(B. 1964)
A Man in Melancholy
signed in Chinese; dated '90.3.9' (upper right)
oil on canvas
100 x 90 cm. (39 3/8 x 35 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1990
Hubei Institute of Fine Arts Gallery, Zeng Fanzhi Solo Exhibition, exh. cat., Hubei, China, 1990 (illustrated, back cover).
Hubei, China, Hubei Institute of Fine Arts Gallery, Zeng Fanzhi Solo Exhibition, June 1990.

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Lot Essay

In the early 1990s, the Chinese as a nation were not ready for capitalism, nor was the artist himself completely prepared for the fast-paced, cosmopolitan life he would find in moving from provincial Wuhan to the capital Beijing. Entering fully into a career as an independent artist, Zeng no doubt was not entirely ready for the future either. But as the artist has stated, "despite this uncertainty [of the future], idealism was still a spark that fired many imaginations." In over two decades of painting and in the continued evolution of his styles, themes, and technique, Zeng's own relentless spark of imagination and creativity have given provided us with an extraordinary oeuvre. The range of works by the artist featured across the Evening and Day sales, spanning 1990 to 2004, provide us an opportunity to appreciate Zeng's own empathy and unparalleled artistic skills, as well as the transformations and evolutions of one of China's leading painters.

There are few Chinese painters whose careers boast the breadth and complexity as that of Zeng Fanzhi. From the earliest stages of his career, Zeng Fanzhi's paintings have been marked by their emotional directness, the artist's intuitive psychological sense of perception, and his carefully calibrated expressionistic techniques. His earliest Hospital and Meat series, painted in the early 1990s while the artist was still in provincial Wuhan, completing a degree in painting, displayed his inherent humanism and sympathy with the daily existence of those around him. Moving tot the more cosmopolitan Beijing in the early 1990s, Zeng's art displayed an immediate shift, responding to his immersion in a more superficial environment, his seminal Mask series displaying the tensions between the artist's dominant existential concerns and an ironic treatment over the pomposity and posturing inherent to his new contemporary, urban life. Throughout, Zeng's techniques often run counter to their convention usage, as the artist pursues not pure emotional expression, but instead a record of his own disposition and his perception of his subjects.

A Man in Melancholy (Lot 1206) and A Pair of Tigers (Lot 1232), painted in 1990 and 1991 respectively, emerge from Zeng's early Wuhan years and are related to the themes Zeng was exploring at the time. Reflecting on his undergraduate study and gravitation towards expressionism at the Hebei Acaademy of Fine Arts, Zeng recalls: "The biggest received experience was in using line, color 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." His strongest inspiration was the expressionist works of German and Dutch artists, whose rich palette and broad brushstrokes can clearly be mirrored in Zeng's earliest canvases. His progression as an artist is evident in these works, especially in his use of blazing colors and rough textures to affect mood, ambience, and character. Zeng's deep study of these masters is apparent in A Man in Melancholy, the subject and composition reminiscent of late Impressionist artists' observations of their contemporaries in states of repose if not dejection, like Edgar Degas' Absinthe Drinker or Vincent van Gogh's Portrait of Doctor Gatchet. Zeng shows an anonymous male, seated alone, looking sharply sullen. The work is related to Zeng's Hospital series, which often feature figures simply sitting and waiting, their dulled features and expressions highlighting the melancholy and alienation felt in these extended hospital stays. In A Man in Melancholy however is marked by sharper strokes and edgier colors. The man is seated against a wall, and the composition is claustrophobic, rendering him both physically and emotionally boxed in. His posture is relaxed, but also suggests a mix of impatience and resignation. Zeng's Hospital paintings were often deliberately composed, multi-figural almost religious tableaus. As such, this anonymous portrait is a much more closely observed emotional exploration of a figure wrought with complex and contradictory emotions, apparently in a social environment but equally at a great emotional distance from not shown. As a result, the painting also prefigures the psychological terrain that Zeng would pursue later in his iconic Maskpaintings.

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