Mask Series 2001
signed in Chinese; signed Zeng Fanzhi in Pinyin; dated 2001 (lower right)
oil on canvas
199.7 x 129.6 cm. (75 5/8 x 51 in.)
Painted in 2001

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Lot Essay

There are few Chinese painters whose careers possess the depth and complexity as that of Zeng Fanzhi. From the beginning of his career, Zeng Fanzhi's paintings have been widely recognised for their emotional directness, instinctive psychological sense, and signature expressionistic style, and while his artistic expressions have shifted throughout the years, he continues to re-examine his personal life and feelings in his aesthetic vocabulary, occupying a distinctive place within today's group of established contemporary Chinese artists.

Throughout the years the mask in the seminal Mask Series has become an icon within Chinese Contemporary Art. Culturally, the Mask Series represents the voice of a generation during a time when China was going through rapid social, political and economic changes. Through the portraits, Zeng explored the ironic gap between public and private truths, the honesty of emotional expression in modern Chinese society, and in the process exposing the psychological torment felt by those compelled into new social roles. In the later period of his Mask Series, he began to explore the meaning of success and its implication socially and psychologically. Zeng not only documented such anxieties but also his struggles with loneliness and isolation as a newcomer to a metropolis. He identified with individuals who were overwhelmed by a sense of alienation felt in rapidly changing urban settings and obligation of social performance imposed on urban China's aspiring cosmopolitans. As an artist, this dynamic and frenzied moment in time, proved to be a fertile ground for artistic growth and development.

With Mask 2001 (Lot 29), a solemn figure who is impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit with his hand in the pocket stands on a mountain top alone. The colour of his clothing merges with the immense landscape behind him, and the grounds beneath him combines to exaggerate his stature as a man at the pinnacle of eminence. The background can also be seen as in the shape of a wide-angle lens of a camera. It is a vision of desired self-presentation, highlighting a shift in Zeng's own understandings of the dilemmas and difficulties of his age. The features of the mask, though denying us access to the figure's actual appearance, stand as a metaphor for his psychological state: aloof, indifferent, his eyes are no longer the windows to the soul but are vacuous and impenetrable black marbles. To add psychological depth, Zeng's flesh is raw, throbbing and swollen, as though repressed feelings are desperately looking for an outlet for release.

Since its first appearance in the early 1990s, the Mask Series has evolved stylistically. The earliest Mask paintings were portraits of anguish and tortured individuals incapable of overcoming the gulfs between themselves and others, while later works displayed fewer struggles with the external world, suggesting that personal and emotional strains were more deeply internalised. Towards the end of the nineties and into the early part of the twenty first century, there's a shift in thematic focus, while his brushwork and pictorial devices became more refined and controlled. Here, the background has evolved into shades of color resembling Mark Rothko's painting, Blue and Gray (Fig. 1). The emphasis in the prominent stance with the hand posturing are reminiscent of a Jacque Louise David's portrait of Napoleon, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries (Fig. 2). Both portraits display the figure in their pinnacle of success, showing their best selves. But with Mask 2001, the exposed flesh of the hands reveals a tension and anxiety that can exist behind each success. Perhaps alluding to the fact that there is always pressure and a price to pay behind every achievement.

The solemnness of the natural surroundings of Mask 2001 and the lone figure atop a mountain creates a sense that the figure is at one with nature, evoking a sublime feeling of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich's famous painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. But unlike the emphasis of nature in the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, the landscape here appears to be secondary to the figure who takes up most of the canvas and standing upright, defiantly facing the viewer. Here, it seems that the individual is the object of sublimation, perhaps indicating Man's triumph over his circumstances.

Earlier Mask paintings may have highlighted the impossibility of connecting with others in an increasingly superficial social world; in Mask 2001, instead the burden appears to be a lonely one. It is not a crisis of interpersonal connections but instead the challenge of projecting an unassailable image of success. In Mask 2001, it is an aspiration that is a double edge sword, one where the subject is perpetually trying to overcome the gap between who he really is and his own projection of an idealised image, alluding to the fact that it is sometimes lonely at the top. On a positive note, the sublimation of the individual perhaps is the artist's celebration of the individual ability to triumph over one's circumstances.

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