(Chinese, B. 1964)
signed in Chinese; signed 'Zeng Fanzhi' in Pinyin; dated '2004' (lower right)
oil on canvas
215 x 330 cm. (81 5/8 x 129 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2004
Wedel Fine Art, London, UK
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 6 October 2009, Lot 705
Acquired from the above by the present owner
He Xiangning Art Museum, Scapes: The Paintings of Zeng Fanzhi 1989-2004, exh. cat., Shenzhen, China, 2004 (illustrated, pp. 66-67).
Hanart T Z Gallery, Recent Works by Zeng Fanzhi, Hong Kong, China, 2005 (illustrated, pp.14-15).
Saatchi Gallery, The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art, London, UK, 2008 (illustrated, pp. 56-57).
Shanghai, China, He Xiangning Art Museum, Scapes: The Paintings of Zeng Fanzhi 1989-2004, 2004.

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Lot Essay

"It beguiled me to depict a man, to depict individual. I tried to do it by dint of direct responses, so as to encapsulate the person's expression, sentiment and thoughts. And my own feeling towards this being." - Zeng Fanzhi

Portraiture constitutes the overwhelming majority of Zeng Fanzhi' s oeuvre - his illustrious Mask Series and We Series, for example, take as their central subject the psychological state of man, as manifest on their faces and bodies. The painting of portraits is a means by which the artist observes society and conveys his own inner feelings; a portrayal of the state of human existence reflects both his contemplation towards the same theme, as well as his own inner disposition, and these themes constitute the distinct motifs and significance in the art of Zeng. His Mask Series, in particular, is most representative of his core artistic concerns, acutely revealing the artist's uncommon approach. In 1993, Zeng moved from Wuhan, his hometown, to Beijing, the metropolis. A change in life track not only brought for him a new living experience but also a breakthrough in his painterly explorations. Focusing now on highly-pressured, urban, living, he began rendering human faces in a manner unprecedented in both Chinese and Western arts: masked portraits and false faces. Two years later, in 1995, his Mask Series made its debut in Hanart T Z Gallery, Hong Kong; among these early canvases was Mask Series No. 25 (Lot 1039), also painted in 1995. The "mask" is a code, and also an emblem, of the artist' s interpretation of the outside world. It symbolizes the detachment and alienation between urbanites. The masked city dwellers live their lives anonymously and estranged from one another; their postures bear a self-respecting, arrogant air that suggest the hypocritical, playacting lives they are leading. These iconic figures, affixed to the environs of Chinese modernity, put urbanism, its values and its impact fundamentally into question; Zeng evaluates the attitude and the state of being among Chinese urbanites within a specific context, frenetic epoch, instilling the portraits with a philosophical, and yet experiential. To understand the revolutionary ingenuity of Zeng's portraits we must situate them into the larger historical context, when artistry had been contained and manipulated by the socialist and Russian realist ideals. The representation of human images was then confined to prototypically "tall, imposing, and perfect" forms; every individual was a replica of another, with their appearance, gesture and expression divested of essential variety. Their representation was rich in ideology and symbolic value, and empty of any distinct biography or psychology. These superficial and fictional figures serviced the narratives and priorities of the revolution. Zeng' s Mask Series , therefore, represents a fundamental breach of this cultural paradigm; the genuine and intricate emotion embedded in a bodily figure is resuscitated, the unique expressions that form his identity are foregrounded, and his sentiment is immediately accessible in all its raw, dark, dispiriting forms. Transcendingthe socialist framework of portraiture of the time, Zeng's works demonstrate the genesis of a new, unorthodox breed of portraits with a freshened perspective, aesthetical judgment and artistic expression.

In addition to serving as a symbol of psychological conflicts facing his generation, the "mask" also served as a personal symbol for Zeng himself, one that allowed him to pursue his own course of self examination and soul-searching. Putting on a "mask" is an act of protection. It isolates the artist from a world of unknown and unpredictable challenges and tribulations, which is precisely what confronted the artist when he began the Mask Series. In 1993, Zeng recalled, when he first set foot on Beijing he was in "a new city," and "with no registered household because I was an outsider". Worse still, "friends whom I can share feelings with were terribly few. Our interactions seemed too much a mere deed of socializing. " He was perturbed about his state of living, felt disquiet over his own identity, alone in this new environment. It was probably then that childhood insecurities returned to haunt him, reminding him of his failure to join Young Pioneers team in his early schooling. In this frame of mind Zeng created his masked figures, and, as he said, "my figures are all a piece of a mirror; they reflect our inner selves, and our feelings towards other entities. " (Interview with the artist). The "mask", therefore, has two implications. It is a symbolic image of modern urbanites, and is, as well, a reflection of the artist's inner being.

