(Chinese, B. 1964)
Mask Series
signed in Chinese; signed 'Zeng Fanzhi' in Pinyin; dated '1999' (lower right)
oil on canvas
217.5 x 327.5 cm. (85 5/8 x 128 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1999
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

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Lot Essay

Throughout art history, it is not uncommon to see artworks that reflect changes and transformations of the times, regardless of the original intentions of the artists. Their obvious or subtle contents play a critical role in generating impacts among the masses. In China, decades of cultural perception and social environment came into being under the huge influence of the Cultural Revolution. Comparable to other pivotal times in history, this social condition has created a tremendous pulling and restricting force; however, it has also prompted the formation of many powerful artworks. Coming from China's mammoth cultural value system, Zeng Fanzhi deals keenly with issues of survival in modern time observed by his contemporaries, and he expresses concerns toward the meaning of human existence through metaphysical gestures. The attention for the state of existence is witnessed in history upon various paradigm shifts and presented through artworks' different forms and contents, which has often inspired the historical references used in Zeng's paintings (Fig. 1). The late 19th Century Symbolist painter Edvard Munch's portrayal of the seemingly hypnotized stern face alludes to the state of collective anxiety that the artist was experiencing in real life. These artworks of century apart present the same indifferent expressions. It could even be conveyed that individuality has dissipated in the forceful currents of time to the point only a homogenous facial appearance remains. These subjects appear to be wearing masks and disappear in the conventionally accepted state of being. There is no exit from the inevitable, and they can only commit themselves to the great torrent of humanity, as suggested by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Zeng left Wuhan for Beijing in 1993, and the relocation led him to a rapidly changing stage filled with an endless stream of various characters. He confronts face to face the multiple facets of the era and observes the behaviours of the people within, analyzing human conditions from the perspective of a speculator. Zeng's Mask series, created from 1994 to 2000, took on a more elegant look after 1997. Mask Series (Lot 32) is the most profoundly iconic representation of the entire series, and was created in the later stage of development of the series in 1999. The large canvas is depicted with two masked characters, and the ocean backdrop positions the characters in a hypothetical stage-like setting. Two frontiers visually frame and divide the picture plane, one being the diagonal border connecting the beach and sea, the other the distant horizon that separates the sea and yellow sky. Such division brings forth a sense of surrealistic theatricality. The heavily pasted flat sky exudes an illusory atmosphere. Zeng's intentional use of the "vast sea and ocean" projects an infinite expanse and obscure territory. At the same time the artist questions "what is reality," which is a core inquiry that runs throughout his Mask series.

The artist opts for a consistent treatment of the image to firstly express symbolic implications, such as the waves closely following the depicted characters and tips of shark fins that signal danger. Secondly, through the uniformed postures and the mirror-like relationship between the two subjects, a link is established for the characters' shared consciousness. This mirrored double relations observed in the history of painting could be seen in Frida Kahlo's The Two Fridas (Fig. 2), with the dual projection of a reflection of the artist's self-awareness. Also in Max Beckmann's Double Portrait (Fig. 3), the artist's two friends are depicted juxtaposed next to each other in the same painting, which is a testament to the power of friendship despite being physically separated by war. In the painting, one of Beckmann's close friends is holding a lit candle, which is symbolic to the light of civilization. On the other hand, Zeng's masked characters are holding smoking cigars, which reveals western culture's immense influence in the contemporary Chinese society. Through exaggeration of the features subject, Zeng brings forth his observation of the subtle and difficult human condition. The work is reminiscent of French artist Honor? Daumier's paintings that reflect social reality (Fig. 4). The insinuation of human ignorance is the proof of the contemporary life that the artist dwells in.

Zeng's earlier works are influenced by German Expressionist painter, Max Beckmann. Beckmann employed dark black outlines to illustrate crude contours as metaphors of the political climate of Germany in the 1930s. Zeng's Hospital series from the early 90's used strong brushstrokes to express the agony arising from the society's collective inability to control reality. The characters in the Mask Series have continued to have the unusually large hands and pink flesh tone from the features and brushstrokes visible in Zeng's earlier works. However, a progression is evident in his artistic expressive approach. The technique of using a painting knife has softened his otherwise expressive lines. The super flat bright yellow background smoothly blends into the portrayal of the ocean and pushes the characters along with the progressing waves closer to the viewer. At the same time, the viewer is extracted from reality and placed in a completely foreign setting, and is thus impelled to question his/her own state of reality. The nonchalant characters in their masks propel the viewer's selfreflection, pushing the viewer to ponder whether the condition of the subjects is shaped by the surrounding environment, or it is an intrinsic choice by humanity. Traditional portrait paintings are often depictions of human ideals, and are reflections of perfection that might not exist in real life. Zeng's Mask Series takes a contrary approach and attempts to use portrait paintings to reflect an unconscious psychological state in the speculators. Surpassing the common ideas of aesthetics, an intellectual contemplation pertaining to the given era is thus incited among the viewers.

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