"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts"
The artistic works of Zeng Fanzhi profoundly echo this Shakespearean sentiment. Yet in contrast to Shakespeare's perception of the steadily progressive Seven Ages of Man, Zeng presents the notion that the role and the character one presents to the world is constantly changing to fit the social decorum of the ephemeral environment; never constant and never true to the personality that lies beneath.
No.6 1996 is an incredibly rare archetype of the Mask series, in which we find the epitome of meaning to the entirety of Zeng Fanzhi's 'Mask' succession.
In the diptych 'No.6, 1996' Zeng bluntly grapples with the concept of friendship. In this composition we find eight characters standing in a line; by their gait and relaxed, affectionate pose with their arms entwined we are led to assume they share a deep friendship. The strong shadows cast imply the presence of bright sunshine and an idyllic image of friends enjoying their time together is created, yet there is a disturbed edge to this setting; their faces smile veraciously but the subjects all wear white masks fused with their facial features and the eyes are lifeless in their uniformity. Their true emotions are hidden behind the masks and the uncertainty of their veiled character - be it benevolent or malicious - is unsettling.
A striking contrast to 'No.6, 1996' in regard to the entirety of the Mask Series is how personally Zeng had rendered each of the subjects. In consideration of the year, it may be accurate to assume that the subjects are Zeng's friends, as in 1995 Zeng married his long-term girlfriend, He Lijun and a celebration with close friends evidently ensued, of which this painting is perhaps a reflection. Yet, as implied by their mask's, Zeng is presenting the notion that he does not know even his dearest friends so well, as they all conceal a part of themselves. The sheer imposing size of this work further indicates the importance that the artist placed upon it; as a newly independent artist, Zeng was in no position to waste money on such large canvases or materials. It is evident therefore that Zeng had premeditated the creation of this important work for some time.
The red neckerchief each subject wears stood as an emblem of social acceptance at the height of the communist regime. The significance of owning this badge of membership in a society governed by rigid conformity was immeasurable. Zeng was not granted a red neckerchief as a child; an action which has clearly resounded upon his adult psyche as a large number of his subjects throughout the Mask series - bar those of Zeng's self-portrait - bear this symbol of belonging.A striking disequilibrium to that of the composed faces are the over-sized hands of the subjects. These convey an overt sensitivity and awkwardness, a sense of latent emotions heightened by concealing their feelings beneath a mask, and as a viewer one gains the sense that these emotions are longing to overflow.
The strong primary colours of red and yellow create an immediate and strong visual impact. In accordance to Chinese cultural traditions, the colour red stands as an allegory to prosperity, joy, success and celebration, whilst yellow connotates authority and royalty. Zhang's choice of these colours creates a vision of merit, happiness and achievement in Chinese society. Similarly, the pale white of the masks replicates those worn in Chinese opera, and it is evident that Zeng has correlated the rehearsed performance of the theatre with the feigned laughter and intimacy he has witnessed in human relationships. Upon close perusal, the painted mask forms an integral part of the facial contours and, rather than being a uniform object, is autonomously fitted to each individual. Without the ghostly white colour and faint string attachments, the mask would be indiscernible. This subtle yet very conscious abstraction implies the individual, long-standing nature of the camouflage and affirms that the mask is not purely physical.
When viewing this spectacular painting one gains the perspective that it is drawn from candid photography, as the pose the subjects hold is very contrived. Their gaze fixes on a single point - that of the viewer - as they line up and face towards the camera. It portrays a moment in time where they are aware they're being watched and recorded, and as such they advance their ideal self-image. As Zeng exemplifies;"Human beings all tend to show the best of them, such as the affected poses before a camera, the simulated posture of a complacent citified person"
Western Art and Philosophy meets Eastern ideals
The late nineteenth century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche once declared "The mouth may lie, alright, but the face it makes nonetheless tells the truth"; the fundamental essence of Zeng's Mask series is in contention to Nietzsche's belief, and through his portraitures Zeng expresses his discontent in the forced intimacy of human nature. Zeng hails from a difficult childhood. Despite the auspices of a loving mother, his humble beginnings in Wuhan saw him cast in the role of a shy outsider, a child that was never fully understood and therefore socially segregated in the parochial town. As he matured, Zeng found a medium through which to release his grievous experiences by channeling his developing passion for art. His strongest inspiration was the expressionist works of German and Dutch artists such as Willem De Kooning (fig. 1) and Max Beckmann (fig. 2), whose rich palette and broad brushstrokes can clearly be mirrored in Zeng's earlier works, such as the 'Meat' and 'Hospital' series. It is evident to see the progression from these series into the 'Mask' through the blazing colour and rough texture that Zeng continues to use in the portrayal of human flesh. Clearly the exposed agony of the 'Meat' and 'Hospital' works are now concealed, yet visibly and reluctantly dormant, in the 'Mask' series.