Later works, as with Mask Series No. 25 , which feature two figures, suggest a more mature and evolved approach to the series: his initial endeavors take in only one subject, and it is when he has fully grasped the "masking" form that he turns to pairings, adding a new layer to his already refined composition and narrative. In Mask Series No. 25 , the psychologies and emotions of the subjects are communicated through the positioning of the characters, spatial design, composition, coloring and brushwork. One man stands, while the other sits upon a railing; their dissimilar posture and position indicate their detachment from each other and lack of confidence, hence suggestive of a social system in flux, wherein the agreed norms of behavior have been de-stabilized. Bereft of interaction, the two men are as foreign to each other as they are pictorially unalike; self-deception and complacency seem the only way out for those who cannot find their footing in any community. The immaculate linen suits they wear, juxtaposed with the pulsing veins of their hands, combined with the generally lurid coloring - like their lips, which are washed in striking, garish, red - give the work an unrealistic touch, implying the hypocritical and pretentious living attitude of this new cosmopolitan class. Regarding these choices, Zeng has stated, "I intend to make it unduly sumptuous so that it becomes unduly fictitious, almost resembling a stage backdrop. The way people gesticulate - much like waiting for someone to photograph them - is simply a way of selfcomforting. Their hands, too, are a feigned, pompous makeup of the urbanites. " Following the empty space concept of Chinese traditional art, the background of this work is left blank, suffusing the canvas with a sense of flatness and void that, in turn, enhance the thematic impact of the work. In this way the artist creates for his characters a queer world and thus a peculiar state of existence: they are thrown into an uncertain space, unanchored and exposed. Zeng, by carefully blotting out his lines with a scraper, bestows upon his exquisite brushstroke a quiet, withdrawn temperament that underpins the suppressed and illusory nature of men. Here objective depiction gives way to lines and colors in the representation of the real state of human existence; this, in other words, is a fusion of symbolism and abstraction contained in the art of portraiture, the novelty of which highlights the artist' s remarkable achievement of creating an utterly new artistic form and visual language.

To Express with Obscurity: From Realistic Depiction to Liberal Expression
Facial delineation has always been the focus of traditional portraits. Zeng, however, adopts a contrary logic of expression in his Mask Series No. 25 . Individuals are defined with their faces and eyes as windows to their soul. In Zeng's hands, the eyes are concealed; the real appearance of his subjects is entirely covered by the mask, leaving only a "false face." In contrast to the naked figures hitherto created, Zeng now adorns his figures with lavish outfits, obscuring the instinctive responses and true feelings of these creatures. He stresses, at the same time, their feigned, unnatural gestures to represent their fictitious, highly tailored and stylized existence. Paradoxically, the fact that they are willing to reveal only a fictitious demeanor exposes their dread and self-abasement to public gaze, just as the white and black masks, fusing tightly to the faces of their owners, single out every falsity of their facial expressions. As such, Zeng reveals a mode of living new to his generation, one obsessed with dissimulation and deceit, and his revelation of that disposition makes these works an incisive exposition of modern souls. Beneath such mode of representation lays the aesthetic concept of "expressing with obscurity" or "rendering realness with falsity," which, as a rejection of direct, realistic representation and replication, uncloaks the intrinsic nature of things by virtue of concealment, artistic recreation and imaginary disfigurement. This logic of artistic expression demonstrates the most penetrating reflection of the artist on themes like "what is reality" and "how to set about exploring realness." Yet we will not fail to observe the essentially Chinese underlying philosophy: the very same technique of expression is found in the use of lian pu , literally "facial mask," in Chinese opera. Extremely abstracted, lian pu is a fake face which perfectly conceals, either by paints or masks, the real look of its owner. There is always a symbolic meaning behind the way a lian pu is drawn and colored; the personality of the character, whether he is loyal, villainous, kind or evil, is precisely written, though fictitiously expressed.

