At the turn of the millennium, Zeng Fanzhi was shifting his focus from masks to a completely new direction: abstract landscapes. He successfully combined abstraction with the portraits of his earlier period, and spent over a decade creating a brand-new series in which the mediums of expression are lines, shapes, and movement. Zeng moved beyond his earlier Mask series, which was characterised by an Expressionist style. He abandoned the creative techniques of symbolism. Instead he took the art of painting as his starting point and adopted abstraction as his style, demonstrating his comprehensive mastery of Eastern and Western cultures.
Zeng’s paintings reveal the influence of traditional shanshui hua and shoujuan hua combined with Western Abstract Expressionism. He has taken the essence of each school and formed his own multifaceted, incomparable, and individual style, which has earned him a position of international recognition. Recently, the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing hosted an unprecedentedly large-scale retrospective of Zeng’s work. The exhibition aptly traced the artist’s development through his early Hospital series, the Mask series of the 1990s, and finally, the Luan bi Shanshui series of the 2000s.
In this auction, Landscape (Lot 1058), painted in 2007, is an important work from the beginning of the mature period of this series. At the time, Zeng was still working in his previous studio, where he produced the strongest scenic themes in this series. Landscape is an immense composition with powerful and vigorous brushwork. The ambience of the painting is awesome and magnanimous, and it is indisputably Zeng’s consummate achievement in his Luan bi Shanshui series.
Zeng Fangzhi began experimenting with abstract landscapes in 2004. Landscape, created in 2007, demonstrates that the artist’s style had reached a mature phase, full of intellect and meditation. Zeng made the painting at the midpoint of his 2001-2011 period of experimenting with line abstraction. This work continues the exploration of line from his earlier phase while also pronouncing a new, more abstract variation. As he created his Luan bi Shanshui series, the artist flipped his brush over to paint with the handle on the canvas, as if using a chopstick. The resulting bends and folds in his lines create the impression of twisting branches and vines. The Luan bi Shanshui series began in 2004 and grew to maturity over the subsequent years. In this abstract landscape from 2007, the branches are more dense and bold, and he is beginning to use perspective in the composition. From the lake to the woods, hues of grey run to a combination of deep blues, blacks, and reds. The main subject of Landscape is a long road, which extends from the viewer’s feet into the afar. The path is lined with intertwined branches that possess a life of their own. The artist skilfully combines Eastern and Western elements, successfully integrating the influences of traditional guohua, shanshui hua, and shoujuan hua with the style of the renowned American artist Jackson Pollock in order to create a truly unique and cross-cultural work of art. The final result is representative of Zeng Fanzhi’s outstanding reputation in international art circles.
The Eastern characteristics of Landscape originated in Zeng’s utilisation of Chinese shanshui hua (landscape paintings, literally “mountain and water paintings”) and shoujuan hua (scroll paintings). The length of the canvas is particularly reminiscent of Chinese scroll paintings, as are the winding vines and branches. Of course, the endless rivers and mountain ranges are also characteristic of shanshui hua. In an interview with Mike Finley, Zeng Fanzhi pointed out that his oil paintings of landscapes are not based on any actual location; rather, they are “experiments in miao wu: marvellous revelation”.
Zeng further elaborates: miao wu is not a cognitive process. On the contrary, it is a kind of epiphany: a glimpse of enlightenment. “Miao wu is not simply the revelation of something essential. Rather, it harks to an unknown world, original but familiar, concealed in the depths of life. In this sense, the revelation of miao wu exposes something that already existed within art, life, and the self ... miao wu is a never-ending journey of spiritual exploration”.1 The core of miao wu in Landscape comes from the spirit of Chinese painting, Zeng states: “Traditional Chinese painting uses extremely simple materials and tools ... in pursuit of the abundant spiritual and psychic realms within the mind of the literati”.2
This painting recalls the styles of Tang and Song shanshui hua in particular. Tang paintings tend to feature contrast between light and dark colours that highlight the significance of line and texture. Song landscape painters were more focused on the scale of the scenery, as well as the ties between the artwork and people’s lives. With this in mind, we can see in Landscape a combination of the characteristics of the two Dynasties: an exploration in colour and texture, but also a rational expression of human psychology. In Zeng’s subsequent work, he continued to draw extensively on the styles and techniques of these two eras.
If we seek to divine Western influence in this painting by Zeng Fanzhi, we see that the canvas indeed contains references to the work of Jackson Pollock. Zeng undeniably drew inspiration for many of his paintings from Western artists such as Francis Bacon and Anselm Kiefer. However, as he turned his artistic focus to the study of line, he was struck anew by Pollock’s lines and drips, which became the cornerstone of the Western Abstract Expressionism movement. Pollock himself was influenced by Surrealism, and particularly, the concept of Pyschic Automatism: “expressive behaviour without intention, driven by purely spiritual ideas”. Pollock went on to create “drip paintings” that revolutionised art in the last century.
Thus we see how Zeng Fanzhi developed confidence in his own intuition and technique around the turn of the century and began creating paintings with methods such as miao wu and luan bi. In addition, Zeng’s use of his palette knife to scrape his paints on the canvas creates a highly vivid effect that captures the vitality of living vines. Landscape exemplifies Zeng’s creative reinvention of contemporary style and consummate combination of Eastern and Western aesthetics, and the result is undoubtedly sublime.
After Zeng Fanzhi’s 2002 exhibition at the Pierre Cardin Center in Paris, his paintings began to earn a following outside of China. His line paintings effortlessly integrate Eastern and Western models that have won him the admiration of countless art appreciators. Landscape is unquestionably a powerful artistic exploration of past and present, and at the same time, it allows one to experience Zeng Fanzhi’s transcendent skill, making it an exceptionally valuable work of art.
1 Mike Finley, “Interview with Zeng Fangzhi”, collected in Zeng Fangzhi, Acquavella Contemporary Art (2009), no page numbers.
2 Refer to 1
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