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The Rise of Zhang Xiaogang

By David Barboza

Beijing: In the fall of 1993, Zhang Xiaogang returned to his family home in Kunming, a city in western China, to reconsider the changes he had recently made to his painting style. And when he got home, he came upon something unexpected.

He found a collection of old family photographs that would serve as the inspiration for a long running series of paintings set during the Cultural Revolution.

"I went back home and saw my parents photographs," he said in an interview in his Beijing studio, "and I thought, 'This is good. This has a lot of elements I can express in my paintings.' "

The series of works, which he would later dub "Bloodlines: Big Family," now constitute some of the most sought after paintings in the world; and 48-year-old Zhang Xiaogang is considered one of the country's pre-eminent painters.

Critics now say Zhang pointed Chinese contemporary art in a new direction; he fused old charcoal-like portraits with modern pop art to create iconic images of the troubled Chinese family.

Those innovations have made him one of the country's wealthiest painters and also a star of the global auction market.

A few years ago, a Zhang Xiaogang work sold for about $40,000. But last year, 2006, more than 16 of his paintings sold for over $500,000 apiece. And in November, his 1993 work, "Tiananmen Square," sold for $2.3 million at Christie's auction in Hong Kong. In mid-2007, CNN's "Talk Asia" broadcast a 25- minute interview and profile of Zhang, pushing his profile into the wider world.

There are critics, of course, who argue that Zhang Xiaogang's works are not that innovative or original. They say that like other artists here, he found a style, a brand, and then repeated it over and over again.

But perhaps more than any other artist here, Zhang Xiaogang has departed the most from his early works, and evolved the most over time. No living Chinese contemporary artists who began working after 1979, when avant-garde art was first produced here, is as acclaimed or as hot right now as Zhang Xiaogang.

In this burst of fame -- driven largely by a global auction market boom -- Zhang Xiaogang has been catapulted into the ranks of the world's best-known living artists, such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Lucian Freud, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly and David Hockney.

Though still little recognized outside of China, major collectors are scrambling to get hold of his works. Last October, for instance, his 1995 work, "A Big Family," was purchased at Christie's London auction for $1.5 million by Charles Saatchi, one of the world's leading collectors of contemporary art.

Uli Sigg, the former Swiss ambassador to China, and perhaps the world's leading collector of Chinese contemporary art, with 1,500 pieces, owns a Zhang Xiaogang; so does Guan Yi, the best-known Chinese born collector. The Guggenheim Museum and even the American film director Oliver Stone also own his work. Indeed, the meteoric rise of Zhang Xiaogang is remarkable largely because for years he was something of an outsider in China's art scene, not a leader of the pack.

When many of today's leading Chinese artists were just beginning to get noticed in the 1980s, Zhang Xiaogang was searching for a style and a theme to fit his introverted and complex personality. He was also struggling with his own personal demons -- demons that in 1984 resulted in a lengthy hospital stay.

Today, however, friends say he has found himself and his art style, his own unique brand of painting.

Now, he's working in a new studio in Beijing, finishing off the last pieces that make up a long waiting list of art works that were promised to collectors and art foundations years ago. And now, facing the glare of celebrity, he's trying once again to reinvent himself. He's limiting his work on the "Bloodlines" and "Comrades" series. And he's trying to come to grips with an auction market that has gone wild for his works.

Asked last month about the popularity of his works and his skyrocketing profile, Zhang was stumped. "It came so fast I didn't prepare for it," he said.

"I don't know what to say."

 

II. The Boy from Kunming.

hang Xiaogang was born in 1958, in the city of Kunming, the capital of the southwestern province of Yunnan.

He was the third of four boys raised by a pair of government officials who later settled in Chengdu, the capital of central Sichuan province.

Like many of today's leading contemporary artists, he was also a child of the country's brutal Cultural Revolution, a period of social and political madness that lasted from 1966 to 1976.This was a period when schools were closed, a time of political beatings and mass demonstrations to denounce "capitalist pigs" and "counter-revolutionaries."

In the city of Chengdu, political hysteria set in. Zhang's parents, like so many people whose party loyalties were questioned during the time, came under fire and later spent three years in a study camp."Almost every night during the Cultural Revolution," he recalls, "people came to our house and asked my mother and father what they did wrong. They would be questioned. So I knew something was wrong."