In 1999, Zeng began to shift towards a seemingly more traditional approach to portraiture, and he began to "unmask" his characters, to convey their genuine inner beings and character through other visual strategies. Untitled , painted in 2003, is a representative work of Zeng's post-Mask works of portraiture. Sharing the same figurative traits with the earlier Mask Series , the subject in Untitled (Lot 1040) is fastidiously dressed, his arms folded resolutely across the chest; immediately we are aware of the man' s agitated character. The manner in which Zeng employs lines and paint changes with this new series; with a richer and even more artful brushwork Zeng uses strokes drawn from Chinese calligraphy- twisting lines, hooks, horizontal stroke, dots, pressing and diagonal gestures- to depict the man' s clothes. The cramped muscles of his hand are portrayed by reverse strokes, which visualize its shape and heighten our sense of the man' s mentality. In connection with his reverse strokes the artist recalled: "When I was working on Union Hospital, I had a special feeling towards the hands and the heads. On the last attempt I tried to reverse my strokes. The lines run in opposite direction, and my feeling is articulated. " This technique calls to mind the logic and praxis of what were called the "reserve tip" and "ordered tip" in Chinese calligraphy. Through this nuanced and self-reflexive approach to mark-making, the artist materialises a repressed, despondent and restive state of mind. Art critic Li Xianting, commenting on Zeng oil techniques, regards his lines as refined as if from nature; they provoke the images of fallen leaves and withered petals, and of the calamity of life, and, as such, they do more than just give form to the figure, but contribute to the emotional tenor of the painting as well.
An impressionistic coloring, moreover, accords the work a striking visual impact: with the use of a hue an intense, meat-like -red, the artist depicts human figures with raw, seared flesh, and rugged, veined faces, which engender the vision of cruelty, torture and agony as felt when human flesh is torn. Brushwork as such is evocative of the artist' s own Meat Series, as well as to the styles of Chaim Soutine and Egon Schiele. Apart from the creative elements found in Mask Series and Meat Series, Zeng has also syncretized other artistic forms into the unified expression, which further enriches the visual power of his works. In the bottom left, for example, with impetuous strokes, the artist depicts a dwindling thread of fire flame, with a plume of smoke shooting up and dispersing over half the canvas. Coated by this nebulous grayish white, the work also calls to mind Zeng' s landscape paintings developed since 2002. The fleeting blaze, itself a poignant landscape, conjures a mournful impression which resonates with the fading layer of color at the furthest reaches of the canvas. All these carry through the artist' s longing to depict the vulnerability of existence, the precarious and precious qualities of mortal existence.

The blending of landscape with portraiture is an ingenious attempt Zeng made during this period, and it becomes the basis of his works after 2005, which situate personages in what are often bleak and barren natural settings. Seeking further expressive variety and refinement in brushwork, Zeng has also adopted a liberal, abbreviated style shaded with dispersing ink - a style in character with the aesthetics of Zen Buddhism. Above the man's head hangs a broad spread of pigments drawn in sketchy strokes, which blurs the human image and, at the same time, outlines it under a thin layer of color. The figure is thus projected like a theater image that fades out as lights die away, enhancing the artist' s reflection on the transience of life and experience. Mirroring the "empty space" of Chinese traditional art, a blank background is set to reveal the existential circumstance of the character. Thus a translucent visual space emerges that seems to open up for the viewer a window into the mind of the suited figure. The forms of "empty space" and "unexpression" register a touch of incompleteness, allowing considerable latitude for the audience to comprehend and interpret this partial space. What the artist contemplates has obviously changed from the realistic depiction of figurative form to the relevation of the more abstract mentality and disposition of an individual. What he explores, besides, is the potential of conveying the essence of lives and living through a range of brushwork, lines and colors.

Tiananmen (Lot 1041), painted in 2004, heralds a new and profound stylistic change in Zeng' s art-making. A stunning piece in scale, execution and subject, it recapitulates the thematic elements and ways of expression used heretofore, and establishes an idiosyncratic visuality and artistic vocabulary with unequivocal originality. Following his portraits of deceased political leaders (Karl Marx, Friedrich
Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin,) in his 2004 Great Man Series, Tiananmen is the very first endeavor of the artist in portraying Mao Zedong. The work, in which Mao's portrait overlays the facade of Tiananmen Square, is a composite of Zeng's approaches to portraiture and landscape. After Union Hospital , the artist had ceased making real-life scenery an artistic object; by picturing Tiananmen Square in this work, he takes up again the narrative context of his earlier epic works, spawning an altogether new artistic theme. Like the face of Mao, Tiananmen Square conjures inevitable political connotations and memories. Both are symbolic of historic sovereignty and China's history of revolutionary idealism. Objective representation, however, is renounced; what delineate Mao and the Tiananmen Square are the abstract, rhythmic lines of the artist which reveal the artist's meditation on the symbols and experiences of the past.

