‘Painting is a painful process; it forces the human figures in my painting into a state of pain and anxiety. I paint images of people in tragic situations, and they express everything that I want to express’ (Zeng Fanzhi, quoted in V.C. Doran, China’s New Art, Post-1989, exh. cat., Hanart/TZ Gallery, Hong Kong, 1993, p. 148).
‘The dynamics of Zeng Fanzhi’s manifold pictorial events, the rich structuring of his sometimes gigantic canvases with their hidden, yet extremely significant, multifaceted, fictively three-dimensional, imaginative, almost illusionistic spatial dimensions, the complexity of the light effects which not only animate and emotionalise his paintings but also, in another, one might almost say quasi-mythical, sublime context, give them the transcendental character of epic narratives’ (L. Hegyi, ‘The Visual Epos of Zeng Fanzhi’, in Zeng Fanzhi: Idealism, exh. cat., Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2007).
Painted on a monumental scale, The Death of Republic Soldiers is a powerful work that stems from a critical turning point in Zeng Fanzhi’s celebrated practice, marking his decisive embrace of landscape as a new vehicle for his piercing psychological narratives. Based on Robert Capa’s iconic photograph The Falling Soldier, which depicts the death of an anarchic militiaman during the Spanish civil war, Zeng’s protagonist is frozen in motion, flayed against a vast, deserted landscape. Within an oeuvre that has variously appropriated motifs from the Western art historical canon, including Albrecht Dürer’s Young Hare and Eugène Delacroix’s July 28: Liberty Leading the People, Capa’s photograph represents a rare source image for Zeng. Its brutal subject matter invokes the themes of national turmoil that have consistently driven the artist’s exploration of the human condition, filtered through his own conflicted upbringing amidst the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Beneath the pale glow of the wide evening sky, Zeng captures the unearthly quietude that descends in the wake of a gunshot: that transcendental moment of stasis before the wilderness registers the explosion. Partially obscuring his figure with tall blades of grass, Zeng subtly reinterprets Capa’s image: with deliberately blurred lines expressing a sense of movement, the dying soldier is simultaneously a man breaking free, liberated and reunited with nature. Painted in 2004, shortly after Zeng had abandoned his distinctive Mask series, the work is closely related to the Sky and Countryside cycles that marked a significant new direction within his practice. Moving away from the influence of German Expressionism and looking instead to the Chinese landscape painters of the Song Dynasty, Zeng developed an intense fascination with line, using multiple brushes simultaneously in order to generate chance collisions and fusions. With its epic, almost cinematic narrative, The Death of Republic Soldiers bears witness to the extraordinary visual language that has come to define one of the foremost contemporary Asian art practices.
Zeng’s move to Beijing ten years earlier in 1994 had a profound influence on his practice; indeed, it was the sense of alienation that he experienced within the rapidly changing city that provided the critical inspiration for his earlier series of Mask paintings. Tapping into the psychological malaise that accompanied China’s economic and social advancement during the 1990s, Zeng’s disarming masked figures reflected not only the widespread sense of anxiety underpinning this ostensibly triumphant moment in his country’s history, but also the artist’s own uneasy relationship with the new world in which he found himself. However, as his international success grew, Zeng sought a new outlet for the themes of isolation and uncertainty that had driven his work thus far. Childhood memories began to prey upon his psyche and, in the Sky and Countryside series that followed, Zeng’s move to Beijing ten years earlier in 1994 had a profound influence on his practice; indeed, it was the sense of alienation that he experienced within the rapidly changing city that provided the critical inspiration for his earlier series of Mask paintings. Tapping into the psychological malaise that accompanied China’s economic and social advancement during the 1990s, Zeng’s disarming masked figures reflected not only the widespread sense of anxiety underpinning this ostensibly triumphant moment in his country’s history, but also the artist’s own uneasy relationship with the new world in which he found himself. However, as his international success grew, Zeng sought a new outlet for the themes of isolation and uncertainty that had driven his work thus far. Childhood memories began to prey upon his psyche and, in the Sky and Countryside series that followed, Zeng’s preoccupation with the relationship between the individual and society was channeled afresh through verdant, nostalgic landscapes and wide-open vistas, evocative of a lost rural paradise. As the artist explains, ‘The inspiration (for the Sky series) came from my childhood; merely looking up at it would ignite in me a wondrous imagination. The skies would stay by our sides as we walked down the roads, and until now, I can still hear the sounds it made; still smell its scent’. It was a view that Zeng had sorely missed following his move to Beijing. Yet these works were far from simple eulogies to nature. Uninhabited plains riddled with foreboding, they became sites of political commentary and psychological interrogation. Though often deserted, they occasionally played host to figures such as Mao, the Pope and Karl Marx, as well as lone strangers waiting like hapless prey in the long grass. In The Death of Republic Soldiers, this mood reaches something of an apotheosis: struck down like a gazelle, Zeng’s figure detonates the predatory menace that hangs in the air of the Sky paintings. The huntsman, though still concealed, has made his first kill.
The tangled fauna that looms large in the foreground of the present work is the result of an idiosyncratic painting technique that Zeng developed during this period. His embrace of landscape was rooted in his increasing fascination with Chinese philosophical discourse the relationship between man and nature, in particular Daoism’s assertion that humans are but mere specks in the vast expanse of the greater universe. Looking to his heritage, Zeng attempted to re-energise the linear aesthetic of traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy that had accompanied these ancient philosophies. At the same time, however, he sought to lend substance to their teachings by submitting himself to forces outside his control. Taking a brush in each hand, sometimes two in one, a new approach to painting emerged. ‘This actually began as an accident’, the artist recalled. ‘I injured my right hand in 2004, so I trained myself to paint with my left hand’ (Zeng Fanzhi, quoted in conversation with K. L. Stout, Talk Asia, 27 January 2012). Working wet-on-wet over vast swathes of colour applied with a large flat brush, the interwoven linear structures and penetration of different pigments produces a mesmerizing optical counterpoint that recalls Jackson Pollock’s action paintings. Treading the boundary between abstraction and figuration, the collisions and interspersions of Zeng’s pictorial surface create a sense of temporal displacement that contributes to the work’s psychological tension. Akin to the ‘shuttering’ technique exploited by Francis Bacon, itself derived from the effects of film and photography, Zeng’s deliberate blurrings and diffusions perform like a time-lapse sequence, slowing and thus intensifying our perception of narrative events. In The Death of Republic Soldiers, the fatal moment – decelerated to the point of rapture – is transformed into an almost ecstatic, transcendental phenomenon.