Zhang Xiaogang is a Chinese surrealist and symbolist painter.
He is most famous for his Bloodline series, a body of work characterised by predominantly monochromatic portraits of Chinese people. Inspired by family photos from the Cultural Revolution period, as well as the European tradition of surrealism, Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings engage with the notion of identity within the Chinese culture of collectivism.
Zhang Xiaogang was born in Kunming in China’s Yunnan province in 1958 and was the third of four brothers. His parents were taken away for 3 years by the Chinese government for re-education. He came of age during the 1960s and 1970s political upheavals known as the Cultural Revolution, which exerted a certain influence on his 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 Those years witnessed the annihilation of a significant number of historical documents, including family portraits.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.
‘’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. After I became an adult, I never gave up art.’’
Zhang Xiaogang was accepted into the Sichuan Academy of Fine arts in 1977 where he began to study oil based painting. At the time of his collegiate education, his professors continued to teach styles of Revolutionary Realism as instituted by Chairman Mao.
“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.”
After his graduation, he was denied a teaching post that he had hoped for. This led Zhang Xiaogang to fall into a period of depression fuelled by alcoholism, eventually leading to his hospitalisation in 1984.
In 1985, he began to emerge from the dark time in his life and joined the New Wave movement in China that saw a philosophical, artistic and intellectual explosion in Chinese culture.
He is recognised for his figurative paintings and sculptures that navigate the cultural terrain of contemporary China and question notions of identity and the construction of memory.
Zhang Xiaogang had a major conceptual breakthrough after discovering his family photos which reminded him of the memories destroyed by the contextual cultural setting of the time.
His wide-eyed subjects featured in his stylised portraits of Chinese people are posed stiff and upright, deliberately reminiscent of family portraits from the 1950s and 1960s.
“I felt very 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 really to paint.”
Zhang Xiaogang’s ‘Bloodline Series – Big Family No. 3’
Zhang Xiaogang 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. 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.
Zhang Xiaogang’s ‘Bloodline Series’
Through his painting, Zhang Xiaogang questions concepts of difference, otherness, and perception. He uses his talent to create a sense of nostalgia in his works by employing the conventions of traditional Chinese photography.
He has been exhibited worldwide, notably including at Pace Gallery in New York, the 1995 Venice Biennale, and the Daegu Art Museum. He lives and works in Beijing, China.