One of the most important characteristics of Chinese avant-garde art in the late 1980s and early 1990s is the sense of rebellion in both subject matter and imagery. Art of the Cultural Revolution and the conservative Realism of the fine art academies were the prime targets of antagonism. If the objectives of artistic creation are the exercising of freedom and the assertion of individualistic thoughts, then these two official institutions represented confinement, hypocrisy, and conservative and ossified attitudes - these tenets were precisely what artists were trying to overthrow. In an era when obsolete values were being discarded and new ideas had yet to emerge, Zeng Fanzhi and his contemporaries were at the forefront of a new movement. They successfully used a highly individualistic visual language and point of view to express the truth in reality. Viewers can gain insight into the future by reflecting on the past and the present in Zeng Fanzhi’s artworks.
Art of the Cultural Revolution produced in the 1960s in China is the most iconic visual representation of collective fanaticism and superstition. Its aesthetic ideals can be characterized as “red, bright, and glowing” - all the figures have plump and glowing red faces. The realism demonstrated in these paintings is superbly life-like. The overall the compositions appear fabulously vivid. The most easily understood and pedestrian visual language was used to present the ideal future, as according to Communism. In fact, art was reduced to a tool that serviced a specific political agenda - the aesthetics in these paintings were woefully lacking. In the late 1970s towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, a group of artists who suffered from the trauma of the Scar Movement vehemently rejected the cult of personality and propaganda surrounding the visual representation of Mao. As a result, works such as Gao Xiaohua's painting entitled Why were beginning to emerge with the intent of exposing the plight of the people. Luo Zhongli also completed his seminal work Father during this period to express his concerns for the proletariat. In the 1980s, Chinese avantgarde artists heavily borrowed, experimented, and developed from Western art. Zhang Xiaogang, Mao Xuhui, and other like-minded artists used the painting medium to painstaking investigate their frustrations and anguishes in a highly individualistic style. The works of Zeng Fanzhi from the early 1990s reveal how Chinese artists achieved the pinnacle of Humanism through their artistic output.
During his college years, Zeng Fanzhi lived very close to a hospital. Every time he had to borrow the washroom in the hospital, he would catch a glimpse of the patients suffering. The overwhelming sense of empathy he felt towards the patients inspired him to paint Hospital Triptych (Fig. 1). With great fervour and humanism, Zeng Fanzhi painted in a German Expressionist style (Fig. 2) to express the universal human conditions of birth, ageing, illness, and death. Such compassionate work is akin to Western masterpieces such as Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa and Picasso's Guernica. Chinese artist Jiang Zhaohe's work Refugees (Fig. 3) also shares the same sentiment. Two years later, Zeng Fanzhi completed another two triptychs based on the subject matter of the physical bodies, hospitals, and its patients. (Fig. 4) Amongst them, the composition of Meat No. 3: Nativity (Lot 64) prominently alludes to religious painting. The format of this work complements the spiritual undertone of the altarpiece triptych from the same period. The painting technique of these works emphasises the verisimilitude of mortality. This nuanced expression contributed to the development of another ground-breaking phase in the artist's career—the Mask series.
The issue of depiction is one of the fundamental questions in art. When Zeng Fanzhi painted Meat No. 3: Nativity, he shed all the modelling techniques of academic realism. Through his decisively executed brushwork and powerful delineation, the picture is infused with a sense of perpetual motion. His treatment of colours is equally bold. Black, white, and grey clash starkly with the naked and fleshy human bodies. Transitional cool colours are entirely absent here, giving way for the dramatic palette to confront the viewer both visually and psychologically. This treatment of human bodies reminds the viewers of the suffering depicted in Hospital Triptych - not one inch of flesh or bone is at peace in these paintings. One must also take note of the figures’ disproportionally large hands. Veins and joints are prominently rendered in order to heighten the sense of tension. This is one of the characteristic visual devices that Zeng Fanzhi continues to use throughout the Mask series (Fig. 5) of the present day. The grotesquely throbbing hands silently express his pain and anxiety.
As the window to the soul, the eyes bear the crucial purpose of conveying emotion to the viewer. In Meat No. 3: Nativity, the infant positioned at the centre foreground is the sole figure in the group with her eyes open. Zeng Fanzhi depicts his characters with disproportionally large eyes in order to bring attention to the helplessness, sorrow, or apathy in each individual - these are all latent mental states that are shared by many in society. The infant in Meat No. 3: Nativity is the only character who witnesses the suffering with her naked eyes, while everyone else seems to turn their gaze inward. Thinking or praying, the other figures convey their desire for her to be free from suffering. In this work, the female infant is symbolic of Baby Jesus who serves as the medium between earthly torment and eternal salvation in heaven (Fig. 6). Through his and her birth and death, humankind is redeemed. Meat No. 3: Nativity was completed in 1991. Not long ago, the Chinese society had just experienced serious trauma both physically and psychologically. Using the birth of the Infant Jesus as a metaphor, Zeng Fanzhi prays for the nation and its people in hopes that the blood of Christ will bring salvation to those who are hurt. Even though the “Infant Jesus” is female in the painting, her facial features are strikingly similar to the artist’s. Following the spirit of sacrifice of Christ, Zeng Fanzhi also symbolically sacrifices himself by infusing his life in the painting. By expressively using the visual language of contemporary art, Zeng Fanzhi demonstrates his universal love and care for the humanity.
Other than the suffering of the physical body, there are other sources of agony such as injustice, lack of freedom, political prosecution, war and destruction, indignity, the degeneration of morality, and poverty. When an artist witnesses these conditions in society, he or she has the choice to either ignore or to respond to these issues. Undoubtedly, Zeng Fanzhi chose the latter. While he understands that art can accentuates beauty in life, he also recognises how art can expose and convey truth. For this reason, Meat No. 3: Nativity is emphatically not a pessimistic response to the predicaments of life. Instead, it is an expression of the young Zeng Fanzhi to use his exuberant creativity to paint evocative pictures that urge us to heal both spiritual and physical wounds, while acknowledging that suffering is the first step. Only through the process of experiencing, analysing, and improving can we realise the ideal future.