Zhang Xiaogang is a contemporary Chinese symbolist and surrealist painter. Paintings in his Bloodline series are predominantly monochromatic, stylised portraits of Chinese people, usually with large, dark-pupiled eyes, posed in a stiff manner deliberately reminiscent of family portraits from the 1950s and 1960s.
Zhang was born to parents Qi Ailan and Zhang Jing (both government officials) in the city of Kunming in China's Yunnan province in 1958, and was the third of four brothers. Zhang's mother, Qi Ailan taught him how to draw as an exercise to keep him out of trouble: "From early on, my parents worried that I would go out and get into trouble. They gave us paper and crayons so we could draw at home. . . I gained more and more interest in art. I had a lot of time, because I didn't have to go to school. My interest increased. After I became an adult, I never gave up art. So that's how I started to draw."
Referring to the Bloodline paintings, Zhang noted that old photographs "are a particular visual language" and says: "I am seeking to create an effect of 'false photographs' — to re-embellish already 'embellished' histories and lives." He said: "On the surface, the faces in these portraits appear as calm as still water, but underneath there is great emotional turbulence. Within this state of conflict, the propagation of obscure and ambiguous destinies is carried on from generation to generation."
Regarding the influences of China's political upheavals on his paintings, Zhang said, "For me, the Cultural Revolution is a psychological state, not a historical fact. It has a very strict connection with my childhood, and I think there are many things linking the psychology of the Chinese people today with the psychology of the Chinese people back then."
Regarding the portrait-like format of the works, he noted, "Posing for a photograph, people already display a certain formality. It is already something artificial. What I do is increase this artificiality and this sense of formalism."
Asked about the full title of the Bloodline series - Bloodline: the Big Family, Zhang said: "We all live 'in a big family'. The first lesson we have to learn is how to protect ourselves and keep our experiences locked up in an inner chamber away from the prying eyes of others, while at the same time living in harmony as a member of this big family. In this sense, the "family" is a unit for the continuity of life and an idealised mechanism for procreation. It embodies power, hope, life, envy, lies, duty and love. The 'family' becomes the standard model and the focus for the contradictions of life experiences. We interact and depend on each other for support and assurance."
The Bloodline paintings often feature small patches of colour, which are open to various interpretations.