Chinese avant-garde painter goes black-and-white

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Aug 20, 2012 - 20:16
  • Updated : Aug 20, 2012 - 21:27
The “Chinese cultural invasion” has become a global phenomenon.

Record-breaking sums are being splashed on Chinese art pieces at international auctions and exhibitions of works by Chinese “enfants terribles” are held at galleries around the world. In Korea some of the trendiest Chinese artists have become the new darlings of collectors, replacing Andy Warhol or Lee U-fan.

At the center of the frenzy for Chinese contemporary art is Zhang Xiaogang. Zhang is now considered among the most sensational and collectable artists by galleries. He has held 12 solo exhibitions and dozens of collaborative events. His three-panel painting, “Forever Lasting Love,” was sold for 79 million Hong Kong dollars ($10 million), a record price for Chinese contemporary art, a couple of years ago.

The Chinese contemporary painter is said to have opened a new page in Chinese art with his “Bloodline” series portraying his families and friends in old black-and-white portrait-style paintings.
“Bloodline-Big Family” by Zhang Xiaogang (Zhang Xiaogang)
Zhang Xiaogang

People in the pictures look expressionless and dim but if you take a careful look you may find them in sorrow, or even with a very subtle hint of happiness ― depending on what you are looking for. The mellow tone provokes melancholic, nostalgic sentiments from deep within the heart.

The inspiration for his so-called masterpieces came from an old photo of his mother when she was young, discovered in the early 1990s, Zhang said in an email interview.

“It wasn’t easy to describe what I felt at that very moment. But it kept stirring something inside me and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Then suddenly I realized that it was her way of exhibiting suppression of inner emotions rooted deep in her heart for the sake of totalitarianism. That was what was pulling me so close to her,” he said.

“Photographs taken at home are very private and intimate. Collectivism that has infiltrated every part of our lives and family is the very essence of the chaos ― we are related to each other but at the same time restrict each other. I wanted to highlight it but at the same give it a little twist,” he added.

Zhang’s paintings tear at the perception in other parts of the world that modern Chinese art is all about propaganda. His achievements have earned him a moniker, “leader of Chinese avant-garde.”

Zhang is rather concerned about the frenzy around him. He said his choice of black-and-white was a simple retro approach and a determination to minimize the effect of color.

“Old photos are usually black and white. Using the ash color overall is unconventional but the synergy created among the tones was considered first,” he added.

Zhang said art has a life of its own and it is out of the realm of the artist after a certain point.

“The very essence of art is to pursue one’s inner self. How the artist himself or herself perceives art is therefore the most important. But it is also not an artist’s job to control the domain and influence of art,” he said, denying the idea that the recent skyrocketing prices of his work have brought him a different perspective toward life.

Zhang will be lecturing on his art at the Herald Design Forum on Sept. 20 at COEX in Samseong-dong, Seoul.

By Bae Ji-sook (