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Three Variations of Yangguan

Three Variations of Yangguan
signed in Chinese, signed and dated ‘Zeng Fanzhi 2009’ (on the bottom)
oil on canvas
diameter: 60 cm. (23 5/8 in.)
Painted in 2009
Private Collection, Asia

Lot Essay

“And who sits together? The bright moon, the soft breeze, and I.”
– Su Shi, Rouged Lips

Zeng Fanzhi's studio in Beijing is a place of seclusion, where the artist can retreat to focus on himself and his artistic process. His painting studio connects directly to a small, Suzhou-style courtyard, where porous Taihu scholar’s stones placed alongside classical Chinese furniture provide an air of antiquity. There, far away from worldly distractions, the artist can work in peace and allow his innermost self to be quietly reflected in his work (Fig. 3).
Dating from 2009, Zeng's Three Variations of Yangguan portrays just such a space for quiet contemplation. The work's name derives from the title of a Chinese zither tune, which itself was taken from a line by Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei: "Let us drink one last cup of wine; once beyond the Yangguan, you'll find no old friends." Through the almost abstract quality of his brushwork and his simple, clear composition, Zeng projects great feeling into this desolate scene with its special, personal quality. The profoundly deep and peaceful blue, the lonely, upright Taihu lake stone, and the casually understated shrubbery all echo the feeling of distance and affection in the Wang Wei poem. In the same year Variations was completed, Zeng held a solo exhibition, Narcissus Looks for Echo, at the Suzhou Museum. The Chinese name for the exhibition is taken from the Yu Shei Tong Zuo Pavilion in the famous Humble Administrator's Garden, based on a line from a Su Shi poem, '... Who sits together? The bright moon, the soft breeze, and I.' ('Yu shei tong zuo? Ming yue qing feng wo.') It reflected a feeling of not merely resignation to loneliness, a lack of close companionship, but also a sense of traveling far abroad at one's ease and leisure. With the vivid brushwork that is his trademark, Zeng expresses the independence and easy confidence in "knowing things from the inside, and seeing them from afar," thus showing how much he is like the ancient scholar-painters, and how despite his fame he remains himself, unaffected by outside opinion. The beauty expressed through this work transcends mere visual appeal; it depends even more on embodying the memories and state of mind of a literati.
The source of the classic character that this painting exudes, that of the literati or scholar-painter, can easily be traced to traditional Chinese art. Every aspect of Zeng's selection of scene and composition in this work reveals his understanding of traditional art. The concept of "managing scenic placement," as set out by Xie He in his ”Six Principles of Painting“, is embodied skillfully here by Zeng; eschewing the single-point perspective typical of Western oil painting, he combines a straight-on level view of the stone with a more bird's-eye perspective on the surface of the lake, combining different points of view in exactly the manner of ancient Chinese calligraphy and painting. Further, the delicate pink that Zeng almost carelessly brushes across the openings in the stone echo the "clumped thickets and folded stones" often seen in Song landscape paintings, enlivening the lifeless rock and adding a vibrant energy to the painting as a whole. The railing between the land and water also recalls lines from Song poetry, such as 'I stand over the rail, and see the rain is ending, " and "The carved balustrade and jade steps remain, only the young faces have changed" (Fig. 2). In Variations, Zeng Fanzhi extends longstanding traditions rooted in the Song and Yuan dynasties.
Three Variations of Yangguan not only makes ingenious use of traditional spatial concepts, but further grasps the nature of the Eastern aesthetic experience — specifically, the sense of broad historical vision found in ancient poems: "At the close of the year, yin and yang press the short days on."  Variations distinctively employs a round canvas, like the charmingly wrought, round "moon gates" in the gardens of Suzhou, within which Zeng frames his own scene of charm and beauty. The glimpses of natural vistas seen through those moon gates, changing with the seasons — "withering and then thriving year by year" — taught the ancients to ponder the vicissitudes of the larger cosmos. In Zeng Fanzhi's lightly traced wisps of foliage by the rocks, and the reflections on the water, viewers also sense the transience of things in time's passage. Round canvases were not unknown in the West, and were once employed by the Impressionist master Édouard Manet, whose gentle brushwork juxtaposes soft flower petals with graceful ballet shoes, letting us glimpse through this narrow window traces of our youthful humour (Fig. 1). The art of such paintings no longer deals only with space, since in them the dimension of time itself takes on depth and texture.
Three Variations of Yangguan is deeply rooted in, the spirit of the East, though the different artistic vocabulary devised by Zeng Fanzhi puts a new face on that tradition. Zeng continues his use of oil as his favored medium, creating with their richness a kind of deep nighttime atmosphere like that of Edvard Munch (Fig. 4). Zeng applies a thin wash of blue, along with a more saturated deep blue and a lightly dancing pink, which sweep away the Munchian gloom and replace it with a more detached and carefree sentiment: “The day is short and the bitter night so long—why not go roaming with candle in hand?" The moonlight that gleams on Zeng's lake sets off the porous rock shape, which reflects the traditional Chinese aesthetic of "tall and slender, open, and filled with holes or channels." Surrounded by deepening washes of color, all this suggests the very Chinese conception of "a winding path leading to a secluded spot." Zeng himself confessed that, as he got older, he became more and more aware "that Chinese aesthetics are deep in my blood," and that "I've always been seeking those kind of traditional roots. For example, in my fondness for the Song and Yuan cultures, learning about how Song people looked at paintings, what their aesthetic outlook was. Of course you cannot paint like the people of the Song did; that would have no meaning. But from them I've absorbed a certain understanding of beauty." The millenia-old folk ballad of Three Variations on Yangguan, on Zeng Fanzhi's canvas, receives a new interpretation by a contemporary Chinese scholar-painter.

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