A passionate observer of reality, Zeng Fanzhi builds his work across the surface like a patchwork map of truth. From his early Hospital and Meat Series to his later Mask Series, his work provides strong insights into the human existential condition. Throughout his oeuvre Zeng’s painterly panache developed as he established himself and his unique artistic language, both of which often echo his personal circumstances at the time.
By mid 2000s, his portraitures had entered a new chapter of realisation, reflecting perhaps his own sense of tranquillity and happiness. Locating the subject in an ethereal space in Portrait (Lot 68), the artist fills the portraiture with a considered sense of self-assuredness, cordiality and serenity that was to become the hallmark of this series. Set against a barren background, the lone male figure is meticulously dressed in a lustrous dark trench coat and black leather shoes, paired with the engorged hands. The equanimity of the composition, and the sensitivity and clarity with which the facial features are portrayed, are a far cry from the forlorn characters that occupied his early works. The character in the present work is calm and confident in his own skin. He seems to be in control, taking the artist and the viewer. He displays a captivating ambiguity, entailing rebelliousness and the deep exhale of peacefulness.
Over the course of his career, Zeng Fanzhi has been a social landscapist making an adroit comment on reality. In different periods, the sartorial choices of his subjects have documented his personal chronicle of the conversion from socialist symbols to the savours of a capitalist society. The Red scarf was a recurrent motif in his earlier works, stood as an emblem of social acceptance at the height of the communist regime (Fig. 1). The significance of owning this badge of membership in a society governed by rigid conformity was unfathomable. It was a source of pride and joy, a badge of commitment and belonging. Zeng Fanzhi was not granted a red scarf as a child; an action which has clearly resounded upon his adult psyche as a large number of his subjects throughout the Mask series - bar those of his self-portrait - bear this symbol of belonging. While the western suit often appeared in his later works, underlining individualism.
Carried out in 2006, Portrait was undertaken at a time of relative contentment for Zeng Fanzhi. As the artist explained, “Now life has undoubtedly been much better materially. However, the more change we have, the stronger I feel that something can never be changed. The things at my heart don’t allow the change. Though we have a better life I feel somehow uneasy.” He paints the concomitant shift from the imposition of Maoist philosophy of the social self and economic system that ruled every aspect of personal life, to a capitalist, liberalised economy. The protagonist represents China's emerging middle class echelon of society, one penetrated by Western traditions and values. It invokes national turmoil that have consistently driven the artist’s quest of the human condition, filtered through his own conflicted upbringing amidst the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The social function of Portrait is redolent of Godfrey Kneller's John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (Fig. 2). It also conjured an age of extravagant costume and cultivated ease. It highlights the subject's wealth, as a definition of class and identity. Clothing therefore is in essence a mirror of social, economic, political and cultural landscape. It is not only representations, but also a reconstitution of collective reminiscences within the historical present.
Clothes in contemporary China are about projecting personality, not about conforming. A newly capitalist, consumerist society has liberated the individual to become a free agent, agents of self-invention and self-representation. But Zeng Fanzhi advocates this is an exchange of environments that has only replaced one alienation with another. As such, this work has raised a question that runs through human history- What is Freedom. For Nietzsche often expresses his negative verdicts on freedom as unqualified denials, the true realisation of the will to power, genuine freedom, has rather to do with self-overcoming. In many ways, Portrait is a concise statement gesturing the materialist trappings of class aspirations and the associated strain on individual psyches, portrayed in the throes of re-acculturation, searching for a social role. The piercing psychological narratives, minimum of details and expressionist mannerism are evocative of Egon Schiele’s intensely personal images (Fig. 3). It displays a humanitarian responses and metaphorical testimonial to the existing reality.
The sheer honesty of Zeng Fanzhi’s works, and the reality with which he imbues every brushstroke, reveals his struggle to become more fundamentally human in a world pulverised by cynicism, avarice, and pernicious threats of authority.