The ectoplasmic swerves and contorted features that Zeng adopts in his art mirror those of contemporary western artist Francis Bacon and it is comparable that both artists render human skin to reflect the inner emotions and anxiety of their subjects (fig. 3). Upon reflection of his undergraduate study and gravitation towards expressionism at the Hebei Academy of Fine Arts, Zeng recalls;"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."
The tradition of Eastern painting is bound by principles of decourum. Chinese painters, over a period of fifteen centuries, have established definite methods - pertaining to wash, colour, subject harmony and 'ku' or the structural strength of the brushwork - that all burgeoning artists are expected to learn and practice prior to their creative endeavours. Xie He, a writer, art historian and critic in the 6th century AD China defined the Six Principles of Chinese Painting, as a stylistic guide that both artists and art-viewers should adhere to. These rules all parallel the core of poetry, and in the Eastern tradition the two concepts overlap as the art of calligraphy in bygone eras was inseparable from painting. Zeng's unique style and artistic approach to his art marries both Western art movements and Chinese tradition to create a nonpareil semblance of the two. The Eastern concepts that are evidently upheld in Zeng's work include the notion of 'chi', or 'life spirit' capturing the "inner truth of the subject", whereby Zeng discourses the ideal of the subjects inner truth, yet due to the paradoxical nature of modern society this 'truth' is concealed or distorted by a mask. 'Spirit Resonance' or 'vitality' refers to the nervous energy transmitted from the artist into the work, a transaction that provides the overall energy of a work of art. Zeng's style has consistently expressed his own emotions and energy. Xie He once remarked that without 'Spirit Resonance' there was no need to look further at a painting.
Social upheaval and an awakening nation
Beijing and indeed China in the early 1990's was in the throws of a uniquely challenging historical situation, where superficial change altered the society faster than ever before. The Chinese as a nation were not ready for capitalism, or for the new social performances thrust upon them as they were compelled into a world previously unknown. The Mask series has been a characteristic motif in Zeng's paintings for over seven years and first emerged when Zeng moved from Wuhan - a place he had lived his entire life - to Beijing in 1993. In these unfamiliar new surroundings, the creation of the Mask series insulated Zeng and allowed him to identify the kind of 'face' one was expected to show in polite society. The less desirable aspects of his past or character could be concealed; he could become - or, more accurately, he could present - a new person under the guise of a civilized mask. The strong juxtaposition of contrasting elements creates the greatest impact of the Mask series; the tailored bourgeois suits and fitted masks coupled with the engorged hands and glimpses of skinned flesh with exposed sinews create a paradoxical image.
Group portraiture; a Western Perspective
In the tradition of group portraiture, 'No.6, 1996' is particularly unusual. Aside from the photographic pose, the composition of the work is notably flat as the subjects form a depth-less line. Master painters such as Rubens, Rembrandt and Jan de Bray often rendered their group subjects into multi-layered scenes of a religious, personal or historical nature (fig. 4). In contrast, when viewing 'No.6 1996' as a Western ideal the work lacks the dimension of classical group portraiture, yet this is perhaps not unintentional. The lack of depth further correlates to the message that Zeng infers as to the sincerity of expressed human emotion when bound by social constraints.
An Eastern PerspectiveIn the tradition of great Chinese master painters, the unpainted spaces left upon the canvas and the lack of perspective or depth to an artwork were intentional pauses in the overture of art, a dimension of interaction with the viewer wherein they could bring their own imagination to the work to 'fill' the space. The 20th century master Zao Wou-Ki likened these spaces to the intake of breath at the end of a sentence whilst reciting a sonnet. Zeng Fanzhi brings an aspect of this traditional concept to his works as we often find a featureless background whereupon the viewer is invited to imagine the space beyond. In this regard, Zeng Fanzhi achieves a unique merger of suggestive western interpretation with eastern tradition. An immediate and striking aspect of Zeng's artworks, 'No.6 1996' most notably, is the manner in which Zeng renders space. His works appear to be without perspective yet they are not entirely flat as they offer us a complete view - akin to the 360 degree angle of a panoramic camera - of the painted scene. In this regard, Zeng creates a new perspective that merges both Eastern and Western painting traditions. The direct viewpoint coupled with the seemingly flat surface and suggestion of unknown space makes this work immensely powerful in its impact.
As an artist Zeng has always been strongly impacted by both his emotional and physical surroundings and by the observations of human interaction. The evolution of his works post-Mask series continue to aesthetically and intellectually challenge the viewer, bordering on abstract and breaking the boundary between image and background. In his 'We' series, Zeng evolved the mask further into an abstract form of distortion where a series of spirals create an unclear perception and therefore 'mask' the face.
The diverse cultural appeal of Zeng's art stems from his honesty, fragility and beauty in portraying his raw emotions and in expressing his thoughts upon a universally-shared trait; our recurrent human desire to appear other than as we are. His anomalous artworks consistently challenge the conceptual line between western and eastern art, blending western artistic inspiration and paint material with eastern traditions and culture to dialogue the economical, ideological and often painful social transformations of a burgeoning modern China.