By then, he had already found his calling. He began drawing at the age of four, he says, after his mother bought him a drawing set and painting materials in order to keep him busy at home.

He drew comic book pictures and scenes from battles with the Japanese "aggressors." He created picture books and even began copying the big political posters that went up during the Cultural Revolution.

In the mid 1970s, like so many youths, he was sent to the countryside to be "re-educated" by working with peasants.

Then, all of a sudden, Mao died and the Cultural Revolution came to a close. College entrance exams were reinstated in 1977. And Zhang decided to study art.

 

III. Sichuan Academy of Art

In 1978, Zhang Xiaogang's artistic talents were strong enough to win him a spot at the prestigious Sichuan Academy of Art in Chongqing, where he enrolled in the oil painting department.

His classmates were a talented group that included a group of artists who are now renowned painters in China, like He Duoling, Zhou Chunya and Ye Yongqing.But Zhang says he never quite fit into the school. He started out studying Soviet style realist art but says he quickly fell in love with more modern art.

In 1979, he remembers seeing a catalogue featuring impressionist paintings from Europe. The great emotion and power behind the works appealed to him, he says, and so before long he was borrowing ideas and techniques from the works of Gaugin and Van Gogh.

The influences can be seen in some of Zhang's early works, which feature nature scenes or Tibetans living in the rolling grasslands.

His work, however, was out of step with the academy and the avant-garde art movements that were beginning to spring up all over the country.

"By the time I graduated I had become a lot different from my classmates," he says. "I felt lonely during the studies because almost no one understood me."

One early supporter, however, was Li Xianting, the art critic and editor of China Fine Arts magazine. During a special visit to the school in 1982, Li encouraged Zhang to continue along this path. Li even published some of Zhang's work in his magazine.

But disappointment came that year when Zhang failed to secure one of the school's coveted teaching posts. Instead, he was offered a job in a factory, which he rejected. It was the beginning of a long period of rejection and despair.

 

IV. Times of Despair.

Without a teaching position at the Academy, Zhang was forced to return home shortly after graduation. He says he did odd construction jobs, got part time work sketching for newspapers, and eventually found steady work doing stage and costume design for a song and dance troupe in Yunnan Province.

This was also a period of introspection. He taught himself philosophy and read Sartre. He studied the works ofDali, Van Gogh, Gaugin and Millet and he experimented with an array of painting styles. Zhang also says he fell into a depression and even contemplated suicide. He doesn't talk about the particulars of the time, but Karen Smith, the art critic, has written in her book: "Nine Lives: Birth of the Avant-Garde in the New China," that there was a broken relationship with a woman, and also family problems, including tense relations with his father and grave concerns about his mother, who suffered from schizophrenia even while he was a youth.

In 1984, Zhang Xiaogang was hospitalized for two months after a serious bout of drinking. For a time, his room was right next to the hospital's mortuary.

The time in the hospital would have a powerful effect on his art. Indeed, for more than a decade, Zhang says he painted almost exclusively about death and existential questions.

A series of sketches from 1984 was entitled, "Dialogue with Death." The images show piles of skulls, grim reapers and people descending into hell.

Those portraits were followed by paintings that were almost as dark, filled with ghosts, knives, severed limbs or people in deep meditation. Buddha figures and Jesus Christ also appeared in some works.

By then, he was part of a group of southwestern artists calling themselves the "New Imagist Group," and many of their works borrowed from Surrealism.

Indeed, his work was well enough regarded at the time to win him a spot in the 1989 China/Avant-Garde exhibition at the National Gallery in Beijing.

But after 1989, Zhang - like so many Chinese contemporary artists of the time - grew disillusioned with the social and political scene in China. The dismembered bodies and severed limbs looked a lot like a political statement about 1989, which is perhaps why his works were banned in China through the mid-1990s.

And perhaps Zhang intended to send such a message at the time. Speaking of that period, he said: "I didn't feel any hope. I wanted to find someone with the same feelings as me. I felt society didn't understand me or my kind of people. I couldn't find my location in society. So in this period I felt sad and depressed."

 

V. The Awakening.

In the 1990s, however, Zhang Xiaogang made a sharp break with his past, setting the stage what would be a spectacular rise as an artist.

Zhang says he essentially stopped painting in 1992 so that he could reflect on what he was doing. That year, he travelled to Germany. In Europe, Zhang visited and museums and saw the works of artists he had long admired, such as Gerhard Richter.

