ZENG FANZHI (Chinese, B. 1964)
ZENG FANZHI (Chinese, B. 1964)

Raw Beneath the Mask

ZENG FANZHI (Chinese, B. 1964)
Raw Beneath the Mask
signed in Chinese; signed 'Zeng Fanzhi' in Pinyin; dated '2005' (middle right)
oil on canvas
200 x 150 cm. (78 3/4 x 59 1/8 in)
Painted in 2005
Shanghart Gallery, Shanghai, China
Acquired from the above by the former owner
Private Collection, Asia

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Lot Essay

The standard tradition of portraiture involves achieving an objective resemblance to a subject's natural features, however, outstanding artists are able to convey a more in-depth characterisation of the figure through facial expressions that capture the spirit and personality of the sitter. The features of the human face, of course,are the focus of portraits; however, excellent portraitists, by using the second 'face' - hands - can evoke a deeper, more vivid psychological activity. Depicting the figures' face and hand create a perfect synergy of expression and movement that reaveal the soul and the body in order to portray the figure in its entirety.

Compared to the Mark Series, Zeng Fanzhi's Raw Beneath the Mask (Lot 44), is more expressive in the bold lines that sweep directly from the head. He paints the head significantly larger in proportion to the body. The exaggerated rendering of the facial features emphasises the figure's primal characteristics, with styled hair teased outwards on both sides to impart a sense of heightened personality and character. Lips tightly closed, eyes fixed beyond the canvas, he is seemingly both finanically savvy and successful. A human figure in a painting should thus create a real identity, rather than an insipid cardboard character. This creative motivation - so reminiscent of the period prior to the invention of photography - sprang from the portrait's status as the only key means of preserving a person's image. The aristocracy and high society thus paid special deference to excellent portraitists like Diego Vel?squez (with his lifetime of service to the court of the King of Spain) or to Francisco Goya and his family portraits. The man here, wearing a red high-collared coat, epitomises China's product tastes in contemporary society, but also records the artist 's personal memoirs and emotions of the transition from socialist symbols to the modelled tastes of a capitalist society.

Apart from the human face and red dress, attention primarily gravitates to the man's hands that are clasped in front of him. His hands are disproportionately large, in a manner recalling the early Meat and Mask Series. Furthermore, in contrast to many portraits of the same period, this action serves to highlight the inner emotions of this figure. Zeng Fanzhi has depicted many variations in hands (fig. 1); the hands in the Hospital Series show the anxiety of waiting, frustration and helplessness. Hands in the Mask Series consistently hint at the repressed anxiety and tension lurking in the hearts of urbanites; the man's lightly clasped hands in Raw Beneath the Mask exude a sense of ease, calm, confidence and tranquility. In comparison with the portraits of the Baroque master Rembrandt (fig. 2) he reveals the same delicate treatment of the hands to accord with the rendering of the character's inner psyche. The modern artist Edvard Munch 's masterpiece The Scream (fig. 3), also exemplify the direct expression of the hysterical figure's unease which is rendered in the two hands gripping the head.
Only one lone male figure appears on the two-metre canvas in Raw Beneath the Mask; the background is left blank, and without any trace of political or historical implications typically pursued by many Chinese contemporary conceptual artists in the 1990s. After the Mask Series, Zeng Fanzhi slowly turned from the new style of portraiture, stressing that his own creation draws from his concern for the people themselves.Depicting only a singular figure, dispensing with other details, is reminiscent of traditional Chinese protraitists, that cast the main figure into greater prominence. Western Baroque painting deals with the contrast of light and shadow, largely created by shadows; in fact, this serves to highlight the importance of the figure, and also increases the illusion of space. The man's pair of legs are diluted into an ink-like 'white' effect, reminiscent of Caravaggio's technique in the The Calling of St Matthew (fig. 4), where the figures' bodies dissolve into shadow.

From the Meat, Hospital and Mask Series to Raw Beneath the Mask, Zeng has tirelessly sought a new avenue of portrait painting. No matter how varied his visual language, the core of his art is consistently concerned with people that depict an ideal combination of reality and subjective observation.

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