signed in Chinese, dated and signed '2003 Zeng Fanzhi' (lower right)
oil on canvas
250 x 170 cm. (98 3/8 x 66 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2003
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner
Private Collection, New York, USA
Hanart T Z Gallery, Recent Works by Zeng Fanzhi, Hong Kong, 2006 (illustrated, p. 55).
Sale room notice
Please note that the correct dimensions for Lot 49 are 244 x 169 cm. (96 1/8 x 66 4/8 in.).
拍品編號49的正確尺寸為244 x 169厘米 (96 1/8 x 66 4/8英寸)。

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Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

Lot Essay

There are few Chinese painters whose careers possess the depth and complexity as that of Beijing-based artist Zeng Fanzhi. From the beginning of his career, Zeng Fanzhi's paintings have been widely recognized for their emotional directness, instinctive psychological sense, and distinctive style. Although his artistic expressions have shifted throughout the years, what remains at the core of his practice is a reexamination of his personal surroundings and intimate sentiments, allowing Zeng to claim a distinctive place within today's group of established contemporary Chinese artists.

China and especially, Beijing, in the early 1990's was in the throws of a uniquely challenging historical situation—great changes in policy brought along societal shifts faster than ever before. Zeng’s most notable Mask series has been a characteristic motif in his paintings for over seven years and first emerged when Zeng moved from Wuhan—a place he had lived his entire life—to Beijing in 1993. In these unfamiliar new surroundings, the creation of the Mask series insulated Zeng and allowed him to identify the kind of 'face' one was expected to show in polite society. The less desirable aspects of his past or character could be concealed; he could become—or, more accurately, he could present—a new person under the guise of a civilized mask. The strong juxtapositions of contrasting elements create a great impact in works from this series; tailored bourgeois suits and fitted smiling masks are coupled with the engorged hands and glimpses of raw skinned flesh with exposed sinew.

The late nineteenth century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche once declared "The mouth may lie, alright, but the face it makes nonetheless tells the truth." The fundamental essence of Zeng's Mask series is in contention to Nietzsche's belief, and through his portraitures Zeng expresses his discontent in the forced intimacy of human nature. Other than his philosophical beliefs, Zeng’s strongest inspiration stems from the expressionist works of artists such as Max Beckmann (Fig. 1), whose rich palette and broad brushstrokes can clearly be mirrored in his earlier works, such as the Meat and Hospital series (Fig. 2). It is evident to see the progression from these series into the Mask series through the blazing colour and rough texture that Zeng continues to use in his portrayal of human flesh.

In the large-scaled painting Portrait (Lot 49) presented here, we can also trace a progression of thought from the beginning of the Mask series in 1993 to Zeng’s more recent works. The painted subject takes on most of the motifs found in his Mask series: the subject stands tall with a striking red suit amidst an unidentifiable background, looking forward into an ambiguous space. His hands and ears are engorged. The way in which he renders the skin of his figure recalls works by Francis Bacon—both artists seem to be intrigued by the depiction of skinned flesh as if it is a tool by which to reflect the inner emotions and anxiety of their subjects (Fig. 3). Yet, fundamentally different than his Mask series is the merging of mask with flesh, or rather, the complete absence of one. Traditionally, his masks are easily recognizable due to the contrast between the pale-white mask and the pink and red skin underneath. The eyes on these masks often appear lifeless, the pupils even sometimes reduced to a simple “+” sign within a circle. However, in this portrait, the subject’s mask seems to be disintegrating or disappearing, offering a more lifelike rendering and perhaps, more intimate access to the subject’s emotions. Through this painting, Zeng shares with the viewer a personal moment in which the figure seems to be shedding the protective layer of superficiality that he has built up in contemporary society. Interestingly, Zeng portrays blooming flowers at the upper right, capturing them in an ephemeral moment as they fall onto the subject. This fleeting moment of the fallen delicate blossoms is directly contrasted with the subject’s seemingly impenetrable and firm appearance, alluding to the fragility felt within the subject and this disjuncture between the inner and outer self. Perhaps also alluding to the passing of time, the flowers show the subject honestly facing his emotions of isolation and insecurity over time—he stands confidently as his anxieties and insecurities are exposed and is, perhaps, hopeful for a resolution between himself and his innermost fears.

From Zeng’s start of his Mask series until now, we witness his initial insight into the shifting dynamics of his social environment; we see him pursue a desire for an acceptance and peace with the overwhelming emotional and psychological anxieties that previously loomed behind the painted surface of his works. The diverse cultural appeal of Zeng's art stems from his honesty, fragility, and beauty in portraying his raw emotions. Much like the works of David Caspar Friedrich, Zeng’s work tells a tale of loneliness and isolation that resonates too greatly with every individual in contemporary society (Fig. 4). He exposes the insecurities and anxieties that many try to ignore. Yet, his portrait perhaps reveals a new chapter of his work that serves as a call to resolve the discord between the inner sentiment and the outer appearance while, ultimately, inching towards a complete acceptance of these emotions and triumph over the anxieties created in these turbulent times.

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