He says the trip to Europe also convinced him to rethink the style and themes of his work. He began to believe, he says, that the power of European art had something to do with the culture that surrounded it; and that perhaps his paintings were not Chinese enough but simply an imitation of something foreign.

And so when Zhang returned to China later that year, he planned to do something entirely new. But around that time he also had a stroke of good luck. Johnson Chang, the owner of the Hong Kong gallery, Hanart TZ, made a visit to Chongqing to see Zhang, who was teaching at the Sichuan Academy of Art, earning only about $24 a month.

Zhang said the meeting was shocking: Chang agreed to purchase everything in Zhang’s studio, as many as 20 paintings. And Chang wanted to represent Zhang and sell his work to collectors. He asked Zhang to begin producing new works.

The new works Zhang intended to create, however, would be entirely different. He had long shunned realist painting but now he was prepared to go back to it, He also wanted to do something more photographic in nature, like a Richter painting, and something that borrowed from Pop Art.

Naturally, he was worried about how Johnson Chang, the Hong Kong gallery owner, would react to a dramatic change in style. So he penned a long letter to Chang.

"I was worried. So I wrote a long letter to him telling him I was going to change my style,” Zhang recalls. “Then he wrote back and said, “I like you as a person. So I think it’s ok.”

The first of the new works were more photographic in style, but they also employed some of Zhang's standard technique of painting in odd objects that could signal the deeper meaning behind a portrait, such as a knife, a baby or a red thread that appeared to be some kind of umbilical cord.

But after Zhang's trip back home in 1993, he decided to paint old photographs of his mother into the background of his new works.

Indeed, critics and some of Zhang's friends say you cannot understand Zhang's art without knowing about his tortured feelings about his mother and her schizophrenic condition.

In an interview several years ago, Zhang said: "Her illness got worse during the Cultural Revolution. When I moved away from home, my mother wrote me strange letters that some people would no doubt call incoherent, but that I thought were full of poetry. I had the urge to find out who she really was. I wanted to find out about my parents when they were young."

When Zhang discovered photographs of his mother as a young beautiful woman during the Cultural Revolution, he decided to make that a centerpiece of his work.

According to Michel Nuridsany, in the book, “China Art Now,” Zhang "found the photographs of his parents as a young couple in 1993. He discovered that his mother had been a very pretty girl, that she had a romantic streak, and that she loved music, but that due to circumstances she had become a civil servant.”

"Society changed her into a different person," he said. "Personal needs and the demands of society are two different things."

Johnson Chang said in a recent interview that he never talked to Zhang about his early life, but he once asked Zhang about why he had often imposed writing on his paintings and he responded that some of that writing included letters to his mother.

"He said he had to write to his mother every month to assure her he's all right,” Chang said. “He wrote basically the same letter over and over again. He said she's fatalogically frail."

Looking back on it now, the idea of family and relations was evolving in Zhang's works and this was the awkward transition to the more mature "Bloodlines" series that would develop over the next decade. The family photographs in these early works appeared on television sets or on a wall behind the central character in the painting.

Then Zhang began to remove the background imagery and the extraneous objects. He began to paint what appeared to be a replica of an old black-and-white family photograph, often featuring disturbed faces. And some of his images were borrowed from old commercial prints made in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, Johnson Chang says.

By 1994, the images were clean and dark. Not background material but smooth, dark surfaces that highlighted the characters alone. And the faces of his families and comrades became smooth, sleek and more cartoon-like or like prints. By 1995, Zhang Xiaogang's works looked completely different from the paintings he created in early 1993.

He was producing almost chocolate colored black-and-white photographs of families or comrades wearing Mao suits. characters in his paintings posed with awkward, blank looks on their faces.

Thin red threads, almost like electrical wires, linked people; and blemishes or flashes of light (something he had used for years) remained as a kind of stain across the face of many of his subjects. The "Bloodlines" series was under way.

But they were not immediately accepted. Early on, some critics said they were disappointed in the new style. "Most established critics in China didn't like the change," Johnson Chang recalled. "They thought they weren't so idealistic any more. But I thought they were becoming more deep and sophisticated."

In 1995, Johnson Chang, acting as a curator, took Zhang to the Venice Biennale, along with six other Chinese artists, including Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun, Liu Wei and Li Shan.

