Anybody presented with a piece from Zeng Fanzhi’s Mask series, despite not knowing the artist’s name, would no doubt draw some form of recognition from the iconic masks. The masks have become abundantly recognisable, for their pale countenances, engorged features and limbs, not to mention their vacuous stares. And yet, at the turn of the millennium, Zeng began to explore a different path. Zeng looked outwards, away from his human subjects and instead turned to the environment around him, beginning with a series of landscapes. These pieces seem engraved, as if the scoured marks along the canvases were writhing with robust emotion; the scours on the pieces often woven with myriad colours. The piece on offer is Zeng’s 2006 work, This Land so Rich in Beauty No. 1 (Lot 904), a monumental piece that captures all the expressionist characteristics of the painter’s artistic shift.
The piece depicts Mao Zedong amid a scene of unbridled nature. The historical figure looks out onto what appears to be a snowy lake, standing in stark contrast to the wilderness about him. Mao, in his iconic grey suit, is unperturbed by the barren landscape he is in; fearless of the environment that seems on the brink of engulfing him. The hem of his jacket is swept open, as if the wildlife about him has seized the material in its stride—and yet, he looks on, nonchalantly, with his arms folded behind
him. Mao’s figure is the only thing that is distinct in the painting, set against an ominous sky, teeming with portentous greys and wisps of white. The bushes erupt from the ground they have climbed out of, concealing the skeletal trees in the background of the painting. Mao’s shadow dances on the snowy lake, unrecognisable, as the streaks of blue within it evolve into a muted navy to the right of the painting. In a scene of absolute desolation, Mao’s figure stands upright, firmly grounding us in reality.
This Land so Rich in Beauty is an entire collection of works, often showing dystopian scenes of rampant wilderness, usually with lonely landscapes without human presence. The inclusion of Mao in this particular piece is rare, as Zeng’s preoccupation with the figure was previously found in works such as his Great Men series, Chairman Mao with Us or Mao Portrait. The Mao portrayed here is alone against a landscape, rather than set against a blank canvas, or in a group with others. The title of the piece also holds an important significance, as it stems from one of Mao Zedong’s poems, “Snow”. This connection enriches our understanding of the painting, as if the work itself is engaging in a dialogue with lines such as “One single white immensity”, ironically placing Mao in a monochromatic scene. The slashes of red in the piece also evoke the rubicund flags of the Cultural Revolution, yet these are muted, concealed behind other scratches. It is almost as if without Mao’s presence, such reds would be overlooked.
In comparison to This Land so Rich in Beauty No.1 from 2010, this 2006 piece is much more dynamic and expressive. Not only does this painting feature an easily recognisable Mao, sporting his iconic jacket, it is also deeply connected to older styles of calligraphy and Chinese traditional works of art. The windswept jacket Zeng’s Mao is donning immediately reminds one of renowned works such as Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan, a painting displaying a young Mao, with his attire brushed aside by a gust of wind, walking with a determined spring to his step.
Zeng’s This Land so Rich in Beauty No.1 is a painting that consolidates history and modern art, exuding an air that is at once classical and traditional, yet also situating itself between two worlds of the past and present. Zeng’s Landscape series later develops to include non-figurative landscapes, at times even with animals, but it is the human aspect of this present painting that makes this particular landscape piece so alluring. As if with his distinctive strokes, Zeng has aligned historical importance with his own eminence in the world of Chinese contemporary art.
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