What you see: Bloodline: Big Family No. 9, a 1996 canvas by Zhang Xiaogang. Phillips estimates it at more than HDK 30 million, or around $3.8 million.
Who is Zhang Xiaogang? He is a contemporary Chinese artist who is best known for his Bloodlines paintings. His parents were government officials, and at one point during his childhood, they were forced to attend a re-education camp for three years. He graduated from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 1982, but it was a three-month stay in Germany in 1992 that transformed his approach to art. He embarked on the Bloodlines series soon after. Zhang turns 60 this year.
The expert: Wenjia Zhang, Phillips’s regional director in Shanghai.
The lot notes for Bloodline: Big Family No. 9 as an “extremely rare rendition.” What makes it an extremely rare rendition? Because this painting is directly based on a family photo of his parents and his older brother, the first child in the family, celebrating his 100-day birthday. It’s directly based on a family picture, but it’s more of a fantasy picture.
How many of the works in the Bloodlines series are based on photos of Zhang’s own family? I think this is one of very few. It may be the only one directly based on a picture of his family. In China, the previous generation all has this kind of family photo. It’s a generational thing, not just his family. I remember my parents’ wedding photo was very similar. And we didn’t have color photos. We only had black and white.
Do we know when that photo of Zhang’s parents and eldest brother was taken? I can’t say the exact year, but I think it was 1955, 1956, or 1957. [Zhang was born in 1958 and was the third of four children, all boys.]
Zhang painted this in 1996, which is about in the middle of the timespan given for the Bloodlines series. Does that make the painting more interesting to collectors? I personally don’t really think of the year as the most important year. I think it’s the work itself, and I think it’s the most important of his Bloodlines: Big Family series. This work is very romantic, reflecting a romantic part of his character. On the other hand, for the technical part, the brushstrokes and the drops of water on the face [the pink splotches on the right of each face] are very delicate. It makes me feel it’s very special.
When you say that the painting reflects a romantic part of his character, what do you mean? It’s because of the smoothness of the colors, the way that he painted, and the light on the painting. I can’t say more. It’s just a feeling.
Can you talk a bit about the imagery he’s using here that would have meaning to Chinese viewers? The immediate meaning to us Chinese people is our memories and our family. We all have this kind of photo for special occasions–birthdays, weddings. For him, the image of every figure in the Bloodlines series is a variation on his mother.
Why did he use the phrase ‘Big Family’ in the title when the family shown consists of only three people? I don’t think it’s meant to be ironic. It’s about the whole generation [in China] as a big family. For his generation, and less for mine, everyone was part of a big family. We share everything, we work together like a big family. Also, he was not part of the generation where they could have only one child per family. It does not have that meaning. He was not from the only child generation.
Where does this painting rank among those in the Bloodlines series? I think he started this series in 1994, after traveling to Germany. He was inspired by Gerhard Richter a lot. I think he came back to China and saw pictures in a library and from that time, he started painting the series. In 1996, his technique becomes more mature. He found the way to paint–this concept of the photo and trying to technically express his thinking of his memory. It’s very delicate. The colors are so beautiful and reflections of the lighting is extremely beautiful. Those things make this painting very different and very important. Also, in 1994 and 1995, his paintings are being chosen for the Venice Biennale [and other important shows]. For him it was a turning point.
Bloodlines: Big Family No. 9 explores ideas that Chinese people will recognize right away, but you don’t really need to know anything about Mao or the Cultural Revolution or 20th century Chinese life to fall under its spell. Why do you think it’s so powerful? Good question. What I can say is to share my experience of going to his studio. We’re not exactly the same generation. He was born in 1958, and I was born in 1974. I have no direct experience with the Cultural Revolution. I’m almost 20 years younger than him. When I first entered his studio, I was attracted to the color and the atmosphere of the painting. If it’s a good work, it can attract you. If it’s strong, you can feel it. For me, the work speaks for itself.
What’s the auction record for a work by Zhang Xiaogang? Might this work set a new record? I think the record is Bloodline: Big Family No. 3, which sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April 2014 for HKD $94.2 million, or $12.1 million. Whether it will set a new record, we can’t say. Of course if it can make a record that would be so exciting for us, but we can’t say now. It really depends on the market and on the collectors.
What is the painting like in person? It’s very quiet. I think you can be immediately attracted by the painting when you enter a room.
How to bid: Bloodline: Big Family No. 9 is lot 12 in Pioneers of Modernism: A Selection from the Scheeres Collection, taking place May 27, 2018 at Phillips Hong Kong.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Phillips.
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