The childlike visions of Zhang Xiaogang
Adrift from his family, the painter began a series of complex, emotional portraits of his daughter
Memory is a core preoccupation for the Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang, living as he does in a country whose political and social upheavals put it in constant danger of becoming estranged from its soul. So Jonathan Fineberg and Gary G. Xu’s Disquieting Memories, the superb account of the life and work of Zhang, is both an aptly named and beautifully packaged commemoration.
Zhang experienced personal estrangement in 1999 when he moved to Beijing. Lonely and missing his five-year-old daughter he took to drink but also to his canvas, rendering her in a series of paintings in 2000 and 2001 which are both touching and harrowing in their emotional starkness. These paintings have a hyper-reality about them - they are not photographic in resemblance, but created from his memories and his feelings towards his daughter. They are an attempt to reach a deeper level of meaning, profoundly subjective, a demonstration of the ability of painting to render that which photography often cannot.
My Daughter No. 1 (2000), then, conveys an emotion more than a likeness. It is dominated by the dark, piercing eyeballs of the child, with the rest of her features a vague, grey haze, over which is laid a rose petal-like motif. This recurs in Father And Daughter (2000), in which there’s an intimacy between the family pair, her sitting astride his head, arms cradling his chin, which contrasts with the awkward distance in his portraits of himself and his parents. However, the matching gloomy expressions of both convey the sad reality of their current separation. Finally, Amnesia And Memory (2000) depicts a younger child though one whose intense, broody expression is like that of a much older person, conscious of the emotional burden life brings with it. These paintings are a visual representation of the complex forces which affect memory, including the unconscious and the ”reimagined past” shaped by the anxieties of the present.
For greater insight into the life and work of this important Chinese contemporary artist check out our great new book Disquieting Memories here. And if you want to get a greater knowledge about the Chinese art scene, past and present, take a look at The Chinese Art Book while you're in the store.