Tiananmen encompasses several new themes of considerable import in Zeng's development. In its figuration, the enlarged and exaggerated face of Mao nearly fills the whole canvas, bringing to our attention every minute detail of his facial features, compelling the viewer into a visceral relationship with the fleshy, concrete vision of the Great Helmsman, in stark contrast to Zeng's empty-space portraits of the same period. Film theory has it that close-ups within a large screen shrouds the audience with a colossal image, so also drags them into a fictional world that provokes in their mind a Larger-than-Life effect. By portraying Mao on such a monumental scale-two meters in height and three across-the artist underlines Mao's ubiquitous influence both symbolically and literally over a space as extensive as the heaven and earth. This, perhaps, is a personal note pertaining to the relationship between Mao and China. From another perspective we may recall a distinct practice of Western contemporary art: through remoulding and enlarging to a massive scale some quotidian, mundane objects and events, a feeling of estrangement is engendered, so much so that a new impression is brought to surface when the audience, getting into the core of strangeness, looks afresh at these familiar entities with a wholly new frame of reference and attitude.

Examining Tiananmen from this aesthetic framework, the work creates a new sensual impact by artistic appropriation.While Zeng's earlier works are mostly drawn on a vertical spread, the horizontal Tiananmen renders a new expression for his portraits with a broader spatial setting. The portrait of Mao is distorted and obscured by lines endowed with rhythm; it is at the same time interwoven with the facade of the Tiananmen Gate, effecting an ill-defined, almost ethereal visual impression. Between close-up and concealment there exists a dialectical contradiction that shatters formulaic views and propels the audience to reappraise, through an unexpected visual experience, the image and significance of these great men. This is the new paradigm Zeng develops for portrait art. Throughout, lines remain Zeng's principal medium of figuration; his depiction are sometimes commingled with Zen-Buddhist-inspired liberal brushwork using abbreviated and sketchy strokes. The face of Mao is manifest and yet virtually transparent, becoming like a wraith floating between the audience and the background. Gazing at the face of Mao, what we observe is however the sky and the drifting mass of clouds behind it. With this trait we find Tiananmen substantially different from Mask Series : the latter appeals draws us into a definitive description of the human psyche during a particularly tumultuous epoch, whereas the former refuses to abide by concrete shapes and corporeal image, stressing instead notions of "absence", "line" and "denial". Like Pable Picasso, who painted distorted human faces with his Cubist geometric shapes, and Francis Bacon, who created faces in states of deep existential distress, Zeng visualizes the faces of human beings with the use of lines, sumptuous and agitated, playing presence against absence, and thereby establishing his own new portraiture paradigm. This form, akin to the Chinese art of calligraphy, demonstrates the artist's profound understanding of the expressive power of lines and his consummate technical skills in manipulating oil paint. The artist has once said, "to express my response to a topic, a gesture or an emotion by means of lines, colors and shapes has been the most striking experience I went through in those days. I learnt how to use my own sentiment to reflect on a theme, instead of creating an oil simply to illustrate something."

At this time Zeng would sometimes work by clutching two brushes at a time, he assigned one brush the role of a creator and another a destroyer. By creating and destroying the integrity of his creation at the same time, Zeng uncovers the power of abstract expression which lies between "intentional" and "incidental". It exhibits, as well, the dynamics and the varying colors of those multilayered lines. Tiananmen, as a powerful example manifesting Zeng' s methods, contains an assortment of brushwork: the sweeping and robust strokes, the delicate and agile fine lines, the toing and froing spiral strokes and the soaring, almost disordered lines resembling calligraphic cursive scripts. All these produce immense traction and involve us either in the pulsation of sentiment or the country's turbulent, tempestuous political history. Zeng releases the lyrical power of lines by transforming them into subjective, sentimental and expressive elements; this, in turn, resembles the dripping of Jackson Pollock and the probe of Zao Wou-ki and Shiraga Kazuo in the 1950s and 1960s. The way he accents the abstract, expressionist appeal of lines is, too, evocative of the abstract expressionism of Willem de Kooning and Piet Mondrian, and even the style of expression in Chinese calligraphic art. Lines in Tiananmen are representative of Zeng's ongoing aesthetic experimentation-one that seeks to transform the figurative into abstract, and the realistic into expressive -which foreshadows, and guides, Zeng's evolution in his artistry.

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