Painter with a modern touch
Written by John Millen
At an auction in Hong Kong last December, Zhang Xiaogang became China's highest-earning painter.
Auction houses regularly see art-lovers pay vast sums for paintings by world-famous artists like Van Gogh and Monet, but until recently no one ever expected a living Chinese artist to earn mega-dollars for his work. At the auction at Christie's in Hong Kong, Zhang's painting Bloodline: Big Family No. 2 sold for HK$26.4 million.
Watch out Monet, van Gogh and other old masters - you now have a living Chinese rival.
Zhang was born in the city of Kunming in Yunnan province in 1958. As he was growing up, he witnessed the vast social and political upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.
His experiences of these turbulent times have had an influence on the subjects and style of his painting.
Zhang studied art at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts and, after graduating in 1982, he joined a group of young painters who wanted to change the accepted face of Chinese painting and bring it into exciting modern times.
From the start of his career, Zhang showed a very individual style that has made his paintings easily recognisable.
As little as 10 years ago, a painting by Zhang cost about US$5,000, but since his work started to appear in international auction houses in 2001, the price for a Zhang canvas has skyrocketed, making him one of the most sought-after contemporary artists in the world.
Bloodline: Big Family
Zhang is most famous for his Bloodline: Big Family series of paintings.
In these head-and-shoulder portraits, single or small groups of Chinese figures stare out of the painting at the viewer. Their expressions are flat and you can't tell what they are thinking. There is no escaping the faces staring at you.
Zhang has said that one of his inspirations for this series of paintings was a collection of old photos of his mother which were taken when she was a young, attractive woman.
The artist has explained what his intentions were when he painted these portraits. 'I am seeking to create an effect of 'false photographs'. On the surface, the faces in these portraits appear as calm as still water, but underneath there is great emotional turbulence.'
Sometimes, Zhang's faces are marked with patches of colour, or there is a coloured trail linking one face to another. It is up to each viewer to decide what these marks represent.
now do this
Look carefully at any Big Family portrait by Zhang Xiaogang and write a description of one of the people you see.
What is she / he wearing?
What is the expression on his / her face?
What colour is his / her face?
What can you see in his / her eyes?
What is she / he thinking?
What is she / he feeling under his / her calm exterior?
What is the shape of his / her face?
Do you like him / her?
A question of art
Are you shocked that someone would pay HK$26.4 million for a work of art? Can a painting ever be worth this amount of money?
What role does a painter have in modern society?
Does art mean anything to you?
Have you ever seen a painting you have really liked?
Have a look online at paintings by the three artists mentioned in this article (Zhang Xiaogang / Vincent Van Gogh / Claude Monet). Which of the three artists do you like best and why?
An effective short story: 2/ 3/ 5/ 7/ 8/ 10