Zeng Fanzhi: The Artist Behind the Mask

Zeng Fanzhi: The Artist Behind the Mask

On the occasion of Sotheby’s Hong Kong offering an exceedingly rare work from the artist’s famous Mask Series this spring, we take a look at why the painting remains deeply relevant in the context of contemporary China.
On the occasion of Sotheby’s Hong Kong offering an exceedingly rare work from the artist’s famous Mask Series this spring, we take a look at why the painting remains deeply relevant in the context of contemporary China.

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 emphasise the tension between the external and internal self – i.e., appearances and emotions. Within the series, the appearance of certain motifs, present rare and tantalising 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”
Zeng Fanzhi

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.”
Zeng Fanzhi, ‘A Restless Soul- A Dialogue Between Li Xianting and Zeng Fanzhi’ by Li Xianting, ShanghART, 2003.

Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series 1999 no. 1, 1999 | Estimate: 8,000,000 – 15,000,000 HKD

Emerging to auction for the first time in well over a decade, Mask Series 1999 no. 1 is considered an exceedingly rare work – portraying a central protagonist gazing into a mirror appears in only two works from the Mask Series.

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.”
Johnson Chang

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. Turned away from the viewer towards an expanse of grey, reflective mirror, the central figure of Mask Series 1999 no. 1 gently strokes his own face, hesitant yet earnest, in a desperate search for meaning in a reflection he does not see to recognise. Whilst the stoic, detached expression on his mask remains unchanged, his fleshy hands betray an inward struggle, surrendering a shred of his own emotion.

In a 2007 The 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.”

The mature Mask Series 1999 no. 1 encapsulates, most elegantly, the allusive symbolism and suspenseful undercurrents of the series which reverberate with feelings and emotions lying just beneath the surface. Although Zeng first included the mirror motif as early as 1994, having a central protagonist gaze into a mirror appears in only two works from the Mask Series, making the present work an exceedingly rare example.

The decade-long journey of the Mask Series documents one of the most influential artistic endeavours of contemporary art, continually decoding the meaning of individuality in the modern world while breaking away from the barriers of self-doubt, silence and misunderstanding.

“[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.”

Contemporary Art The Hong Kong Sales

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