group5. The group included members such as Pan Dehei, Mao Xihui, and Ye Yongqing; a total of more than 80 artists with same ideologies as Zhang. The collectivist rationalization had suppressed the desires of many people for many years. The main idea of the group was to counter this effect.

However, his dream of becoming a teacher came through in 1988 when he was appointed as a teacher at Sichuan Academy’s Education Department. His life was starting to have meaning. Zhang even got married that year and took part in the China/Avant-Garde Exhibition held in Beijing at the Art Museum of China. However, his quest for liberal reforms was abruptly ended by the Tiananmen Square6 incident in 1989. Soldiers opened fire at civilians, presumably leading to thousands of deaths.

Trip to Germany & Return to China

In 1992 Zhang made a trip to Europe, Germany precisely. While staying there, he got to learn how the Chinese people are viewed outside China, something that changed his expressive and surreal styles massively. Zhang tried hard to learn from western artists by analyzing their works in museums and galleries. He felt like he needed to do more as an artist, especially as a Chinese artist as there were not many artworks in the western galleries that depicted Chinese culture. “I looked from the ‘early phase’ to the present for a position for myself, but even after this I still didn’t know who I was. But an idea did emerge clearly: If I continue being an artist, I have to be an artist of ‘China.’” He said.

After his time in Europe came to an end, he went back to China, where he put more efforts on himself as an artist. He worked at Mao Xuhui’s studio, and his first paintings showed the Tiananmen Square. While working at the studio, Zhang Xiaogang developed a particular interest in the faces of people around him and China in general. He started to go through old photographs from the past he found in his parents’ house. His fascination with faces became a dramatic turning point as far as his career is concerned. He abandoned his painting style once again and started drawing flat pictures.

Zhang Xiaogang - Tiananmen No. 1, 1993, oil on canvas, 98.6 x 128 cm (38 7:8 by 50 3:8 in.)

Zhang Xiaogang – Tiananmen No. 1, 1993, oil on canvas, 98.6 x 128 cm (38 7/8 by 50 3/8 in.)

Zhang Xiaogang - Tiananmen No. 3, 1993, oil on canvas, 100 x 129 cm. (39⅜ x 50¾ in.)

Zhang Xiaogang – Tiananmen No. 3, 1993, oil on canvas, 100 x 129 cm. (39⅜ x 50¾ in.)

Bloodline series

What led to Zhang’s Blood Line Series

It was during the time of self-discovery that he stumbled upon his old family photos that changed his career path.

I felt excited as if a door had opened. I could see a way to paint the contradictions between the individual and the collective, and it was from this that I started to paint. There is a complex relationship between the state and the people that I could express by using the Cultural Revolution. China is like a family, a big family. Everyone has to rely on each other and to confront each other. This was the issue I wanted to give attention to and, gradually, it became less and less linked to the Cultural Revolution and more to people’s states of mind.” 

In the old family photos, Zhang came across a photo of his mother as a beautiful young woman before her health deteriorated. That is how his famous series ‘Bloodline’ came to existence. The series depicted the predicament of private and public life.

2min 38sec

Zhang Xiaogang Interview: Bloodlines and Family

Subtitles available

Technique

Zhang uses vivid lighting effects combined with flat indistinctive backgrounds to venerate his subjects. In his work, individuals are painted with a smooth pearly finish looking very similar to the finish of porcelain, and their faces lack any emotion whatsoever. These detached faces stare into the audience and the world beyond. However, the reminiscence of the traditional family portrait draws you in, contradicting the aversion to the seemingly unnatural expressionless stare of the figures staring back at you.

Popularity & Market success

Soon after releasing, Bloodline received positive coverage and was exhibited worldwide including in the countries like the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, France, and Brazil.

Bloodline made Zhang Xiaogang a bestselling Chinese artist and one of the favorites for western collectors. In the early 2000s, the Bloodline: Big Family series was among the must-haves for collector worldwide. The popularity of the Zhang series become a blessing and curse as he was forced to work even harder to meet the demands of his work. In 2014, Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 was sold for a whopping $12.1m7.

Zhang Xiaogang – Bloodline Series – Big Family No. 3, 1995, oil on canvas, 179 x 229 cm - 70½ by 90⅛ in.

Zhang Xiaogang – Bloodline Series – Big Family No. 3, 1995, oil on canvas, 179 x 229 cm / 70½ by 90⅛ in.

Speaking about the high demand of his work, Zhang told the South China Morning Post: “I tried doing other things after 1998 but the exhibition demand for the series left me little time. By 2000, I wanted to cut down on my output, but it was very hard after the market took off. It is very difficult for my generation of artists to say no to patrons.”

