Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline: Big Family No. 1 (Lot 970) debuted at the 22nd International Biennial of São Paulo in 1994 introducing this iconic series for the first time to the international art world. The painting received an overwhelming response and subsequently was exhibited at the 1995 Venice Biennale. Bloodline: Big Family No. 1 is the earliest painting from Zhang's Bloodline series and its exhibition at this biennial was a major milestone for the international reception of contemporary Chinese art. There are no other Chinese contemporary paintings that possess the iconic power of Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline: Big Family series. In the 1980's, the artist community was strongly impacted by the surge of Western culture rushing in as a result of the Chinese government's Open Door Policy. Chinese artist were increasingly exposed to Western art movements and styles creating an environment of pluralism that inspired ground-breaking works to be created. Zhang Xiaogang and his art was a product of this dynamic period, and through his deep study and contemplations, he developed a unique style during this early phase of his career culminating in his Bloodline: Big Family paintings. Drawing on the influence of compositional conventions of twentieth century portrait photography and the visual language of earlier Communist tradition, this large scale Bloodline: Big Family painting has become emblematic of Chinese contemporary art. Some critics have analyzed the Bloodline: Big Family series as paintings that capture memories of an earlier Communist society but this reduces the artist's work to modern "export art" made to satisfy the foreigner's imagination of Communist China. These critics apparently have not realized the influence this series has had on domestic China: these pictures have been illustrated in countless Chinese magazine covers, subway murals, and even popular motion pictures in which these symbolic images have appeared repeatedly. The image of Bloodline: Big Family is ubiquitous. These muted sober family portraits seem to have captured the very essence of a historical drama (or even trauma) of how the building up of a prosperous and affluent contemporary society from the embers of a revolution leads one to reflect on its turbulent and tragic past.
Zhang Xiaogang's style underwent several major changes through the late 1980's and into the early 1990's. He experimented with Surrealism and Cubism until he developed a unique color palette and visual vocabulary for representing the human face and body. To heighten the sense of depth and dimensionality, he used trompe l'oeil and staged his subjects inside a painted frame. A group of works painted in 1991 and 1992 of disembodied heads and arms inside a painted frame were exhibited in 1993 at the "China's New Art: Post-1989" exhibition. Also, the Tiananmen Square Series painted in 1993 all share this same framing device. These early works influenced the approach Zhang would take when later creating his Bloodline: Big Family.
Zhang gave birth to the Bloodline series in the summer of 1993 in Kunming, and the paintings were first exhibited in December of that year in the seminal exhibition "Chinese Art in the 1990's: Experiences of Chin"a at the Sichuan Art Museum in Chengdu. The five-man exhibition, curated by the art critic Wang Lin, also included works by Mao Xuhui, Ye Yongqing, Wang Chuan, and Zhou Chunya. It marked the culmination of the avant-garde movement formerly known as the "Southwestern Art Group." Zhang Xiaogang exhibited ten paintings, including Family Portrait, a realistically proportioned portrait of a three-person family that may have been his own. They appear thin and frail against a background that was not yet rendered with chiaroscuro seen in his later works; a stark light shines in blocks upon the sitters, a precursor to the discoloured patches that would be seen in his future Bloodline series. This piece was later titled Bloodline: Family and was collected by the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum marking this as the first time Zhang's work was collected by an international institution.
In 1993, 19 Chinese artists including Zhang Xiaogang were introduced for the first time at the Venice Biennale. Although Chengdu was not known to the international art community, Zhang started to feel that the symbolic value of his work was encountering a powerful market force. He felt troubled so at the "Experiences of China" exhibition he stated that "we cannot accept easy categorization. Categorization is often required for exhibition purposes; for example, the "Post-1989" exhibition in Hong Kong resorted to categorization to help explain." Zhang wanted to emphasize that an artist must hold true to his individual expression regardless of how the international community interprets or categorizes his work.
Johnson Chang, who had recently organized the "China's New Art: Post-1989" exhibition, was now charged with selecting six Chinese artists to represent China for the upcoming 22nd International São Paulo Biennial; Zhang Xiaogang was selected and exhibited alongside Fang Lijun and Liu Wei in one of the two mini-exhibitions titled "Wakefulness and the Weightless Present." This was Zhang's first overseas exhibition so he chose four paintings that were executed in 1994 from his Bloodline series and each measuring 150 by 180 centimeters. The first two canvases were of family portraits, the third painting was Two Comrades, and the fourth was Three Comrades. Among the family portraits, Bloodline: Big Family No. 1 was featured. Painted with brighter colors and more stylized figures, these canvases are the first in which discoloured patches of red and yellow replaced the plays of light that were rendered in his earlier works. Another development seen in these compositions is the tendency to depict his subjects as increasingly androgynous. For Zhang Xiaogang, this outing was momentous in two senses: it placed his work for the first time in the international spotlight, and marked the mature outlines of a style he would continue to develop until the present.
