Zeng Fanzhi (B. 1964)
Zeng Fanzhi (B. 1964)

Mask Series: No. 3

Zeng Fanzhi (B. 1964)
Mask Series: No. 3
signed in Chinese; dated '94' (lower right)
oil on canvas
180 x 167 cm. (70 7/8 x 65 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1994
Hanart T Z Gallery, Hong Kong, China
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2004

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Lot Essay

Amid the dramatic political and social changes that took place in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Chinese society was facing its own uncertainties. Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of China's open door policies and reforms, conducted an inspection tour of southern China in early 1992 and published a series of speeches that has far reaching consequences which played an important role in stabilising China's political, economic and cultural development. Wuhan, the first stop on Deng's southern tour, has changed dramatically since then, a transformation that Zeng Fanzhi, a son of Wuhan, has experienced personally.
After Zhang had already achieved both academic and commercial success with his Hospital series, Zeng moved to Beijing in 1993, to further his artistic carrer. He painted Mask Series: No. 3 during his second year in the capital. China was in the midst of executing its eighth five-year plan (1991-1995) and developing rapidly, with an average GDP growth rate of 12 percent. As the nation's political, economic and cultural centre, Beijing was undergoing even more drastic changes than those experienced in Wuhan. 'Upon coming to Beijing I was quite lonely, because there was no one to talk to,' Zeng said in an interview. Introverted and not good at verbal communication, Zeng not only faced the unfamiliar interpersonal relationships a new environment brings, but also the flood of popular culture that accompanies such rapid economic development. Popular culture rapidly penetrated into every corner of Chinese society, creating a disturbing atmosphere of rapid consumption. Created in such a confronting atmosphere, Zeng's figures wear masks to protect themselves against the anxiety and impetuousness of the era. The Mask series reveals Zeng's emotions based on his personal experience. But the paintings also echo, through the highly personal approach of the artist, the social and cultural phenomena of the time. For this reason, the Mask series, like his earlier work, achieved both academic and commercial recognition and success.
The influence of German expressionism and the visual language of Francis Bacon is apparent in the Meat, Hospital and the Mask series. In Mask Series: No. 3, the artist creates a fictional scene of Chinese high-society life, a closely focused composition of two men full of dramatic tension. The men wear two-piece suits and stand proudly with their hands in their pockets, a picture of success. But although they stand close and exude inflated self-confidence through their clothes and body language, their masks reveal a weird sense of distrust, alienation and pretensiousness. The artist uses the contrast of light and shadow to create a three-dimensional effect seen on the suits, while giving the figures limited expression in the cold style of illustration common in medical anatomy. Zeng conveys an extremely anxious sense of subjective existence, and reflects in an ironic way on the pompous posturing of modern urban life. Through the painting, Zeng's own deep sense of loneliness emanates from the canvas.

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