Zhang Xiaogang (simplified Chinese: 张晓刚; traditional Chinese: 張曉剛; pinyin: Zhāng Xiǎogāng; born in 1958) is a contemporary Chinese symbolist and surrealist painter. Paintings in his Bloodline series are predominantly monochromatic, stylized 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. Recently, he also created sculptures, translating for the first time into three dimensions many characters of the sort seen in his "Bloodlines—Big Family" portrait series. These sculptures have featured in many exhibits and continue his work as one of China's leading, and most highly sought-after, contemporary artists.
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 activity 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.”
His parents were taken away for 3 years by the Chinese government for re-education. He came of age during the 1910s and 1970s political upheavals known as the Cultural Revolution, which exerted a certain influence on his painting.
In early 1976, Xiaogang was sent to work on a farm as part of the "Down to the Countryside Movement". Chinese water color painter, Lin Ling trained Xiaogang in 1975, teaching him formal water color and sketching techniques.
“When I was 17, I told myself I wanted to be an artist. . . I felt that art was like a drug. Once you are addicted, you can't get rid of it.”
Upon the reinstitution of collegiate entrance exams, Xiaogang was accepted into the Sichuan Academy of Fine arts in 1977 where he began study oil based painting in 1978. At the time of his collegiate education, Zhang's professors continued to teach styles of Revolutionary Realism as instituted by Chairman Mao. This only served to inspire Xiaogang and his peers to opt for topics of western philosophy and introspective individualism while shunning political and ideological subject matter.
In 1982, he graduated from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in the city of Chongqing in Sichuan province but was denied a teaching post he had hoped for. This led Zhang to fall into a period of depression between 1982-1985. During this time he worked as a construction worker and art director for a social dance troupe in Kunming. It was a time of intense self-examination for Xiaogang as he had difficulties fitting into society. Suffering from alcoholism, he was hospitalized in 1984 with alcohol induced internal bleeding causing him to paint "The Ghost Between Black and White" series which put visual form to his visions of life and death in the hospital.
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