Zhang Xiaogang, Three Comrades (from ‘Bloodline: Big Family’ series), 1994 (detail) from the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

Zhang Xiaogang: Early Works in Australia

by Boris Cornelissen | 22 June 2020

Although Australian-Chinese political relations are currently tense, Australia has a long history of collecting and exhibiting contemporary Chinese artists. The exhibition ‘Mao Goes Pop: China Post 1989’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 1993 was one of the first major exhibitions of the influential group of ’85 New Wave artists outside of China, and through the Asia-Pacific Triennale, Chinese artists have been invited to show their work here since 1993. Moreover, Australia is home to one of the largest private colletions of contemporary Chinese art: Judith Neilson’s White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney. It is therefore no shock that several early and important Zhang Xiaogang works are housed in Australia’s institutional collections.

See full list of Zhang Xiaogang works in Australian collections

Contemporary Chinese art has developed as a unique and peculiar historical phenomenon. Unlike neighbouring countries where a distinct form of modernism emerged alongside similar trends in the Western world, and which then developed into unique artistic practices in the post-war era (Gutai in Japan and Dansaekhwa in Korea), Chinese artists were largely sheltered from these developments until the country gradually opened up in the 1980s. The leap from traditional Chinese artistic practices to the international contemporary art scene that these artists experienced was enormous, and extremely sudden by comparison. 

Of course it is important to consider that what is known as contemporary Chinese art globally is partially a product of the west: artists considered important abroad might not have that same status at home, and vice versa. In some cases, works that are considered masterpieces of contemporary Chinese art in the west, are blocked from entering the country under censorship laws – anything referring to Tiananmen Square or anything critical of Mao is not allowed. 

Many of the figurative painters that gained international following in the late 80s and 90s were inspired by European artists: Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Zeng Fanzhi, Liu Ye and Yue Minjun to name but a few. The fact that they became as famous as they are now might have as much to do with the fact that their works resonated with European collectors, who consequently by and large acquired the same list of artists. From the Ullens collection in Belgium, the Sigg collection in Switzerland, the DSL Collection in France, or the Estella collection in the United States – there is a huge amount of overlap in the artists represented in each of them. This is by no means a negative (or specific to contemporary Chinese art), but it is an important factor to consider when addressing the narrative of contemporary Chinese art in the west.

Zhang Xiaogang holds a key position in this story. Born in 1958 in Kunming, he grew up during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and enrolled at the Sichuan Fine Art Academy in 1977. At the time, Revolutionary Realism, the official style instituted by Mao Zedong, was the only accepted artistic practice, and both foreign art and China’s own rich cultural history were renounced. But as the country entered into a new phase and gradually opened up to the rest of the world, books on European art history made their way into artists studios and offered them a window into artistic practices elsewhere. This inspired a new generation of artists, whom despite their divergent styles and interests came to be known as the ’85 New Wave Movement. The movement was a binding factor for more than one thousand artists, who worked at a time when there was no infrastructure for contemporary art in China: there were no galleries, no museums, no institutional support. During this time, Zhang Xiaogang developed a style strongly influenced by surrealism and symbolism, and was particularly drawn to Vincent van Gogh’s bright colour palette.. 

But the artist’s phase of dreamy paintings ended abruptly in 1989, which became a pivotal year in the history of contemporary Chinese art. In February of that year, the ’85 New Wave movement opened its first large-scale exhibition in Beijing: the China/Avant-Garde exhibition, featuring over 300 artworks by 186 artists. Whilst various fractions within the movement had organised over 100 exhibitions between 1985-89, they were spread out across China’s vast territory. The 1989 exhibition brought together the diverse spectrum of artistic practices, from more traditional countryside painters to artists inspired by Dada or conceptual art, we well as what was later to become known as Political Pop and Cynical Realism. Even more radically, the exhibition included several performances which were not only a completely novel artistic practice in a country that had until recently been shielded from international contemporary art, but which were also illegal.

Posters for the China/Avant-Garde exhibition, Beijing, 1989

When the exhibition opened on 5 February 1989, it was shut down by the authorities only two hours later, after the artist Xiao Lu opened fire and shot her own installation titled Dialogue with a gun. The highly symbolic and subversive act (which can be read as a literal killing of dialogue within an oppressive political system), resulted in the three-day long interrogation of the artist by Chinese officials, and ultimately in her decision to relocateto Australia (in Spring 2019 the A4 Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney dedicated an exhibition to this).

Four months after the exhibition opened, another event sent shock-waves throughout China, and indeed the world. Students who had called for greater democracy and freedom of speech assembled in Beijing, and organised mass protests from mid April till early June. Amongst the protestors were artists carrying the banner of the China/Avant-Garde exhibition logo, which resembled a traffic sign prohibiting a U-turn: there was no going back to the status quo established during the Cultural Revolution. The massacre of Tiananmen Square that followed on 4 June left an enormous impact on the new generation of artists, including Zhang Xiaogang whose work up to that point had not been particularly progressive. As he remarked about his shift away from his surrealist-inspired paintings: “I was pulled back into reality, awakened from my dreams.”

