One afternoon in Amsterdam 16 years ago, Zhang Xiaogang came out of the Van Gogh Museum and had to sit down: He was so depressed that he thought he might collapse. For three months the Chinese artist, then 34, had wandered the museums of northern Europe, seeing for the first time the actual canvases he’d spent much of his life studying in books. Ever since 1979, his second year of art school—when China’s opening to the West first exposed him to painters like van Gogh, Picasso and Magritte—Zhang had looked to Europe for a way around the staid socialist realism favored by his teachers. In the decade after leaving school, despite finding it hard to show his work in a climate that still preferred party-line art, he had slowly begun to make a name for himself as a painter of startling, melancholy dreamscapes, an artist who shunned explicitly Chinese subjects in favor of surrealist, Expressionist explorations of his own mind.
That afternoon at the Van Gogh Museum, however, he had an epiphany. “I realized, I have no connection to these artists,” he remembers today,sitting in the enormous Beijing studio that he moved into last year. “And suddenly I felt very hopeless.” He returned home and didn’t paint for a year.
That Zhang is now a leading figure in the recent explosion of Chinese art onto the international scene—and the subject of a solo show at PaceWildenstein gallery in New York, beginning October 31—is a direct result of that crisis in Amsterdam. “I saw then that I had to return to my own living environment and find my own source,” says the artist, a bespectacled 50-year-old with a shaved head and a cerebral manner. In mimicking European painters, he had overlooked the one subject that provoked his deepest feelings: living through the confused ecstasy of China in the Sixties and Seventies and then seeing that past buried during the new age of China’s reform and economic boom.
The particulars of Zhang’s childhood in Cultural Revolution–era Chengdu, in central China, sound shocking to foreign ears, but his trials were fairly standard for a person of his generation: the years without schooling, the parents shipped off to re-education camps, the Red Guard factions fighting in the streets. Because almost no one was spared, Chinese looking back on that time don’t often dwell on tales of individual suffering. Making art about the period would demand a way of integrating private experience with collective memory.
His first attempt to “face our history,” as he puts it, was “Tiananmen Square,” a 1993 series of paintings presenting a shrunken, pastel-colored Gate of Heavenly Peace—where Mao led major rallies and where his huge portrait still hangs—dwarfed by a foreground of the square’s richly textured pavement. He’d taken on one of Communist China’s ultimate symbols, one that was just as central to the fervor of the Sixties as it became to the protesters of 1989, but Zhang still didn’t feel he’d cracked the problem of how to capture Chinese history.