In 1993, Zeng Fanzhi relocated to Beijing from Wuhan. China was going through unprecedented changes, and Zeng Fanzhi was in in the midst of it. “In our society, no one is not wearing a mask”, this was one of his most profound epiphanies, and it became the catalyst for the creation of the Masks series. The mask is the objective glass of one's psychological state, and breaking through this lens is the most vital test of one's character. In the 2001 solo exhibition Behind the Masks, Zeng Fanzhi's famed character took off his mask in the ground-breaking Portrait series. It requires tremendous courage for one to take off the mask and confront the society with his or her own true self. How does an individual position oneself in the world? Drawing from the wisdom of traditions, the protagonist in Man and Bamboo (Lot 65) attempts to seek an answer.
Looking back at an era before the advent of photography, portrait painting is the sole medium in which one's face can be represented. Standing in a lavishly decorated room, Louis XIV demonstrated his divine right as the Sun King in his elaborate royal costume (Fig. 1). In the portrait of the 19th century British tycoon Richard Arkwright (Fig. 2), he is seen sitting with his newly invented spinning frame on the desk. This arrangement signifies that this impeccably dressed gentleman is both a talented inventor and a successful entrepreneur. Despite the fact that these two works were painted almost 90 years apart, and the socio-political environment had drastically changed, they similarly reveal the function and aesthetics of portraiture. The painters highlighted the superior status of the sitters by meticulously shaping the settings. The body language of the sitters also undoubtedly convey the message that they are aware of the fact they are being observed, and they are pleased with their social roles.
BAMBOO AS A METAPHOR FOR THE GENTLEMAN
Through his portrait paintings, Zeng Fanzhi persistently reflects on the question of how an individual relates to the society. The Masks series underlines the sense of helplessness and anguish that an individual suffers when he or she yields to the prescribed value system of the society. In contrast, Man and Bamboo demonstrates an awakening that is motivated by a pivotal change in thinking. The sitter in the painting is not adorned with an extravagant outfit. His focus is on the bamboo and rocks in front of him – he is unaware of being watched. Deep in his thoughts, he is meandering between the identities of the aristocrats and the nouveau riche. He is not concerned with winning the respect of others by material means or social status. What he seeks is a spiritual realm that is transcendental in nature.
Bamboo and rock are the major threads in the tradition of “declaring one's character through objects“ in Chinese art. The literati took the physical properties of bamboo and endow such values upon themselves as a personification of virtues. Bamboo is hollow and divided in nodes. It is resistant to the searing heat of summer and the frigid frost of winter. It regenerates after being chopped. These resilient and uncompromising characters are precisely the aspirations of the literati. During the Yuan Dynasty, many scholars were devastated by the fact that the nation was ruled by a foreign race – many resigned from their official positions to demonstrate their integrity. Wu Zhen, one of the Four Masters of the Yuan dynasty, loved painting bamboo (Fig. 3). He once wrote in a poem that “the will of the gentleman shivers in the cold and lonesome mountains” and “all the indignant in my bosom are all poured into painting these few bamboo branches”. The gentleman is the highest aspiration in the Confucian culture, and he is the sole bearer of the ideal conduct in a chaotic world. Zeng Fanzhi integrated the subject matters of bamboo and rock into a contemporary context. It is a reinforcement of the tradition of self-evaluation. It also signifies that the passive character who once pined for the approval of others is now constructing his own self-worth.
THE PUREST FORM OF PORTRAITURE
Zeng Fanzhi attempts to widen the historic meaning of portraits by an exercise in reduction. Unlike his previous portraits, Man and Bamboo does not illustrate the identity of the sitter with various objects. Except for the bamboo and rock, there are no extraneous components. This painting emphasises the most original expressive power of the brush. The sweeping dry-brush strokes boldly introduces the head of the figure, and the legs dissolve into the bottom part of the painting in a manner akin to watercolour. This ambiguous state between finished and unfinished is reminiscent of the work by William Oroen (Fig. 4). This Irish painter executed numerous portraits of political figures during the First World War. He specialised in accurately capturing the essential spirit of the sitter with the least amount of brush strokes. Zeng Fanzhi eliminated all the cumbersome adornments and returned to the purest state of portraiture. The unfinished quality of the figure seems to be a metaphor for the impermanent and ephemeral nature of existence – all the glamour and fame are fleeting. One should not live for the approval of others. Each individual should seek his or her own way of life.
Baroque painter Salvator Rosa similarly conveyed his philosophy of life in portraitures. In his famous self-portrait (Fig. 5), he wrote in Latin “Keep silent unless what you are going to say is more important than silence”. Compared to this direct expression, Man and Bamboo convinces its viewers with a lyrical atmosphere that allows for contemplation. Like the man in the painting, the viewers should find their own spiritual centres amidst the torrent of time.