Zhang Xiaogang

张 晓 刚

Painter, *1958 Kunming, lives in Beijing

All images – except the famous ones sold at auctions – are from
Zhang Xiaogang's Website

Zhang Xiaogang, 2012, photo G.R. Christmas/PaceGallery/artnet

Zhang Xiaogang was born before the Cultural Revolution. He experienced the full effects of the political and cultural upheaval from Mao Zedong's time to the industrial turmoil of the past 6 years. Being highly sensitive and having begun to draw and paint very early, he has left us a unique pictorial documentation of his emotional growth during these times. In many ways he is the historian of of Chinese contemporary art. On his website his paintings are supplemented by numerous articles and interviews from which his biography can be constructed. I will make extensive use of Abigail Fitzgibbons' 2009 biography (quotes marked by <AF> in the following).

<Born in Kunming in 1958, Zhang was the third of four boys. His mother Qiu Ailan and father Zhang Jing were employed as government officials.
 In 1963, his family moved to Chengdu in China’s Sichuan Province. Zhang’s youth largely coincided with the Cultural Revolution — he was eight 
at its inception and at its conclusion ten years later he was at the threshold of adulthood. The psychological effects of this era would continue to 
permeate the lives of his generation, as well as his art. 
His parents, like so many others, were under investigation by the government; every night ‘people came to our house and asked my parents to 
make confessions about what they did wrong’, and were eventually sent to a reeducation camp for a period of three years while he and his
brothers were left with an old aunt largely to care for themselves. AF> His mother never recovered from the experience and became
schizophrenic. For many years Xiaogang's relationship with her remained tenuous, despite she had introduced him to drawing in order to keep
him from getting into trouble.

Mao died in 1976. The Cultural Revolution came to an end, and entrance exams were reinstated for the newly opened colleges. In 1977 Zhang gained admission to the prestigious Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in Chongqing. After a ten-year hiatus from education, he entered the college as one of a group of exceptionally talented young artists, many of whom would later be associated with of the ’85 New Wave. In 1978 he began his studies in the oil painting department. He graduated with a Bachelor degree in 1982, and spent the next three years in a small Sani ethnic village in Guizhou, frequented by artists. There he produced a little-known series of 16 drawings:

Guishan Series

He later would refer to this time of great uncertainty and selfexamination as “dark ages”. He began to drink heavily and was hospitalized in 1984 with a bleeding stomach ulcer. Troubled by the ghosts of the past and particularly by memories of his mother’s illness, he began his ‘The ghost between black and white’ series, a group of surrealist-inspired encounters involving phantoms.

Ghosts between Black and White

Ghosts No7, 1984

Selfportrait, 1983

Ghosts No10, 1984

Lost Dreams

Creature under Moonlight, 1987

Ying-Yang, 1988

Eternal Love, 1988

<In 1988, Zhang participated in the China Modern Art Forum at Huangshan. Later that same year, he was appointed an instructor in the Education
Department of the Sichuan Academy, and he married his first wife Tang Lei, with whom he had a daughter, Huan Huan (born in 1994). Zhang’s
work from this period continued to focus on themes of death and rebirth. Many were set in an enclosed space, featuring allegorical symbols that
 reappear in his work – skulls, floating broken limbs, playing cards and candles.  
He began to incorporate pieces of cloth and paper into his compositions, and Reincarnation 1989 is an example. AF>


Reincarnation No7, 1989

New Years Eve, 1990

Duplicated Spaces No1, 1990

<The 1990s proved to be a highly significant period of artistic breakthroughs for Zhang. In 1992, he travelled to Germany for three months,
where he encountered first-hand many of the Western art works he had admired through art books and journals. Although he returned filled
 with enthusiasm for the paintings of German artist Gerhard Richter (whom he encountered at Kassel’s Documenta 9) and surrealist Rene
 Magritte, Zhang was disappointed with what he thought was the stale air of wealth and opportunity of the West’s Avant-garde. He returned 
with a greater sense of his own identity as a Chinese artist, determined to explore and revitalize his own history and recent past. AF> 

Tian'anmen Sqare littered with Mao posters,

Portrait with Gray Background, 1994

Chaotic Meditation, 1995

<Zhang confronted history by creating a group of powerful paintings of Tiananmen Square in 1993. However, the real creative and emotional
breakthrough occurred when he encountered old family photographs. Zhang was inspired by a previously unseen photograph of his mother as 
a serene and attractive young woman, very different from the troubled and ill mother he recalled. AF> 

Memory and Amnesia No 4, 2001, photo Zhang Website

Zhang tells an interviewer:
I was lucky. The year was 1993. I was at my parents' house and was looking through their old pictures. That was when I got my inspiration
and began thinking about the Bloodline series. I felt that through a family, especially a Chinese family, these old photographs reflected
greater society. We all live in one big family. This is different with Western families. Chinese people put a huge emphasis on the family.
Family relations include those of blood, those who are your kin, at the same time in society, in your job, you cannot leave these family-like
relations. That left a deep impression on me.
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. There’s 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.”

Bloodlines-Big Family

Big Family, 1995, photo Saatchi

Comrades Diptych, 2005, photo Saatchi

2005, photo Saatchi

The paintings made Zang famous. They became larger and larger. He sold several for Millions US$ in Hong Kong and the West, exhibited in Sao Paulo and at the Venice Biennale. The demand exceeded his slow painting process.

Zhang Xiaogang putting on the finishing touches, 2005, photo Chang W. Lee/NYTimes

Embarrassed by the money that came to him, he never incorporated them into his website. He had a clause written into his contract with art dealers precluding any discussion of subject matter and style. - His marriage to Tang Lei broke up. He moved in with his girlfriend in Beijing and succumbed to a new wave of amnesia and loss of memory.

Memory and Amnesia

Untitled, 2002, photo Zhang Website

Memory and Amnesia No 7, 2007,
photo Zhang Website

Untitled 2, 2007, photo Saatchi

In 2003 and 2011 he suffered two heart attacks. The doctors told him, no more whiskey or cigarettes (he was smoking two packs of Zhongnanhai a day) and no work-related stress for a year. After he recovered he devoted himself to sculpture: painted bronzes. In 2008 he married Yuan Yuan, his girlfriend. But the mesmerizing black eyes of his mother, who died in 2010, continued to pursue him.

Red Plum Blossom, 2011