Zhang Xiaogang, Reincarnation, 1989, pencil and ink on paper mounted on cloth, 76.6 by 53.3 cm. Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane (acquired in 2007)

Zhang Xiaogang, Reincarnation, 1989, pencil and ink on paper mounted on cloth, 76.6 by 53.3 cm. Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane (acquired in 2007)

Amongst the first works Zhang Xiaogang made in response to the events of 4 June 1989, was Reincarnation (1989), which is now housed in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. Although the work is executed in the artist’s characteristic surrealist-inspired style from the late 1980s, it lacks the colour of his earlier compositions, and is instead painted in a sombre palette. The large decapitated figure with limbs scattered below offers a grim response to the Tiananmen Square massacre. But the most political reference is possibly one of the two heads placed on top of an open book, suggesting a violent suppression of knowledge. 

Although this early work still shows the stylistic influence of European modernism, Zhang Xiaogang had started to move away from his earlier visual language in search of a more authentic expression. Returning from a research trip to Germany in 1993, he finally concluded that “if I continue being an artist, I have to be an artist of ‘China.’” That same year, he started what would become his most important body of work, and indeed one of the most important series of paintings from the history of contemporary Chinese art: the Bloodline: Big Family series.

Zhang Xiaogang, Three Comrades (from Bloodline: Big Family series), 1994, oil on canvas, 150 by 180 cm.Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane (acquired in 1996)

Zhang Xiaogang, Three Comrades (from Bloodline: Big Family series), 1994, oil on canvas, 150 by 180 cm. Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane (acquired in 1996)

Following a number of paintings depicting Tiananmen Square, Zhang Xiaogang turned towards old family photos from the 1950s and 1960s. At a time when the country was going through a period of rapid socio-economic change, the Bloodline paintings capture the country’s collective memory of an older generation and explores the notion of Chinese national identity. The sitters are mostly families (the earliest paintings were based on photographs of the artist’s own family) dressed in Mao-era outfits and painted predominantly in muted grey tones. The artist’s aesthetic has now transformed from his earlier European modernist style into something very different. Although Gerhard Richter’s grey paintings made an impact during his trip to Germany, Zhang’s new style was decidedly unique.

“We were, in earnest, living together in a “big family”. In this big family, one had to learn how to manoeuvre a variety of “bloodline” relationships — biological bloodlines, social bloodlines, cultural bloodlines, and so on.”
– Zhang Xiaogang

The series of Bloodline: Big Family paintings quickly catapulted Zhang Xiaogang to international fame. In 1995, the works were included in the Venice Biennale and the following year they were shown at the the Second Asia-Pacific Triennale organised by the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, which became the first museum to acquire a work from the series. Four years later, the National Gallery of Australia acquired another early painting from the series, Bloodline (Two Comrades with Red Baby) from 1995. 

Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline (Two Comrades with red Baby), 1995, oil on canvas, 150 by 180 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (acquired in 2000)

Whilst the latter is more characteristic of the family portrait (depicting two parents with a baby), the earlier work demonstrates the artist’s comment about the different kinds of relationships that are symbolised by the bloodline – which, as in all works from the series, connects each individual figure with the others. With their highly stylised appearances and consistent uniforms, the paintings are a collective portrait of generations of Chinese families. 

“Through the Chinese tradition of portraiture, Zhang has drawn upon the classical iconography of ancestor portraiture of which every Chinese would have vague collective memory of.” 
– Johnson Chang

The new series would become a central theme in the artist’s practice for the subsequent decades. But what makes these two paintings particularly important is how early they are. As for most Chinese artists of his generation, international success was accompanied by a huge increase in production – and as a result, the earlier the date of execution, the more rare these paintings are. It is therefore impressive that two of the very early Bloodline: Big Family paintings as well as the even earlier painting Incarnation have made their way into permanent collections in Australia. By comparison, major museums such as the Tate Modern in London or the Museum of Modern Art in New York don’t have any paintings by the artist at all.

Certainly the early Australian interest in Chinese contemporary art played an important role: following the China/Avant-Garde exhibition, a major exhibition surveying recent art from China was first organised in Hong Kong under the title China’s New Art, Post 1989, which then travelled internationally. If first stopped in a reduced format in Sydney and Melbourne under the name Mao Goes Pop: China Post 1989, and then travelled to the Americas, making Australia one of the first countries to exhibit the ’85 New Wave Movement artists. Aside from being the first museum to acquire a work from Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family series, the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane was also amongst the first museums internationally to stage a major exhibition of the artist’s work in 2009, titled Zhang Xiaogang—Shadows in the Soul, featuring 78 of the artist’s works.

Zhang Xiaogang solo exhibitions in Australia

Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Zhang Xiaogang: Shadows in the Soul, March – June 2009, link

See full list of Zhang Xiaogang works in Australian collections