While the popularity of Bloodline can be considered a good thing, it has had a severe impact on Zhang’s career. Only a few people paid attention to his other works. 

Some commentators say the reason for this is because Zhang has over-produced his popular Bloodline series. But Zhang does not agree with that statement: “The events of 1989 (Tiananmen Square massacre) left me in shock. All the western collectors who had supported us no longer had access. There was certainly no state support and we had to slowly build up relationships with new collectors.” 

For that reason, when his previous collectors come back alongside others, wanting another version of Bloodline series, he was obliged to say “yes.” As Zhang explains further, “You can’t very well say, sorry, I don’t need you anymore.

Analysis

Through his painting, Zhang questions concepts of difference, otherness, and perception. His sitters stare out from the canvas with penetrating detachment, thus confronting the audience with an almost otherworldly gaze; the sitter’s vacant expressions seem to look into the audience’s soul, nothing can escape from their big piercing eyes.

Zhang Xiaogang uses his talent to create a sense of nostalgia in his works by employing the conventions of traditional Chinese photography. Zhang’s works reference his own early experiences, which can only be echoed by those from his generation. However, they still resonate one way or the other with the modern audience’s life.

Paintings

Single portraits

Zhang Xiaogang - Bloodline Series - My dream, Little General, 2005, Oil on canvas, 200x260cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – My dream, Little General, 2005, Oil on canvas, 200x260cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Boy, 2003, oil on canvas, 130x110cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Boy, 2003, oil on canvas, 130x110cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Boy, 2004, oil on canvas, 146x118cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Boy, 2004, oil on canvas, 146x118cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Comrade (Sister), 2006, Lithograph on wove, 94×77cm, Edition of 99
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Comrade (Sister), 2006, Lithograph on wove, 94×77cm, Edition of 99


Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – The Fixed Gaze, 2009, Lithograph, 120x80cm, Edition of 130

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series, 1996, oil on canvas, 40 x 30.2 cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series, 1996, oil on canvas, 40×30.2cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series, 1997, oil on canvas, 40x30cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series, 1997, oil on canvas, 40x30cm

Siblings

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Big Family- Sister and Brother, 1999, oil on canvas, 190x150cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Big Family – Sister and Brother, 1999, oil on canvas, 190x150cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Brothers, 2006, oil on canvas, 180x230cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Brothers, 2006, oil on canvas, 180x230cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Sister and Brother, 2010, oil on canvas, 270x370cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Sister and Brother, 2010, oil on canvas, 270x370cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Two Sisters, 2003, lithograph, 50.8x64.1cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Two Sisters, 2003, Lithograph, 50.8×64.1cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Big Family No. 9, 1997, oil on canvas, 149x189cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Big Family No. 9, 1997, oil on canvas, 150x190cm

One Child Families

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Big Family No. 1, 2001, oil on canvas, 200x300cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Big Family No. 1, 2001, oil on canvas, 200x300cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Big Family No. 2, 1993
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Big Family No. 2, 1993

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Big Family No. 2, 2001, oil on canvas, 200x300cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Big Family No. 2, 2001, oil on canvas, 200x300cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Big Family No. 9, 1996, oil on canvas, 150cmx190cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Big Family No. 9, 1996, oil on canvas, 150x190cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Big Family Series, 2006, lithograph, 105.4x139.7cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Big Family Series, 2006, lithograph, 105.4×139.7cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Big Family, 2003, Lithograph printed in colors, 56.9 x 71.88 cm, Edition of 199
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Big Family, 2003, Lithograph printed in colors, 56.9 x 71.88 cm, Edition of 199

Father & Daughter

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Father and Daughter No. 1, 1999, oil on canvas, 100x80cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Father and Daughter No. 1, 1999, oil on canvas, 100x80cm

Zhang Xiaogang – Bloodline Series – Father and Daughter No. 1, 2005, oil on canvas, 80x100cm

Zhang Xiaogang – Bloodline Series – Father and Daughter No. 1, 2005, oil on canvas, 80x100cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Father and Daughter No. 1, 2008, oil on canvas, 200cx160cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Father and Daughter No. 1, 2008, oil on canvas, 200x160cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Father and Daughter No. 1, 2010, oil on canvas, 120cmx150cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Father and Daughter No. 1, 2010, oil on canvas, 120x150cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Father and Daughter No. 2, 2008, oil on canvas, 160x200cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Father and Daughter No. 2, 2008, oil on canvas, 160x200cm

Father & Son

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Father And Son
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Father and Son

Big families

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Big Family No. 1, 150x179m
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Big Family No. 1, 150x179m

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Big Family No. 2, 1996, oil on canvas
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Big Family No. 2, 1996, oil on canvas

