Having solidified his position in contemporary Chinese art, as well as the international art world, Zeng Fanzhi has become an artist whose renown needs no introduction. After gaining worldwide acclaim for his famous Mask series, Zeng shifted his gaze to new horizons at the turn of the century, and began to work on his Untitled pieces, some of which were populated by frantic circular loops. Both methods are central to Zeng's oeuvre; the masked figures representing the artist's older, established painterly methods, while the latter represents a shift to more experimental techniques.

Zeng's Mask series cannot be fully appreciated without mentioning the inspiration behind them. Having moved to Beijing from a rural landscape, Zeng was unused to the coldness of city life. He remarked that the city was filled with spuriousness, claiming, "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." This sentiment is felt in its full force in Mask Series (Lot 908).

A masked man is smiling garishly at the audience, his waxy mask reflecting his falsehood, while veiling his true sentiments. His exaggerated smile is verging on haunting, a reflection of Zeng's assertion that citydwellers were laughable hyperboles of themselves and of each other. The smile, paired with the barred eyes, is also representative of the city’s false feelings and the inability to offer sympathy to others. This uniformity in unkindness is likewise depicted in the artist’s use of rigid suits, characterised by rough strokes that seem to strip their wearers of the last vestiges of humanity. Although all of Zeng’s characters don the same outfits, they have nothing in common in the hostile city they populate. Moreover, the small amounts of flesh that poke through from behind their masks are indicative of the near non-existent amount of life and compassion they possess. Mask Series is also an example of Zeng’s purposeful employment of brighter colours. According to the artist, at a later point, “the [Mask] series used more vibrant colours; I think it makes people look even more fake, as if they are posing on a stage.” Coupled with the farcically bright blue background the figure is posing in front of, the overall sentiment of the piece is one of extreme performance; as if assuming a role of falsity has become second nature to the character in the painting.

The other lot on offer, Mao (Lot 909) is a potent example of the development of Zeng’s work following the Mask series. The outline of Mao Zedong is covered by circular motions, as if this act of concealment, if not of selfimposed confusion, is as much part of the painting as the content itself. Mao’s visage is barely recognisable close-up, and requires distance in order to appreciate. This technique was a development on Zeng’s part as an extension of the Mask works, as if the rounded motion he was inflicting on his new characters, such as Mao, was a new take on the act of concealment and veiling he was once fond of. We series signifies the beginning of the experimental approach towards the circular brushwork, where rows of circular paint marks deliberately remove the facial contours of the portrayed figure. The series is an important transition from the Mask series, to the later unmasked portraits, and finally the abstract landscape paintings, representing the beginning of Zeng’s creative direction for the next decade.

The depiction of Mao is also an interesting choice, as before this point Zeng very rarely turned to specific figures. Instead, most of his historical allusions were symbolised through subtler details such as sense of dress, for instance, the red kerchiefs that were popular during the Cultural Revolution. Mao is one of the first of its kind, as Zeng’s preoccupation with the character would come to be featured only sporadically, such as in the Great Men series, Chairman Mao with Us or Mao Portrait. This interest seems to highlight the artist’s investigation into his Chinese heritage, an investigation that becomes all the more interesting considering how the piece is executed with a relatively Western Expressionistic flare.

Both paintings, Mask Series and Mao, are works that possess many of the key elements of Zeng’s artistry. While the former is more reminiscent of the artist’s famous Mask series, the latter is a compelling piece that captures Zeng’s art in transition. Both works are also rare in that they feature elements that would become lost in Zeng’s oeuvre; while the masked men and women would soon no longer find themselves against childlike backgrounds of primary colours, the spiralled figures would be even fewer and far between. The examination of the character of Mao, moreover, becomes increasingly rarer in Zeng’s work. Both works are therefore vital pieces in understanding the development of Zeng’s skill, but perhaps even more importantly, are emphatic works that are imperative when appreciating the reasons behind the artist’s national and international renown in the world of contemporary Chinese art. 


1 Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, "Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation", New York Times, May 3, 2007
2 Refer to 1 


Contemporary Asian Art

6 October 2013 | HONG KONG