”Because false faces exist, people cannot avoid the distance they create between each other. It is almost impossible to confide in each other as everyone hides their true nature, all of their desires, so that when they appear in public, the outer mask is all everyone sees.”
Zeng Fanzhi quoted in Boyi Feng, Zeng Fanzhi 1993-1998
, Beijing 1998
The removal of the mask in Zeng Fanzhi’s later oeuvre allowed the artist to explore the psychosomatic tensions and vulnerable layers of human consciousness like never before, yet the mask is never really torn off. Begun in the 1990s, the artist’s iconic Mask series stems from the transformation of China at the time. Suffused with an impression of unease and eeriness, the Mask portraits were never outwardly demonstrative or expressionistic, but were poignant because of what they attempted to hide: the feeling of loss of value and break in history that started with the globalisation and speedy modernisation of mainland China. Traditional communist communities like the one Zeng Fanzhi grew up in in Wuhan, Hubei province, had shaped his childhood and were being replaced by a capitalist-driven consumer culture and new metropoles with their urban skylines. Soon after moving to Beijing, at the centre of this revolution, Zeng Fanzhi’s raw and impassioned brushwork from his early Meat and Hospital series was replaced by the sophisticated, polished appearance and pressed suits of the masked subjects. “In the mid-’90s, China was transforming very fast. Chinese officials started wearing suits and ties. Everybody wanted to look good, but it also looked a bit fake. I felt they wanted to change themselves on the surface, and these are the feelings that I represented in the earlier Mask series.” (Zeng Fanzhi quoted in Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, “Zeng Fanzhi: Amid Change, The Art of Isolation”, in The New York Times
, 3 May 2007)
In the present lot, the unmasked face is tilted forward in grief, despair or deep in thought, resting on a disproportionally large hand. The subject wears a jacket reminiscent of the Chinese communist costume, but it is unbuttoned in an uncharacteristically careless and dishevelled fashion. Light from an unknown source pours into the picture plane and onto the individual’s face, shaping and chiselling the flesh of his cheekbones and knuckles. The subject’s expression of helplessness, trauma and exhaustion is finally visible. By providing us with an extremely rare glimpse behind the metaphorical and literal mask, Untitled is a moving example of Zeng Fanzhi's ongoing depiction of his generation and the challenges faced due to a profound societal shift.