Howard and Patricia Farber, USA (acquired from the above in 1999)
Christie's, Hong Kong, 28 May 2011, Lot 1024
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Paris, Zeng Fanzhi, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 18 October 2013 - 16 February 2014, p. 113, no. 10, illustrated in colour
Exh. Cat., Shanghai, Shanghai Art Museum, I / We: The Painting of Zeng Fanzhi 1991-2003, March 2003, p. 171, illustrated in colour
Exh. Cat., Hong Kong, Hanart T Z Gallery, Recent Works by Zeng Fanzhi, 2005, p. 9, illustrated in colour
Exh. Cat., Singapore, Singapore Art Museum, Zeng Fanzhi: Idealism, April - July 2007, p. 113, illustrated in colour
Richard Shiff and Fabien Fryns, Zeng Fanzhi: Every Mark Its Mask, Ostfildern-Ruit 2010, p. 77, illustrated in colour
In this work, Zeng presents his own likeness with frank self-awareness. This is the only self-portrait where the artist dons attire that is overtly Western, wearing an unbuttoned trench coat, crumpled slacks, and a crisp blue t-shirt. However, his most striking sartorial accessory is certainly a red neckerchief, which hangs loosely round his neck. This is one of the first instances of that motif within Zeng’s oeuvre; it would go on to feature in such masterpieces as The Last Supper. The red scarf is a ubiquitous symbol in China; part of the uniform for the Young Pioneers, which is a mass youth organisation for children aged from six to fourteen, organised by the Communist Youth League. By wearing it with such a western outfit in this work, Zeng not only identifies his own position – a child of Communist collectivism growing up in an increasingly Capitalist world – but also emblematises the wider socio-economic state of China, a country that was contemporaneously embroiled in a fierce transformation period between a culture of collective ideals and a mood of individual entrepreneurship.
Self-Portrait contains several other important symbols within Zeng’s facture. We might notice the faded writing that is scrawled across the background. These illegible symbols are in keeping with the red scarf. Where the neckerchief was the uniform of the Youth Pioneers, this calligraphic component recalls the quotidian Chinese class room, where famous scriptures usually line the walls. We might even think of Zeng’s turbulent time in the Hubei Institute of Fine arts, where his refusal to stick to the strict dogma of Socialist Realism led to friction with his teachers. The Chinese viewer would certainly recall the tradition of literati portraiture upon encountering this work, where scholars would accompany their own self-portraits with poetic ruminations on their philosophies and temperament, written in elaborate calligraphic style. In this work, the scriptures serve as emblems of the old China, now so washed out and faded away that they cannot even be deciphered. Indeed, in a moment of irony that is typical of Zeng’s seditious style, in certain areas, the columnar articulations even seem to approximate the mark making of American Abstract Expressionism, seeming directly comparable with Brice Marden’s tumbling lyrical forms.
Watermelons feature prominently in the foreground of Self-Portrait, split open and smashed. They are immediately redolent of the flayed and butchered meats that this artist drew from in his early work; indeed, the watermelon was a potent symbol within this artist’s oeuvre, not only a proxy for raw flesh, but also a bright red hue that is redolent of the Chinese communist party’s visual identity. It is deployed in the work to create a tension between calmness and chaos. The mashed flesh, torn and chewed, contrasts sharply with the composure of the central figure. We are given the impression of the calm found in the eye of a raging storm; a single figure, standing still as the trappings of his culture crumble around him.
In keeping with the best of Zeng’s praxis, Western art-historical reference is rife in Self-Portrait. Max Beckmann, who had a profound impact on this Chinese contemporary master, is expectedly important. Just as Zeng’s status as an artist who rejected Socialist Realism in newly capitalist China was uncertain, Beckmann used his self-portraiture to call the validity of his occupation into question. The German Expressionist’s work was self-deprecating and loaded with symbolism; he was able to take a sideways glance at society in a manner that was directly comparable to the artist at hand. Beckmann also served as stylistic precedent to Zeng. His Self-Portrait with Red Scarf features the same thin modelling, the same approach to slightly distorted human figuration, even the same distinctive neckerchief – although it is deployed in the older work with entirely different meaning.
Self-Portrait carries significant import within Zeng Fanzhi’s oeuvre, marking only the second occasion upon which he rendered his own image in paint. It is further significant within the history of Chinese contemporary art. In every element of the work, from the prominent outfit, to the symbolism of the scripture and watermelons, and even in the art-historical reference points, Zeng is at pains to plot China’s socio-economic development in cultural, aesthetic, and artistic terms. He offers himself up not as an exemplar of his generation, but rather as a microcosm; he heralds China’s change in cultural emphasis from collective to individual, by representing the collective with an individual – himself.
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