Chinese Paintings – Modern

Unmasking Icons: Zeng Fanzhi's Retrospective in Paris

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

PARIS - Encompassing four major periods in Zeng Fanzhi’s career to date, an ongoing retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris is an indulgence for me. Zeng Fanzhi has professed his belief in art’s ability to elicit the deepest of emotional responses, with this exhibition serving as a valuable way to communicate with more people. How does he succeed in doing so? 

Installation view of, left to right, Meat Reclining Figures (1992), The Last Supper (2001) and Meat (1992).  The Last Supper set a new record for Zeng when it was sold for HK$ 180 million (US$ 23.1 million) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in October 2013, a new world auction record for any piece of modern and contemporary Asian and Chinese art. (Photo: courtesy the artist)

I think Zeng’s secret of striking an emotional cord with viewers lies in his ability to liberate us from the rigid framework of culture-specific iconography. An icon, whether religious or secular, typically achieves its distinctive status by imbuing the content of the image with preconceived meaning of great cultural significance. For Zeng, however, there is no cultural boundary to his brilliant rework of many iconographies.

Hospital Triptych No. 2, oil on canvas (1992). (Photo: courtesy the artist)

Whether it is by way of Chinese associations or Western allusions, Zeng’s reengineered icons work almost like masks. Contrary to its commonly perceived attribute as an agent for disguise, a mask reveals as much as it conceals.  Full of imagistic signifiers, it connotes layers of meanings that betray the inner truth of the reality under the mask.

Arranged in reverse chronological order, starting with his bramble landscape series, moving to his post-masks portraits, followed by his masks series and concluding with his early hospital series, the show is particularly revealing in its juxtaposition of images focused on similar subjects. For instance, the sculpture Covered Lamb shows a beheaded lamb covered under a blanket with only the truncated tips of its limbs remaining visible, echoing the painting Untitled 10-7-7 (2010), which depicts a wolf devouring a lamb. Seen in this light, the blanket suddenly becomes a mask that covers up a scene of animal violence. 

Fly, oil on canvas (2000). (Photo: courtesy the artist)

Increasingly painted a monumental scale, Zeng’s recent landscape paintings use powerful, untrammelled brushwork to cover the canvas with wild brambles that dance like Chinese calligraphy. Landscape has achieved its own iconic status in traditional Chinese ink painting, where it represents the order of the state and, in later periods, the image of the mind. Instead of creating grand mountains and water in three different distances, as in traditional Chinese ink paintings, Zeng employs dense oil on canvas to focus on prickly tangled shrubs.  Many of his landscape paintings simultaneously set in motion and cover up, a subdued but uncanny drama – some of which is based on humans while other, on animals, such as the giant hare that alludes to Albrecht Dürer’s 1502 watercolor and body color painting of similar subject matter.

In his Masks series, Zeng turns to the archetypal significance of the mask in classical drama as well as in contemporary society. In the Peking opera, for instance, actors’ painted faces are reflections of their characters by virtue of iconographic associations with the colors and patterns of these “masks.”  Zeng’s white masks seem to revolve around the tradition of “white face” in the Peking opera, which represents, with some notable exceptions, a character type that routinely disguises his true intention. Thus, Zeng’s masks are simultaneously revealing (of the underlying character) and concealing (covering up the characters’ true intention).

Foreground: Covered Lamb, gold nanmu wood (2009); background: Untitled 10-7-7, oil on canvas (2010).  (Photo: Chiu-Ti Jansen)

Fly juxtaposes a masked artist’s self-portrait with Andy Warhol, the pop icon, alluding to the predominant Western influences in China’s social-economics and aesthetics. Tian’An Men (2004) superimposes the face of Mao Zedong over another iconic image of Tiananmen Square full of red flags, while Mao (2004) blows up Mao’s face, which seems to be cancelled out by whirls of spiraling circles. 

Pure Land, oil on canvas (2012).  (Photo: courtesy the artist)

Why do the characters in Zeng’s acclaimed The Last Supper also wear white masks?  They seem to outgrow Da Vinci’s drama about sacrifice and betrayal and take on contemporary Chinese implications wherein ideological divides often cast the people who endorse Western influences as betrayers of the Chinese spirit. Wearing a yellow Western-style necktie, “Judas” is a ready symbol for capitalism that betrays the dogma of Communism. In a twisted way, doesn’t the character who “sells out” to Western ideology, wearing a yellow tie instead of the red scarves worn by the other “pioneers,” remind us of the artist who boldly re-appropriates a Western iconography?

Zeng’s works are rich in their investigations of iconographic representations themselves. They invite us to implicitly distrust icons as deliberate cultural or manipulated political constructs. But the temptation to succumb to the seduction of these icons is part and parcel of our human nature.

Visitors at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris viewing a video showing the artist at work.  (Photo: Chiu-Ti Jansen)

Zeng Fanzhi
October 18, 2013 – February 16, 2014

Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Paris, France

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