Sotheby’s Presents Masterpieces from the Collection of Johnson Chang, the Godfather of Chinese Contemporary Art

Thanks to the contribution of many pioneers and influential figures in the Chinese art scene, Chinese art has flourished in the international stage over the past decades. These highly revered figures are hence dubbed ‘the Godfather’ in their respective fields. Giuseppe Eskenazi is the Godfather of Chinese Antiques; Robert E. Ellsworth is the Godfather of Asian Art. As for Chinese Contemporary Art, this is the name you must know: Johnson Chang.

Best known as an avid collector and the founder of Hanart TZ Gallery, Johnson Chang is also an eminent Hong Kong curator, critic and connoisseur. He has collaborated closely with artists from Greater China. He has curated numerous landmark exhibitions such as The Stars: 10 Years (1989), New Art from China: Post-1989 (1993), Chinese Contemporary art exhibition at São Paulo Art Biennial (1994), and the Chinese Exhibition at the Venice Biennale (1995). These shows are considered as milestones in the development of Chinese Contemporary Art.

This October, 14 masterpieces from the Johnson Chang collection will be offered at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, led by Zhang Xiaogang’s monumental triptych The Dark Trilogy: Fear, Meditation, Sorrow. Other highlights include early works by iconic Chinese Contemporary masters Zeng Fanzhi, Liu Wei, Fang Lijun, and Yu Youhan, all of which have been kept in Chang’s private collection since their creation.

New Art from China: Post-1989 (1993) is an important milestone in the development of Chinese Contemporary Art

Johnson Chang, the Godfather of Chinese Contemporary Art

Zhang Xiaogang’s The Dark Trilogy: Fear, Meditation, Sorrow. Oil and collage on canvas, in three panels
Created in: 1989-1990
Size: 179 x 114 cm; 179 x 114 cm; 177.8 x 114.3 cm
Estimate: HK$25,000,000 - 45,000,000

From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, China was undergoing a series of transformative economic reforms, opening up to the international community and foreign investment. Meanwhile, social unrest was on the rise in China. Shaken up by the drastic changes in the socio-political environment, Zhang Xiaogang began a huge, soul-searching introspection. The Dark Trilogy is a condensed expression of all these scattered elements of that period brought together. He said in an interview that ‘it seemed as though there were lots of things I couldn’t escape.'

Zhang’s early works were influenced by Existentialism, the Theatre of the Absurd, Surrealism. In this series, he incorporated everyday objects as symbols — like playing cards, knives, books and so on. Together with the composition and the use of colours, he explored themes like absurdity, fear and fate.


Zhang Xiaogang and The Dark Trilogy: Fear, Meditation, Sorrow after the triptych was completed

The Dark Trilogy: Fear

The Dark Trilogy: Meditation

The Dark Trilogy: Sorrow

Zhang intended to create two works for the exhibition New Art from China: Post-1989 curated by Johnson Chang and Li Xianting. However, after finishing the first two works, Terror and Contemplation, Zhang felt unfulfilled. It was missing something. So he made the final piece, Sorrow.

Zhang only created two triptychs during his early period. The Dark Trilogy is of a larger scale among these two. The coming auction marks the first time the triptych is offered in its entirety since the early 1990s. The Dark Trilogy: Sorrow was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2016 for HK$8.44m (around US$1m). (The English title was translated as ‘Three Black Songs: Melancholy’ back then.)

Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline-Big Family: Family Portrait. Oil on canvas
Created in: 1998
Size: 189.5 x 152.5 cm
Estimate: HK$10,000,000 - 20,000,000

Besides the auction debut of Zhang Xiaogang’s entire The Dark Trilogy, Sotheby’s offers another fresh to market painting by the artist. Bloodline-Big Family: Family Portrait was created during the most coveted period of Zhang Xiaogang’s iconic Bloodline series.