Zhang's work was also shown at the Sao Paolo Biennial in Brazil. Suddenly, orders piled up and critics hailed this new brand of iconic Chinese painting.

What is the idea behind the images: “I am trying to portray the relationship between individuals and the history and social environment they live in,” he once said. “This is very similar to the relationship within the family, of which every member is dependent on one another, and everyone has a conflict with everyone. It is neither simple nor harmonious; it is ambivalent and ambiguous.”

 

VI. The Great Bull Run.

In this new life, Zhang Xiaogang found a rhythm. For inspiration, he says he tacked old photographs up on the walls of his studio; he paged through old books and magazines searching for old photographic images to use; and then he began painting -- mostly black and white images with flashes of neon like color.

The paintings are often personal. He painted friends, the daughter of friend; and his own mother. Then he painted standard portraits of two parents and a single child - the kind of image it was common to find in China in the 1950s or 1960s.

The power of the images he created, critics say, is not just the technique but the idea behind the works - the concept of the shattered family that appears cohesive and silent about what is really happening around them.

But unlike Zhang's earlier works, which were cluttered with objects and symbols, the "Bloodline Series" was subtle.

The people in these new works had the same basic facial features - the same eyes, nose and mouth. They were in fact, one person, or a composite of one person, partly Zhang's mother as well as his daughter, with some ideal images added in.

But they had blemishes, defects, stains and other hints of imperfection. They were both the individual and the faceless masses of China. And they were set during the Cultural Revolution, a period, after all, that was partly about the individual submitting to the party and the masses; an era when the government tried to erase all signs of individuality.

"It’s not just one family,” Zhang said of the idea behind these works, " but that all families were the same in that period."

The message behind Zhang's new works was clear: there was something disturbing and traumatic behind the blank stares, the cross-eyed expressions, the deformities and blemishes of an otherwise simple Chinese family.

Families were bound together; comrades were bound together, but China, like Zhang Xiaogang, bore some deep psychological scars inside, behind the veil of the standard family photograph.

In one brilliant stroke, Zhang captured so many ideas about the Chinese family and the country's turbulent history. And he did this with faces that were clearly Chinese.

He also chose a period that was incredibly popular with collectors: the Cultural Revolution. Other artists had already cashed in on doing Warhol-like experiments with Mao's image or the Cultural Revolution, such as Li Shan and Wang Guangyi. But no one had really captured the family trauma of the time. And Zhang did it with stiff, almost expressionless faces that somehow hinted at the turbulence below the surface.

In 1995, Zhang tried to explain his thinking: “I often subconsciously want to stand behind reality, to experience that which is hidden below this reality, those things we call ‘mysterious,’ “ he said. “I emphasize emotion.”

And as that style evolved dark hues turned lighter; children lost parts of their clothing, exposing their genitals; some women or children were bleached in color while the rest of the painting appeared in black and white.

Zhang played with the details while mostly painting variations on the family and the comrades during that time of terror -- that time when his own family was shattered and his parents were imprisoned. These paintings were the personal story of Zhang Xiaogang, but also the tale of a scarred and troubled nation.

Collectors clamored for the works. In 1997, Zhang had his first solo exhibition in China after a long period of being banned from showing his works.

He showed his paintings at the Central Academy of Fine Arts Gallery in Beijing. Then, gradually in the late 90s and into 2000 and 2001 he showed his work more and more, at home and abroad.

What sold for $2,000 in 1994 sold for $40,000 from 2000 to 2003. And what sold for $40,000 then sells for about $200,000 today, after an amazing run in 2005 and 2006.

No one knows how it happened but Sotheby's March 2006 auction was the first burst of inflation for Zhang. Then came more auctions -- Sotheby's, Christie's and Chinese mainland auctions at China Guardian or Huachen Auction House.

Some experts say about 100 early works painted by Zhang Xiaogang went to the auction market in 2006. And some of them broke records by selling for over $1 million.

But Zhang insists he's not watching the auction market – he says it's a distraction and something he can't control. He says he's developing new themes, like "Memory & Amnesia," and he's experimenting with painting over real photographs.

The "Bloodlines" series has gone on for over a decade - and so he's limiting his work on the series, and thinking about what’s next, whether the market likes it or not.

For now, of course, the market and collectors love Zhang Xiaogang; he’s the icon of the moment. "He's certainly iconic," Johnson Chang said in an interview a few weeks ago. "This is now the archetypal Chinese contemporary art image."