Living the Past within the Present
Zhang Xiaogang uses formal and compositional elements such as colour, cropping, and a lack of expressiveness in his figures to call attention to the familial connection between the citizens of China in Big Family no. 4. This image of a three-person family is thrust into a monotone plane similar to that of an old photograph. The faces share sombre expressions and similar facial structures, alluding to the single child policy enforced in China during the pre-Cultural Revolution era. The figures feature a stain, or birthmark, which is a reoccurring symbol in the series Bloodline: The Big Family. Zhang veers away from traditional proportions and questions the nature of family ties within China. He analyzes the shared history of Chinese families by connecting his figures with this birthmark stain.
Zhang’s inspiration for painting in this uniform manner stems from the rare discovery of a photo of his mother in her youth. The Cultural Revolution led to a literal and metaphorical fire of denouncing the past; this included the destruction of family photographs. Zhang revives the individualism in family portraiture as well as connects each image on a grand scale.
In her chapter on Zhang Xiaogang, Karen Smith mentions a number of factors that connect Zhang’s paintings with the reality confronting China. Smith’s paramount connection of Chinese politics to civilian life portrays a sense of surveillance of the Chinese government: “With the rise of Communism, the family metaphor was repeatedly applied to the nation.” The size of the paintings also create a watchful effect. Zhang uses the uniformity of Chinese outerwear to his advantage. Although each painting depicts different families, the recurring birthmark connects each painting to one another, much like the collective history of China draws all Chinese citizens together.
Zhang had a very close relationship with his mother who, as Karen Smith reports, suffered from schizophrenia. His encounter with her photograph clearly impacted him in a very passionate way. This is important background information as it connects with the overall concept that Zhang is driving: the nature of family ties. The content is static but the colossal figures demand attention with their piercing gaze and the particularly unusual birthmarks marking their past.
Reflection Behind the Mask
Modernization and identity had marked a new era in China by the end of the Cold War in 1989. Chinese art would find globalization and confront the erroneous Western definitions of modern contemporary art in China. Zeng Fanzhi demonstrates this confrontation with his mask series (circa 1996). In the West, it is believed that modernization is predominately a Western tradition. Beginning with the Impressionists, Western modern art faced constant change and evolution in the short century that it was encompassed. When China was finally able to export their identity around the world, they levelled the playing field.
Zeng Fanzhi’s painting The Last Supper, 1998, displays a compositionally similar setting to that of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, 1498. Thirteen figures dressed in white shirts with red neckties surround a central figure in the same attire. Each figure has short dark hair and wears a white mask. Watermelon chunks lie in front of each across a long table lined with a white tablecloth. Four tapestries marked with Chinese characters line the walls, leading the eye to the window triad. Bright blue sky cuts the stark red and allows the eye to rest. However, upon closer inspection it seems the sky is actually water, possibly a wave or maybe the tide rising, suggesting the wave of Chinese art entering the western world.
Gao Minglu discusses Chinese modernity in his article “Toward a Transitional Modernity”. He believes that “for China, the crux [of modernity] has not been the consciousness of time but of one individual subjectivity within a strong sense of nationalism.” Fanzhi’s The Last Supper converses with the ideas Gao Minglu propounds about how China is transforming from a “self-focused” modernity to an “interactive” one. Fanzhi’s use of red strongly indicates the lingering nationalism in China. The masks depict a sense of confused identity, or perhaps the willingness to be a part of Western modernization while maintaining their Chinese roots.
The Fourth Trimester
Traditionally the narrative of modernist art is masculine terms, subject matter, and popularity. Cui Xiuwen, a Harbin-born artist, battles this monochromatic palette with her approach on feminine sexuality. In Cui Xiuwen’s Angel No. 2, a young pregnant woman is displayed on a small square coffee table with silver legs. She is placed in 12 different positions mirrored across a plane of cobblestone. The photograph is lined with a red wall that seems to be limiting the woman from physically standing. She wears a white form-fitting dress that contrasts with her slick, dark hair. Her face is painted with an orange powder, giving her a flushed appearance.
Propagandizing in China during the Maoist era was heavily influenced by the manipulation of images to suit the ideology of the state. Dong Xiwen’s Founding of the Nation, painted in 1953, for instance, was repainted in 1967 shortly before Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. In its remastered form several people were removed or replaced. Cui Xiuwen uses a similar technique in a more relevant context. She portrays a young single mother-to-be who must face the weight of her sexuality. During the time of the One Child Policy, many women were harassed and forced into abortions if they were not carrying male children. This resulted in a high male-to-female ratio leading to the rise of sex trafficking and prostitution. The tension around female sexuality contributes to the concerns of the contemporary women of China.
Although Cui Xiuwen does not consider herself a feminist artist, her bold message to females to accept independence is in correlation with Xu Hong’s article “Walking out of the Abyss: My Feminist Critique”. Xu Hong states that in order for female artists to be accepted in popular culture, they must abide by the standards of the patriarchy of male artists who continue to set the regulations in our misguided paradigm of modernity. “Without sober and self-knowledgeable feminist art, [modern art] can only be half-baked,” says Xu Hong. Similarly, Cui Xiuwen reveals the double standards of female and male sexuality.
Many of the positions in Angel No. 2 are provocative and have sexual connotations. Many of the poses feature the teen in highly sexualized positions, suggesting the sexuality that came before the impregnation. Cui Xiuwen portrays the different moods that women cycle through during their most vulnerable state of being, namely pregnancy. The woman in the Cui Xiuwen’s photos is quite young. Regardless of her round belly, her fair features and white dress impart a sense of purity and innocence. Despite the strides in birth control technology, many women still face the unpredictable fate of their biology because of ignorance or fear of judgment.