Lot 1183
  • 1183

Zeng Fanzhi

2,700,000 - 4,300,000 HKD
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  • Zeng Fanzhi
  • Chairman Mao With Us
  • oil on canvas

signed in Chinese and pinyin and dated 2005, framed


Hong Kong, Hanart TZ Gallery, New Paintings by Zeng Fanzhi, March - April 2005, p. 38-39
Denmark, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Made in China: Works from the Estella Collection, March - August 2007, fig. 99
Jerusalem, The Israel Museum, Made in China: Contemporary Chinese Art at the Israel Museum, March - August 2007


Generally in good condition. Some minor cracking to the paint along the edges with some associated very minor paint loss.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Zeng Fanzhi is famous for his "Mask" series of the 1990's, paintings in which every character is outfitted with a mask hiding his or her true persona from society. The allegorical power of this sequence cannot be overemphasized, for the works speak to a social disconnect that ran through all classes of Socialist China—and that have reemerged in new forms amidst the radical economic transformations characterizing China's rise for more than a decade. Before the Mask paintings, Zeng painted the Meat and Hospital series, in which raw flesh and the vulnerability of illness, respectively, were monumentalized as poignant subject matter. While the subject matter of the paintings relates to personal memories and experiences, Zeng's heavily expressionist style was the result of his understanding exhibitions of works by Robert Rauschenberg, Edvard Munch, and Zao Wouki, masters in whom the young artist discovered a synthesis of technique with concept and subject matter. Academically trained in the late 1980's and early '90's at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts, Zeng subsequently discovered that the inspirational idea for painterly composition is, in large measure, the essence of a work's immediate and long-term impact.


In 2004, Zeng developed a new painting style, concentrating on landscapes and figural compositions within them. These works are unified by their innovative stylistic effects, in which an almost chaotic array of linear marks asserts their purely painterly presence while nevertheless serving representational purposes.  The wild grasses of the landscape, for example, are defined by repetitively 'drawing' long, slightly bent lines through wet paint. This build-up of linear mark-making creates a wholly different atmosphere from that of Zeng's earlier work, forming a netlike mesh that calls attention to the surface of the painting rather than simply what the painting depicts.


In Chairman Mao with Us (Lot 1183), a beautiful example of Zeng's recent technique, the artist reprises a theme that was popular with Socialist Realist artists of the 1970's: Mao as the beloved and protective father of a pair of children. Mao remains important subject matter for Chinese artists today—especially to those old enough to remember the Cultural Revolution, but even to those born after this climactic period. In Chairman Mao with Us, which presents three figures in a landscape, we see that both the white-shirted Mao and the youthful girl to the left wear the red scarf of the Young Pioneers, an elite group Zeng tried but failed to join in his own youth. The boy at right, somewhat shorter and therefore perhaps a bit younger than his female comrade, hasn't yet made it into the club, either.  But the trio of figures in the painting seems no less unified in their beaming satisfaction as they face the future together.


In traditional images of this kind, a low perspective serves to monumentalize the portrait subject or subjects; depicted from below, the central protagonist(s) appear to tower over the viewer in a grand, elevated manner. Here, however, the tall red and black grasses of the immediate foreground, reach above Mao himself, purposefully working against the monumentality of the referenced source material by all but scribbling over the faces of the figures. Indeed, one senses an ironic humor in Zeng's use of the source imagery in this way. Seeing the broad, optimistic smiles of the figures peeking through the tangled mass of grass, one thinks of Mao's absurdly ambitious five-year agricultural plans, intended to enrich all of China but inevitably failing to spark production. In Chairman Mao with Us, nature is portrayed as a profusion of material with a mind of its own; the young boy and girl are clearly happy for the Chairman's care and guidance amidst this aggressive thicket of Zeng's brushwork—particularly as the pale yellow sky above is streaked with long, horizontal bands of brilliant red, clearly indicating the setting of the sun. Will the Chairman find a path to shepherd the trusting children to safety before night falls? History will tell.


Zeng's own artistic history has already witnessed a number of stylistic twists and turns in which a remarkably intuitive and resourceful artist has been revealed. His most recent body of work, however, is unquestionably among his finest achievements in terms of its masterfully fluid brushwork and the sheer beauty of its painterly surfaces. On the grand scale of history painting - a history reviewed and ironically revised - Chairman Mao with Us is a fine example of this extremely gifted, innovative artist's work.