Author: ZENG FANZHI 曾梵志
Signed and dated: Painted in 1998
Final Price: RMB 16,000,000
2003 Me · Us Zeng Fanzhi’s Painting 1991-2003 / P14 / Hubei Art Publishing House
signed in Chinese & pinyin and dated 1998
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As one of the backbones of Chinese contemporary art， Zeng Fanzhi’s work has always been on a path of determination – how should we coexist with modernity in modern society? In his works， each series of works aims to respond to the profound impact and marks of life on the artist. Regardless of the art form adopted， Zeng Fanzhi’s practice has always been grounded on his sensorial， intellectual and spiritual experiences， who constantly reveal his profound artistic vision and cultural core to the world.
In the development of Chinese contemporary art， Zeng Fanzhi’s success is inseparable from his mature expressionist style. As we may recall from the present， for those artists who were born in the 1960s， expressionism was the only choice besides realist and abstract paintings. However， Zeng Fanzhi never gave up his exploration and challenges. His work has undergone four phases of transformation： Xiehe Hospital series， Mask series， Portraits series， and the expressive brushwork series. Each phase not only represents Zeng Fanzhi’s response to the outside world but also embodies his subversion and re-creation to his own past.
If the style and messages conveyed from Zeng Fanzhi’s early works were influenced by the Chinese avant-garde art movement since the 1980s， then his urban experiences in the city of Beijing where cultural clashes prevailed had undoubtedly pointed him to his future practice. The question then became， “How to break through the old expressionist style? How to express the depth of human thinking in an image?” Zeng Fanzhi provided his answers for these prepositions. The Mask series was Zeng Fanzhi’s powerful response to urban life. In modern society， although communication and exchanges between people are essential， the urbanites have chosen a hypocritical approach to communication. They are often reluctant to reveal their true selves but to adopt formulaic manners. In this kind of social landscape， Zeng Fanzhi chose the iconography of the “mask” to expose the indifferent and despicable aspects of society， who ceased to embellish the world with utopian scenes.
Zeng Fanzhi often adopts the simplest form and concise composition to highlight the subject of the image in order to present the full story. Although the overall form and color of the image are relatively simple， it is inevitably shrouded under an ineffable sense of anxiety. There are many classic characteristics in his paintings： exaggerated compositions and lines， the use of unblended colors， behind which one finds strong emotional feelings. The characters under Zeng Fanzhi’s paintbrush have protruding eyes， large hands， and bright red lips. It is worth emphasizing that Zeng Fanzhi seems to have suppressed the expressionist techniques he was once known for in this series， which he only applied to the depiction of the hands and face. The exaggerated distortion of the body implies for an absence of personality and the true self in modern society， by removing the telltale signs， the artist effaced the cues of the character’s personality. The flat coating of the background compresses the depth of the image which successfully bringing out the inner uneasiness and incitement of the foreground characters， and the contending lights exacerbate the sense of pretense rendered on the painting.
When the viewer stares at these works， the gaze of the depicted figures in the painting through their appearances conveys a strong sense of emptiness to the viewers. The contrast between the red and white impacts the viewer’s vision， where the sanguine and violent red and the calm and sacred white come together through their contrast between incitement and tranquility. The masked figures may differ in clothing and identity， yet the masks preserved their consistent homogeneity： either in a robotic grin or exhibiting indifferent appearance embodies the character’s fear， tension， loneliness， and void.
Mask （1998）， demonstrates Zeng Fanzhi’s exploration of expressionism through color. The three layers of color in the background immediately reminds one of Mark Rothko’s paintings. The ochre at the top represents the radiant sunlight， and the blue-green sea shows the refraction of light and the solid gray ground hints at the scene for the character. The firm and calm background division and the characters’ compelling emotions on the foreground form a contradiction. The characters are dressed in unsuitable clothes which make them slightly awkward. Unlike the rest of the works from this series， the characters here have glaring eyes， unable to lean on the railings， as tears run down on their deadpan face. The mask no longer suffices in suppressing the inner sufferings of the characters： the social burden and the pretense in human relations have fully erupted.
The scrawny German hound on the right side of the painting guards the characters in the painting， and tears drop silently off his face. The relationship between humans and animals exhibits a rather harmonious balance in the mask series. It extends to the issue Zeng Fanzhi often explores in his work： the connection between humans and animals. The masked personality and inner feelings of the characters in the painting are extended to the hound on the side. In Chinese culture， dogs are a symbol of wealth and social status. In the West， dogs are also an important symbolic system， often symbolizing or accompanying the Pope， poets， scholars， and humanitarians. As Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage， “The subject consists of reflections， which comes from the mirror or the other in social relations.” The connection and reflection between man and dog and the brightness in the background and the helplessness in the foreground represent a polarization of urban life.
The mask series is undoubtedly a critical turning point in Zeng Fanzhi’s artistic career. It marks the artist’s transition from representing what he should do what he prefers. Therefore， Zeng Fanzhi’s success is grounded on his contrast to the “stylization” and“commercialization” of contemporary Chinese paintings. The great path is often the simple one， what Zeng Fanzhi has insisted on is listening to the true calling of one’s heart.
The image of the mask is a theme I have worked on for several years. Compared with the Xiehe and the Meat Series，their focus on is life in the modern environment and， due to the distrust， jealousy and misunderstandings between people， a state of mind that is unavoidably forced upon them. In today‘s society， masks can be found in every placeIt doesnt matter if you are after protecting yourself， or you desire to deceive others， the true self willalways be concealed. No one appears in society without a mask or is this perhaps just the awkwardness of modern people?
- Zeng Fanzhi