New Era of China: Individual Existence
As China emerged from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the intellectual and artistic conformity of the communist system, the country witnessed a profound and seismic transformation of its cultural scene. The following decades heralded a new era of creativity that penetrated every aspect of the art world. Relieved of the burden of the propaganda and cultural production system, young art students in academies across the nation were suddenly exposed to an extraordinary range of tools, techniques, and philosophies that they would digest and incorporate into their own visions and inspirations. This transformation of the cultural field would manifest itself for years to come, opening up traditional fields of art making to new subjects, visions, and an almost unprecedented privileging of the artist's subjective interpretations over all else.
As the pace of modernization took hold in China's major cities, the painter Zeng Fanzhi emerged as one of the foremost interpreters of Chinese experience. His emotionally raw, intuitive, and psychologically penetrating paintings anticipated the emotional and psychological strain that would haunt the new nation. Zeng's concern over the alienation and loneliness inherent to modern life was captured in his iconic Mask series of the mid-1990s, but in significant ways these concerns lay at the very heart of his work from the beginning.
Born and raised in the provincial city of Wuhan, Zeng earned his painting degree at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts. During this time, and in his first years as a professional painter, Zeng's humble accommodations required that he often share the public bathroom at a neighboring hospital. As a student, he found inspiration in the expressionist works of German and Dutch artists such as Willem De Kooning and Max Beckmann, both of whom relied on an expressionistic palette to imbue seemingly mundane subjects with psychological drama and existential gravitas. The experience of passing through a hospital waiting room on a daily basis, the juxtaposition of life in crisis against the backdrop of a cold and immobile bureaucratic institution, inevitably found its way into Zeng's earliest works. Zeng's first major series came in the early 1990s with his extraordinary "Meat" paintings, canvases dominated by an angry and tormented red palette, brutal images of butcher's meat co-mingling with human flesh. Like Frank Auerbach and others before him, Zeng found that the contemplation of raw, flailed flesh brought him closer to profound and powerful metaphors about human existence and mortality.
These paintings were quickly followed by Zeng's "Hospital" paintings, monumental and ambitious canvases, featuring crude and lugubrious bodies, patients with exaggerated and impenetrable gazes treated by numb indifferent doctors. In both series, already we can see Zeng evolving into a more emotionally mature and complex painter. The rawness of these images is paradoxically juxtaposed with an aloof emotional disposition. Figures appear almost as though from biblical passion plays, but distinctly without passion. In this way, Zeng forces the viewer to confront the cruelty inherent in such anonymous and mundane encounters, while simultaneously laying bare how inured we have come to feel before such scenes.
New Vistas in Beijing
In 1993, Zeng moved to Beijing, a change that would inspire new depths in his own art making. Beijing and indeed all of China in the early 1990's was in the throes of a uniquely challenging historical situation, where superficial change altered the society faster than ever before. Zeng, having just moved to China's capital from the more provincial city of Wuhan, was stunned and overwhelmed by the more cosmopolitan city, and his concerns over the alienation and psychological strain felt under such a tumultuous time emerged as the central issue motivating the works to come.
Before embarking on his Mask series, however, Zeng painted a brief series of breakthrough works in which the artist is clearly grappling with the new experience of living in Beijing, the capital city that was ripe with symbolic import as well as new and intensified experiences. Highlighted among these is his monumental 1994 canvas, Untitled (Hospital Series) (Lot 1031), a jarring and haunting canvas which displays continuity with Zeng's earliest concerns and motifs but which anticipates new directions in his social and psychological explorations.
Here Zeng has returned to the space of the waiting room. A male in sunglasses, in institutional drab colors, is seated on a couch beside another figure who has collapsed in the full throes of despair. The figure in glasses could easily be a doctor delivering bad news, recoiling from this wanton display of human emotion. He wraps his hands defensively around his knee and leans cautiously away from his neighbor, he could just as easily epitomize the new class of urbane citizens that confounded and fascinated Zeng so much in Beijing. Confronted with a display of human tragedy, he retreats, dons his sunglasses, his leg outstretched as if he is trying to brush his neighbor away, and even poses just a little for the viewer.
A crowd teems behind the two foregrounded figures, pressing indifferently into this space of trauma and apparent loss. Bloodied bandages, toilet paper, and beakers are scattered haphazardly about the space; a patient is being wheeled past on a gurney; and a queue of male figures stand with fists raised threateningly, presumably in preparation for an examination. Zeng has explicitly addressed the subject of "the masses" only occasionally in his works; his focus on individual subjective states holds the notion of the collective as an absent presence, a force against which the individual struggles to both define himself and a body with which he longs to connect. In this sense, despite his focus on subjective states, Zeng betrays a kind of yearning for an idealized collective harmony. Indeed, the artist has been explicit about this when reflecting on his childhood where the foremost symbol of collective belonging for a student, the red scarf, endlessly eluded him.
Here the crowd has fallen completely from its pinnacle of an idealist collective movement, resulting in a desultory, vaguely threatening group of figures whose postures and suspicious grimaces have replaced social empathy and regard for one's fellow man.
Gone are the muted emotions of "Hospital Series" and instead an unrestrained and violent red palette drives the emotional impact of the painting. The contorted features and distinctly corporal manipulations of form and color that Zeng adopts mirror those of contemporary Western artist Francis Bacon. Both artists render human skin to reflect the inner emotions and anxiety of their subjects. Zeng has said the most influential aspect of his professional training was in technique as an emotionally expressive form: "The biggest received experience was in using line, colour and form to express my response to a topic, form or emotion. I learned to utilize my emotion to produce a deep reflection upon a subject rather than making a painting that merely illustrated something." As would become prevalent in his "Mask" paintings, Zeng mutes and even hides his figures' facial expressions but instead finds emotional expression in the treatment of the flesh - particularly the hands -- which are rendered like raw pieces of meat themselves, over-size, awkward, and throbbing with a kind of anxiety that that betrays the figure's true emotional disposition.
The seemingly unbounded emotions of the scene find parallels in the near collapse of traditional three-dimensional space within the composition. Zeng's sinuous paint handling skirts the canvas; the seated figure on the left's clothes are a swimming series of lines and contours; the background figures seem to merge with the waiting room sofa, and the passing gurney also appears to be on an impossible collision course with the sofa. For the figure at the right, the world is bleeding all around him, and this sense of emotional chaos renders has dandified companion, at pains to appear aloof, poised, and emotionally exempt, all the more discordant.
Finally, the location of the composition remains somewhat ambiguous. Unlike the cool institutional setting of the earlier "Hospital" paintings, here urban life threatens the space almost as if this scene took place on a hectic street or a busy train station. Or rather, the mundane horrors of the hospital, the moral failures and the cold assessment of human life, is no longer relegated to the confines of the hospital. As such, Untitled represents not just the heightening or further elaboration of the artist's core concerns, but also a revelation of the scale of those concerns, no longer limited to the slow, disinterested pace of life in the provinces, but a cruelty that has insinuated itself into the most minute aspects of how people relate to one another, or in Zeng's case, the ways in which they fail to do so. For Zeng, such a situation was not just one of social anxiety, but was the existential crisis facing a generation that had already lived through so much.
The great breakthrough in art in the post-Mao period was that artists could represent that nation to itself - not in idealized, propagandistic or grand historic terms - but in subjective, philosophical, and existential terms. Zeng Fanzhi, having already explored the cruelty inherent to every day life, found in Beijing an alienation so profound and extensive that he could only reveal it in the chaotic and violent scene of Untitled (Hospital Series).