Drawn from Zhang’s memories of Cultural Revolution-era China, the painting illustrates the joint consciousness of the country at a time of social turmoil. The iconic three-member family portrait has been described as being modelled after a photograph of the artist's brother as an infant and his parents. Existing between the collective vision of socialist China and his own dissonant voice, Zhang created the very first 'family' painting as a mode to negotiate the conflicts of group versus individual identity in early 1990s China.

Zhang’s Bloodline series is considered his most seminal work. Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 holds the artist's auction record when it was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for HK$94.2m (US$12.1m) in 2014. Measuring 189.5 x 152.5cm, Bloodline-Big Family: Family Portrait portrays the figures in a whole body, which is rarely seen in the series.

Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for HK$94.2m (US$12.1m) in 2014

Zeng Fanzhi’s The Mask Series No. 11. Oil on canvas
Created in: 1994
Size: 180 x 150 cm
Estimate: HK$12,000,000 - 22,000,000

Zhang Xiaogang and three other pioneering artists: Minjun, Fang Lijun and Wang Guangyi are often collectively referred to as ‘F4’ (a name taken from the famous Taiwanese boy band) in Chinese contemporary art. More recently, Zeng Fanzhi, Liu Ye, Liu Wei and Liu Xiaodong are dubbed the new generation of ‘F4’ in the Chinese contemporary art scene.

Zeng Fanzhi, born and raised in Wuhan, China, was inspired by China’s ’85 New Wave movement, which saw artists search for a new, often more conceptual, language after the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Zeng closely followed and studied Western art and was particularly drawn to German Expressionism and French Romanticism. His paintings reflect his bold experimentation with, and fusion of, Eastern and Western artistic traditions.

Zeng’s works are highly sought-after in the art market. In 2013, his painting The Last Supper fetched HK$180m at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, setting an auction record for Asian contemporary art. The record had been held for seven years until his Mask Series 1996 No. 6 sold for RMB 161m in Beijing this August.

Zeng is the most expensive Chinese contemporary artist

In 2013, The Last Supper fetched HK$180m at Sotheby’s Hong Kong

In the early 90s, Johnson Chang was introduced to Zeng Fanzhi by Li Xianting. Chang started collecting Zeng’s paintings and invited him to participate in New Art from China: Post-1989. The show was the first major collection of Chinese experimental art to exhibit outside of the country and is considered an important milestone in the development of Chinese contemporary art. It was first held in Hong Kong in 1993 and subsequently travelled to Australia and the United States.

Sotheby’s upcoming auction will present The Mask Series No. 11, created by Zeng Fanzhi in 1994, the year he debuted his Mask series to immense critical acclaim. Hailing from the earliest group of Mask paintings, the visceral hue of the figure’s face, hands, as well as the dog distinctly recall the red fleshy hues of Zeng’s preceding Meat and Hospital series. Zeng Fanzhi’s Mask series stands as a paradigm in Chinese Contemporary art, encapsulating the collective anxieties of a rapidly developing nation.

Liu Wei’s Banana. Oil on canvas
Created in: 1995
Size: 300 x 150.5 cm
Estimate: HK$6,000,000 - 10,000,000

Beijing-based artist Liu Wei works across a range of media and techniques, including photography, painting, sculpture and installation. In the early 1990s, Liu Wei swiftly became known as a prominent figure of the Cynical Realism movement by way of his acclaimed Revolutionary Family series. Unlike many other important artists of his generation, Liu Wei is notoriously the most reticent, reluctant to attribute any meaning or purpose to his images; the artist simply paints what his mind and brush impels him to paint. The readymade is a recurring element in his practice, and his work is often assembled out of everyday found objects.

Liu Wei’s auction record was set by his triptych The Revolutionary Family Series, which was auctioned off at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2016 for HK$38.84m. As for his fruit-themed paintings, Watermelon (2004) was sold for HK$7.25m last year.

Liu Wei’s Watermelon (2004) was sold for HK$7.25m last year

Sotheby’s Hong Kong Autumn Sales 2020
Contemporary Art Evening Sale: 6 October 2020
Contemporary Art Day Sale: 7 October 2020