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Big Family No. 10, 2000, oil on canvas, 200x300cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Big Family No. 10, 2000, oil on canvas, 200x300cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Big Family, 1995, Oil on canvas, 179x229cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Big Family, 1995, Oil on canvas, 179x229cm

Others

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - Lovers, 1999, oil on canvas, 130x110cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – Lovers, 1999, oil on canvas, 130x110cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series - My Ideal Job — Worker, Peasant, Businessman, Student, Soldier, 2008, oil on canvas, 280x500cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series – My Ideal Job — Worker, Peasant, Businessman, Student, Soldier, 2008, oil on canvas, 280x500cm

Zhang Xioagang - Bloodline Series, 1998, 150x150cm
Zhang XiaogangBloodline Series, 1998, 150x150cm

All images by Zhang Xiaogang/pacegallery.com unless otherwise noted.

After Bloodline

For the benefit of his artistic skills to grow as well as giving other works space to “shine,” Zhang has actively considered putting Bloodline series to bed. In 2016, his exhibition at Pace Gallery tried to feature some of Zhang’s new works in a bid to draw the attention of the audience to the fact that he has produced many other works other than Bloodline series. 

His current works seem to take an entirely different approach from the Bloodline Series. It appears that he is using the theme of silence and storytelling. They tell a story of about how shared and private recollections are diffused through family members’ failure to communicate with each other about their painful personal experience. 

Paintings

In Bloodline, the sculptures showed family members huddling together against grey against a grey backdrop with shades of a bloodline. Zhang’s new works, such as My Mother (2012), My Father (2012), and White Shirt and Blue Trousers (2012), the family members are divided. One can visibly see the wide gap and sense of “uninterested.” In all the sculptures, a power cord can be seen and appears to be the only common thread separating or linking their lives. The families in the sculptures seem to have a difficult time relating to each other. 

Zhang Xiaogang - My Mother, 2012

Zhang Xiaogang – My Mother, 2012

Zhang Xiaogang - White Shirt and Blue Trousers, 2012

Zhang Xiaogang – White Shirt and Blue Trousers, 2012, photo: Yang Chao

h5>My Father, 2012

Zhang Xiaogang - My Father, 2012

Zhang Xiaogang – My Father, 2012

In the painting My Father (2012) a young girl looks intently at her seemingly uninterested father who is wearing a blue Mao suit8. The girl can be seen pining for the warmth of her father. She is even seated at the edge of her chair, showing a willingness to get closer to her father. Between the two is a light bulb hanging from the ceiling. In this case, however, the cord is not a connector; instead, it acts as a divider. The relationship between dad and daugther tells that some emotions are not limited to a culture or a generation. 

Sculptures

He recently started to recreate his old motifs from Bloodline series but three dimensional. Despite the success and effects of Bloodline, Zhang’s most recent works are slowly gaining and resonating with his audience. The sculptures express the need for storytelling among family members and evoke feelings of fundamental human relationships.

Zhang was quoted as saying: “The Bloodline series is like a magical spell that blinds people to them. Nothing else I’ve done has received quite the same level of attention.

Zhang Xiaogang - Young Woman, 2013, painted bronze, 89 1:16 x 36 x 36 in.

Zhang Xiaogang – Young Woman, 2013, painted bronze, 89 1/16 x 36 x 36 in., photo: Kerry Ryan McFate

Zhang Xiaogang - Young Girl No. 3, 2013, painted bronze, 78 1:2 x 28 x 28 in.

Zhang Xiaogang – Young Girl No. 3, 2013, painted bronze, 78 1/2 x 28 x 28 in., photo: Kerry Ryan McFate

Zhang Xiaogang - Girl No 3 (With Long Braids), 2015, bronze, 51.4 x 25.1 x 25.1 cm (20.2 x 9.9 x 9.9 in.)

Zhang Xiaogang – Girl No 3 (With Long Braids), 2015, bronze, 51.4 x 25.1 x 25.1 cm (20.2 x 9.9 x 9.9 in.), photo: Kerry Ryan McFate

Videos: Interviews

2011

17min 59sec

2018

2min 38sec

Related readings

  1. https://www.britannica.com/event/Cultural-Revolution
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down_to_the_Countryside_Movement
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_realism
  4. https://contemporary_chinese_culture.academic.ru/2/85_New_Wave__Movement
  5. https://contemporary_chinese_culture.academic.ru/719/Southwest_Art_Research_Group
  6. https://publicdelivery.org/tag/tiananmen-square/
  7. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/modern-contemporary-asian-art-evening-sale-hk0528/lot.145.html
  8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mao_suit
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