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

Mask Series

ZENG FANZHI (Chinese, B. 1964)
Mask Series
signed in Chinese; dated '98'; signed 'Zeng Fanzhi' in Pinyin (lower left)
oil on canvas
169 x 144.3 cm. (66 1/2 x 56 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1998
Shanghart Gallery, Shanghai, China
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1998
Hubei Fine Arts Publishing House, I/We: The Painting of Zeng Fanzhi V 1991-2003, Wuhan, China, 2003 (illustrated, p. 14).

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Lot Essay


When one first thinks of portraiture in China, Zeng Fanzhi stands out amongst his contemporaries. He has struck a collective chord for his artistic trajectory to probe the truth, and the introspective nature of his portraits.

In Zeng Fanzhi's early works, he had displayed an anguish of his subjects by establishing scenes in ghoulish settings, focusing on the external and discernible manifestations of the harsh qualities of existence. The influence of his study of Max Beckmann, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and German Expressionism is most palpable in his Hospital and Meat series, groups of figures in haphazard and quotidian moments. His most celebrated Mask series, which began in 1994, explored the plight of the modern city-dwellers caught in the spiritual vacuum of modernisation.

"Every painting of mine puts forward a question - a question about men, about the course of living from birth to deathKto communicate the throes of life." explained the artist, "Art should continuously raise issues about the society." Zeng Fanzhi's art is redolent of the philosophy of founder of Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno. Adorno considered art as a form of "negative dialectics"; art's significance emerges through the question of modern art's relationship to "empirical reality", by which is meant the capitalist realm of commodification, alienated labour and ideology. Art, as a form of knowledge, implies knowledge of reality, and there is no reality that is not social. Art becomes social knowledge by grasping the essence - a notion that has bound Zeng Fanzhi works together with a common thread.

Mask Series (Lot 37) is a succinct proclamation indicating psychological turmoil and the allied strain on individual psyches founded on the pass? ideals of collectivism. Painted in 1998, it has an added element of poise and elegance, the expressionist mannerism have subsided into a more painterly tone. The masked figure leans on a balustrade along the seafront flanked by a dog, with a tear rolling down the face and stares vacantly towards the viewers. In the artist's own words, "The real self is always concealed, and nobody appears in society without a mask." While in western portraiture, eyes are "the windows to the soul", the marionette-like eyes of the figure, however, illustrate modern individuals who live in the eyes of others and exist outside themselves. The oversized hands silently exemplify the anguished existential cry of humanity.

Over time, the analogy between humans and animals took on a wealth of implications, becoming so decisively embedded in the artist's consciousness. In 1993 Man and Meat (Fig. 1), similar size and interchangeable images of the human and animal flesh identified man and animal as equal, intimating a barbarous state of human existence in its most vulnerable and candid form. The tension and the cannibalistic violence were eliminated in 1994 Mask Series No. 2 (Fig. 2). Animal had become a wooden toy, function as an ornament to members of the affluent urban elite. It called to mind Pompeo Batoni's Portrait of John Staples (Fig. 3), the Irish Protestant nobleman posed elegantly in typical English fashion of the time, and the dog was emblematic of his taste. The present work represents yet another shift in direction, homing in on "the individual's internal self." Harmonious rapport prevails the painting, the dog is staring at the figure and sharing the same emotion of the otherwise lonely soul. As Ralph G. Nichol puts it, "The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood." Dog has become a symbol of projected emotions. "Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms." English novelists George Eliot said, the dog here has become human's best friends.

The narrative aspect of Mask Series is evocative of Roy Lichtenstein's 1964 Happy Tears. The tears and smile together produce a sense of rapturous repression. Mask Series embodies the reverie of truth and representation; it uncloaks the intrinsic nature of things by virtue of disguise and fictitious defacement. Reminding that surface of things does not necessarily conform to a convoluted reality. This work explores the meaning of modernism by including the construction of a single unity while interrupting different systems of representation. It plays with the bromidic visual formulae of social norm, asks questions about inarticulacy and inquires the tension between surface and profundity.

Zeng Fanzhi's creations continue to impel him on to self-transcendence; he has a genuine concern for life itself and his art touches upon the very nature of human existence. What is personal is also social. His art brings the essence into appearance in opposition to its own semblance, possessing its other immanently that is socially mediated in itself. Zeng Fanzhi, as an artist, plays a role in interrogating the legacy of Enlightenment rationalism as transmitted through the ideologies of capitalism and totalitarianism.

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