There is no doubt that the four works Zhang exhibited at the International São Paulo Biennial was a major breakthrough for the artist's career. From his paintings, we can clearly see that after 1989 the artist was striving to create a new visual experience as well as a totally individual artistic style. Bloodline: Big Family No. 1 makes deeply apparent that the artist's series had fully matured and was ready to advance to the international market. In this Bloodline: Big Family painting, an intellectual-turned-labourer father is depicted with his sullen son and daughter each wearing pins with Chairman Mao's likeness upon their chest. There is a stark fragmented light cast across the left side of the faces of each rigidly seated figure while a red thread connects the three of them, which is present in all Zhang's mature works from his Bloodline series. The figures seethe a timid solemnity intensified by the radical palette that renders their skin in off-tone hues of red and yellow, the colours of the People's Republic. But the overwhelming impression is one of a vast expanse of grey, the darkness perhaps of historical memory, from which any particular individual can only peek out for moments at a time. Similar in theme to what his peers Liu Wei and Fang Lijun's had painted, these early Bloodline series paintings serves as an overwhelming visual force that is loaded with tragic affect.
At the Venice Biennale the following year, Zhang's Bloodline: Big Family received and overwhelming response at the show "The Other Face: Three Chinese Artists." This exhibition fit into the larger international exhibition "Identità e Alterità" meant to celebrate the Biennale's centenary. The Chinese pavilion was a resounding success and received immense attention, due to the efforts of the curator, Johnson Chang, and their sponsor, David Tang. The show even received a visit by Princess Diana. Zhang was originally planning to show alongside Liu Wei and Wenda Gu, but Wenda Gu's installation was too large for the space. Zhang was then able to show two groups of paintings: a cycle of single-figure Bloodline: Comrade paintings, and four monumental Bloodline: Big Family paintings. The 1995 show is considered a pivotal moment marking the beginnings of the Bloodline: Big Family and gradually establishing the tremendous value Bloodline: The Big Family No. 1 would have in the history of art.
Having served as the curator for the 1994 International São Paulo Biennial and the 1995 Venice Biennale, Johnson Chang, wrote that "the figures depicted in Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline: Big Family are idealized and solemnly dignified resulting in a haunting image that will be passed down through future generations. Like early photo studio portraits where blemishes or any slight imperfections were removed to show only a clean and perfect complexion...these figures represented the masses of today."  More than a decade later, these "masses" have become symbols that move beyond the canvas to represent life's vicissitudes. The artist belongs to a socialist period of dark blue and green uniforms and embodies a sharp vision from that bygone era.
Wang Lin, Chinese Experience (Zhongguo jingyan), private publication, 1993, p. 50.
 Chang Tsong-zung, L'Altra Faccia: Tre Artisti Cinesi a Venezia (Woxiang yu taxiang), 1995.
Oil on canvas
Brazil, São Paulo, 22nd International Biennial Of São Paulo, October - December, 1994, pp. 44-45
Netherlands, Rothmans Amsterdam; Rothmans Zevenaar, Groei in de collectie Peter Stuyvesant, September - October, 1997
Belgium, Oostende, PMMK, René Magritte en de Hedendaagse Kunst, April - June, 1998
Netherlands, PAN Amsterdam, September - October, 1999
Belgium, Province de Namur, Faces, October - December, 1999
150 by 179 cm.; 59 by 70 1/2 in.
Umbilical Cord Of History: Paintings by Zhang Xiaogang, Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong and Galerie Enrico Navarra, Paris, 2004, pp. 51 and 175
Yang Qianqian, Lü Peng, ed., Chinese Contemporary Artists Volumes, Series II- Zhang Xiaogang, Sichuan Fine Art Publishing House, 2007, pp. 66-67
Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong
The BAT ArtVenture Collection (formerly known as the Peter Stuyvesant Collection), Europe
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 4 October, 2008, lot 11
Acquired by the present owner from the above sale