[2007 Riitta Valorinta] Zhang Xiaogang

Zhang Xiaogang

Riitta Valorinta


Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings usually depict people in delicately photorealistic facial or half-length portraits. Clad in uniforms, usually only the top part of the torso id visible, but whenever the whole body is in view, it is proportionately smaller than the face.


The colour scale in the paintings consists of shades of subdued grey, except for images of children, who are sometimes painted in strong red and yellow hues. Characteristic of his paintings, and something that evokes interpretation, is the thin red line that runs from one figure to another, and the net-like colored shapes that appear on the faces.


Wu Hung and Katherine R. Tsiang have analyzed human subjects in Chinese painting in their book Body and Face in Chinese Visual Culture(2005):

Images of the body have often been linked to questions of science, gender, and sexuality. Images of the face, on the other hand, have often been studied in terms of portraiture, individuality, and identity. Arguably, the legitimacy of this separation of scholarship on the face and body reflects the separate artistic genes of portraiture and the unde in Western art. The body is rarely depicted unde in China, however, and therefore it might more profitably be studied in multivalent terms related to social identity, religion, and other kinds of signification, and the face might be seen through “symbolic frameworks” that instead of constituting two unrelated themes, body and face are linked in a continuing negotiation – a dynamic process resulting from the constant deconstruction and reconstruction of a hypothetical natural body.


Zhang Xiaogang’s human subjects lend themselves to comparison with Renaissance portraiture, in which artists sought after symmetry in the use of space and employed a method in which light and shadow were similarly ungraded colour surfaces. These plastic qualities correspond to the art theorist Heinrich Wolffin’s idea of closed from in Renaissance painting. According to Wolfflin, the opposite of this would be the painter-liness of the Baroque. In Zhang Xiaogang’s works, we can see a lively use of the brush only in the eyes of the subject, which makes viewers focus on this point. The paintings sometimes bear a likeness to Russian orthodox icons, where earnest , holy figures with narrow faces and small mouths draw attention to the eyes. The linearity and plasticity of Renaissance art are also evident in Zhang Xiaogang’s drawings: an empasia on the outline of structures. However, Renaissance portraits were novel in their striving towards psychological and individual expression; in contrast, Zhang Xiaogang presents both genders as almost expressionless and all but indiscernible from each other.


Zhang Xiaogang bases his human subjects on randomly-selected, old formal family photographs, which were highly popular in early 20th century China. He does not use live models, although in many of his paintings, the facial features of his mother and daughter can be identified.


A more topical approach to Zhang Xiaogang’s portraits might be the method of “close reading”, although admittedly Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings are not really milieu portraits anf they incorporate seemingly few external elements. A closer study of the paintings, however, provides clue to a detailed analysis of gender and family relations as well a comment on society both in terms of the individual and the collective whole.


Zhang Xiaogang was born in 1958 in Yunnan province in southern China, and grew up in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, during the Cultural Revolution. He currently lives and works in Beijing. Although the artist himself does not talk much about his past, he once gave an interview in which he described the early days of the Cultural Revolution from a child’s perspective:” It was just great for an eight-year-old that you didn’t have to go to school.” The family had four children, who were left to fend for themselves, with some help from their aunt, over the worst years when they were separated from their parents from his family, and sent to the countryside for “retraining”. After the Cultural Revolution, which ended with Mao’s death in 1976, universities and art schools reopened. The very next year, Zhang Xiaogang was selected to study oil painting at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts from amongst thousands of aoolicants.

Oil painting techniques are relatively new to Chinese art. It was not until soon after the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), in the early 20th century, that China began opening its doors to the West and art academies. In his artistic programme, Mao Zedong favored oil painting over the traditional ink and wash painting, the preferred method among the elite. Mao Zedong required that artists use socialist realistic expression after the Soviet model that, according to him, would suit the spirit of the time, a style that prevailed both during, and for several years after, the Cultural Revolution. Knowledge about Western art and modern styles was obtained from publications and art books that came to China in the 1980s, and at the same time, knowledge about various art centers and their different artistic orientations started to circulate within China. The more lenient censorship legislation of the late 1980s enabled the emergence of the artistic movement ’85 New Wave. Zhang Xiaogang was one of the leading figures in the movement. He also participated in the legendary China/Avant-Grade exhibition held at the National Museum of China in 1989, which is widely considered to be the moment when the hisroty of Chinese contemporary art began. In 1993, Zhang Xiaogang started his famous Bloodline series, inspired by old family photographs that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and tell about the loss of irreplaceable memories, while also discussing the position of the individual in society. The surrealistic elements of the paintings are linked with a psychological approach. In this respect, Zhang Xiaogang clearly represents the surrealistically-oriented tradition of the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, rather than the more political style Beijing. The characters in his paintings have been considered a metaphor of Chinese society, these quiet but impressive characters tell something about the complex networks that human life involves.


Zhang Xiaogang id interested in the conflict between remembering and forgetting, both as a collective and as a personal choice. He has touched upon this theme since 2002 in his Amnesia and Memory serious, but the same problems arising from a person’s mental and material past are also evident in the landscapes of his more recent Inside and Outside series.


I would like to extend my warmest thanks to Ludovic Bois from the Chinese contemporary Galleries(Beijing/London/New York). His contribution has been of key importance in organizing this exhibition. Without his help and contacts, bringing the exhibition to the Sara Hilden Art Museum would not have been possible. Throughout the preparations for the exhibition, we hae depended on the extremely valuable help of the Chinese Contemporary Galleries on a whole range of issues. Ludovic Bois and the entire staff of the gallery, in particular Li Juan, who has also Kindly served as my interpreter, and Katie Grube have been almost like a “Beijing office” for our museum.


I would also like to thank all those who have contributed to the production of this catalogue: the Beijing based art critic Lu Peng and Julia Colman, co-owner of the Chinese Contemporary Galleries, who wrote the articles; and the translators, Philip Wang, Raijia Mattila Laiho, and the staff at the translation company Valtasana Oy. The layout work for the catalogue was especially demanding because of the tight schedule, and I would like to thank graphic designer Jari Karppanen for his flexibility and professionalism.


I would also like to thank, on behalf of the Sara Hilden A t Museum, all the private collectors who have kindly lent works to this exhibition. I am extremely grateful to each owner of the works displayed for their positive attitude towards our project. Chinese contemporary art has, in the past few years, attracted great international acclaim, and the most notable art museums are currently organizing extensive exhibitions, many of them going on tour. For this reason, the works in foundation and public collections will not be available for years to come.


And finally, the biggest “thank you” should go to the artist himself.


I meet Zhang Xiaogang for the first the first time in Chengdu in spring 2005, at little Bar, which is an artist’s café where he used to spend most evenings with his friends discussing art. I have visited his studio in Beijing, and we have also met in London. I would like to thank him for all these memorable encounters.


We are grateful to the artist for choosing the Sara Hilden Art Museum as the venue for his first European museum exhibition, and for creating two new oil paintings, two photographic series, and drawings especially for our invitation, and will honor the exhibition opening together with his wife He jiajia.


For this reason, I would like to conclude by extending my warmest thanks to artist Zhang Xiaogang.


Riitta Valorinta


Sara Hilden Art Museum