O ne of the most recognisable manifestations of Chinese contemporary art, Zeng Fanzhi’s era-defining Mask Series launched the artist onto the global stage, and became synonymous with the modern, urban Chinese aesthetic. Zeng’s renowned Mask Series powerfully expresses both the personal and universal anxieties, using the mask motif to emphasize the tension between the external and internal self – i.e., appearances and emotions. Within the series, the appearance of certain motifs, such as the flower, present rare and tantalizing insights into the artist’s interior world.
“The figures I paint function as a mirror that reflects my inner self, and onto whom I have projected my own understanding of the world”
Most art historians trace the genesis of the series to his move from Wuhan to Beijing in 1993, met with the daunting task of making friends in an unfamiliar world, and grappling with the capitalist-driven consumer culture. Zeng’s Mask Series may be a personal, visual articulation of his inner unease and disorientation, with the mask symbolising both the perceived insincerity of the new acquaintances he made, and the need to put on a front to fit into this environment.
“After I came to Beijing, I didn’t have many friends with whom I could truly open myself…I had to learn to get along with strangers in a new environment, and these feelings stirred me deeply, so I think the paintings are a reflection of things in my heart not necessarily all people’s.”
Within Zeng’s famous series, Mask Series 1999 no. 2 is considered a rare work, created in the artist’s more mature period of 1999. This iconic painting was exhibited in the 1 + 1: Guo Kin & Zeng Fanzhi show at the Schoeni Art Gallery in Hong Kong in 2000, and has subsequently been made into a series of popular prints. Why this painting stands out within the Zeng’s Mask series owes to the work's visual and symbolic power. Lounging amidst a bed of flowers, the masked figure embodies Zeng’s exploration of outward appearances and inner anxieties, reminiscent of the psychological portraits by Francis Bacon, while definitive of the post-1989 Chinese aesthetic. Furthermore, the flowers are symbolic of the artist’s mature Mask period in which he began to incorporate vivid colours and more elaborate landscapes in the background.
“Flowers remind people of senior leaders. They are outstanding members of the Young Pioneers and have special emblems. I wanted so badly to be one of them when I was a child.”
The flowers integrated into the composition Mask Series 1999 no. 2 represent a significant, highly coveted motif, since they appear in only a rare number of Zeng’s works. Zeng had previously expressed the way he associated flowers with the unattained hopes of childhood, which can also be interpreted as a utopian view of the world.
Motifs found throughout the Mask Series are frequently tied to Zeng’s childhood experiences, making this body of work strikingly autobiographical. Gladys Chung, editor of the artist’s Catalogue Raisonné, posits: “The fact that the Mask Series began with a self-portrait is quite illuminating, because it raises the question of the fundamentally autobiographical nature of this cycle of works that is, of course, a manifestation of the artist’s self-expression and retrospection.”
“Before any other Chinese artist, Zeng Fanzhi captured the aesthetic underpinning of modern urbanity in a consumer society. The man’s sophisticated couturier outfit reflects as yet another regime of social control, and the pain of exposed flesh with its power of raw life is evident under the restraint of his anonymous business suit.”
While Zeng’s Mask Series is distinctly personal, the themes of anxiety and isolation are universal. These works are compelling reflections of the zeitgeist, and the rapidly changing social and political landscape of China in the 1990s. The artist not only engages with the alienating effects of rapid urbanisation, but also captures shifting attitudes. Zeng’s masked protagonists are frequently portrayed in Western suits and red ties. In Mask Series 1999 no. 2 the reclining figure is depicted in this archetypal cream suit and blue shirt, which had been trendy amongst China’s newly wealthy urban population. The gradual change in attire was seen across society, with many prominent figures and officials adopting this new form of dress. Chung notes how the proliferation of Western suits, rather than the earlier styles of the grey Mao suits, signified the coming of a new era.
In a 2007 New York Times interview, Zeng said, “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.”
Zeng’s later Mask paintings are typically more vibrant and set in more elaborate landscapes, as typified by Mask Series 1999 no. 2 and its radiant colours that shine from the canvas. The beautifully-rendered flowers stand out in their meticulous representation, differing from the simplicity of the background and evocative of the flowers of Fang Lijun in his chromatic Cynical Realist works. There is an underlying tension between the beauty of these flowers, the apparent nonchalant pose of the figure, and the painful, raw skin that peeks out from under his mask and is evident on the man’s red hand. Further, the slight feeling of discomfort is reinforced by the wide, staring eyes of the mask and its aloof expression. Zeng seems to be interrogating the notion of falsehood, demonstrating how everything is not necessarily how it seems on the surface.
“[Zeng] began creating art from a higher artistic plane than that of the ‘85 Generation. He did not need to consider, as they did, how to use artistic tactics to criticise culture or society or pursue the sublime… He was never burdened with thinking about how others painted; he simply followed his heart, using colour and lines to express the pressures and loneliness of contemporary life.”
Sotheby’s is delighted to present Mask Series 1999 no. 2 in the Contemporary Evening Auction (27 April, Hong Kong) alongside another important painting from the same distinguished private collection. The grouping features another giant of contemporary Chinese art: Yue Minjun.
The smiling man by Yue Minjun no doubt remains at the forefront in representing the 1990s decade in Chinese art. Yue’s identical faces, seen in Hat Series – Within, Without the Great Wall (2005), are not only self-portraits of the artist, but also portraits of a generation who must both live under the remnants of Cultural Revolution and adapt to the rapid modernization of Chinese society. Yue’s work uses humour and satire to allude at the disenchantment beneath the dazzling smiles. In recent years, widely espoused by the media, the smiling man also becomes synonymous with the domain of Chinese contemporary art, propelling Yue to greater heights on an international scale.
This group of works feature celebrated artists who have shaped the discourse around Chinese art and culture, informed by social, political and artistic revelations in China in the latter part of the 20th century.