- Zeng Fanzhi
- Mask Series
- oil on canvas
- 220 by 145 cm.; 86⅝ by 57⅛ in.
Private Collection, Asia
“I maintain the incontrollable feelings and magnify the sudden weak feelings.”
It is rare that an artist’s oeuvre has become so renowned that it requires little to no preamble. This statement is no truer than when it concerns Zeng Fanzhi, the contemporary Chinese artist that has taken the contemporary art world by storm. So recognisable have his unique masked men become, that they seem to be borne of a different vein than the German Expressionism that was responsible for breathing life into them. The piece on offer, Mask Series (Lot 49) is no different. The striking piece is a curious blend of the aforementioned German Expressionism, Social Realism, and Abstract Expressionism. It is also laden with many of the symbols that have underscored Zeng’s career, such as the infamous mask, Maoist jacket, engorged head and hands as well as the blank glower of the solitary character. Not only is Mask Series rare due to its large size; a size that does not feature often in the present series, it is also a powerful example of the artist’s more mature work.
Towards the end of the nineties and into the early part of the twenty first century, Zeng’s works became more refined and controlled. Instead of placing his figurines against mustard backgrounds, the artist experimented with different scenes, including the mountain range in the current work. These scenes reflected a frustration with city life; rendering the Mask Series an extremely ironic piece. At the turn of the 2000s, Zeng’s former anger and pathos could still be found in the rawness of his masked men’s hands, and their bloated heads. In trying to reflect his dissatisfaction with the falsity of city life, Zeng stretched white masks onto the faces of his men and women; but the redness of their faces peeking through only served as a tragic reminder that the humanity behind the disguises were no longer evident.
Mask Series is a unique melange, weaving into its tapestry many strands of inspiration. At first glance, we are met by a violet sky cascading into cream, before it dissipates into a deep plum colour at the foot of the painting. The figure is standing against a Rothko-esque skyline, similar to Red, Orange, Tan and Purple, which was completed by the Abstract Expressionist artist in 1954. Within Rothko’s canvases always existed a hypnotising effect; colours that espoused a connection with the natural world. Although he borrows from Rothko for his background, Zeng’s work in fact reflects on the insignificance of humanity in the face of nature, which is reminiscent of classical Chinese paintings, where vast landscapes were used to emphasise how miniscule and hugely inconsequential humans are. The 2001 Mask Series distorted this idea, allowing for characters to appear in desolate landscapes verging on the apocalyptic, while lonely figures swell to fit the entire canvas. The characters are both important and trivial; bulging to fill tall works, yet they all also appear undeniably alone, almost abandoned in these empty scenes, injecting a profound sense of emotion into the piece.
This piece also heavily evokes the Social Realist styles of the Cultural Revolution. One can draw links to Liu Chunhua’s famous Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan, as well as Chen Yifei’s Eulogy of the Yellow River. Mao’s long coat in the former painting is somewhat alluded to in the current piece, as well as the locale being a mountain top. Even more fitting an image is Chen’s piece, the colour palette so resembling the present Zeng painting. The solitary figure in the Chen work is enclosed by pastoral beauty, where a boundless, idyllic mountain range is stretching behind him as he stands proudly, bayonet in hand. Coincidentally, the colours used in this painting are inversed in Mask Series; the buoyant smile the Chinese youth wears in Eulogy of the Yellow River is contrasted by the stoic face of the mask-wearer. Rather than holding the bayonet, Zeng’s character’s tense arm is empty; strangely poised at the same angle as his weapon-holding counterpart. In this way, the Social Realist influences seem to be employed by way of exploring the history and progress of modern Chinese art in Zeng’s world. By evoking the art history that formed the backbone to the art movement he himself was part of, Zeng is directly aligning himself with the rich yet turbulent history of China; conjuring just the right amount of imagery to create a comparison, but allowing enough distance to make his art his own.
Zeng is also unashamedly inspired by Expressionist art. One finds this in the visceral pieces he once painted, such as his Meat and Hospital series; the sanguinity of meat and body rendered in unforgiving strokes. This painting method resembled lacerations on the canvas, as if the artist was carving out his subjects into the piece itself. This obsession with meats bore a striking resemblance to one of Zeng’s heroes, Francis Bacon’s works. Bacon once commented, “I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion. There’ve been extraordinary photographs which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death…”1 This preoccupation with meat and mortality translated into a lot of Bacon’s works; often producing troubling pieces of art.
This fixation on mortality was especially translated into Bacon’s landscape paintings. In Study of a Figure in a Landscape, one senses the loneliness of the purple figure amidst a field of yellow stalks. The man, crouching; or perhaps sitting, is alone in facing the throes of life. The sombre indigo colour that Bacon so famously employs heightens this lonesome effect.
Interestingly, the same colour palette can be found in Zeng’s Mask Series, which acts as both a homage to Bacon but more importantly, an extension and powerful rendition of the expressive works. The title, Study of a Figure in a Landscape, seems so fitting to the entire 2001 Mask Series landscape works, as if Zeng was in fact literalising its title and translating it into his own powerful pieces. The current Mask Series piece is no doubt a particularly strong echo of the late master’s oeuvre, but is also a stunning exemplar of Zeng’s prowess.
Zeng’s investigative mood into the mechanics of city life seems to be aptly yet ironically relayed by the mountain scene of Mask Series. The work of Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, completed in 1818, seems a strangely suitable parallel to Zeng’s contemplative piece. Both figures are atop mountains, the sole figures in unbridled natural beauty. In spite of the calmness of their surroundings however, there is a solemn current underlying the scene.
This solemnity reproduces itself in the feature of the eyes, which resemble barred circular windows. In a peculiar addition, the eyes seem to be identical to the astrological symbol for Earth. The circle represents earth, while the four quadrants, or the four cardinal points are shown through the cross itself. In what is perhaps an unwitting allusion to Pagan symbolism, Zeng may be casting an ironic shadow through his statuesque masked man. Despite the connection with nature, Zeng’s city dweller remains undeniably false; although he is in the midst of nature, without the need to be false, he still feels nonetheless the need to veil himself, as if it has become second nature to him. Through such use of irony, the artist reveals himself as an individual who truly understands and grasps the human condition.
Many of the Mask Series from the late nineties and early part of the twenty first century are set above the same lonely precipice of a nebulous mountain top. However, the ominous setting sun bleeding into the landscape, along with its impotent observer is quintessentially Zeng Fanzhi. Despite the stranger’s helplessness, there is an undeniable sense of hope on the horizon. Standing in the twilight, the figure awaits a dawn of new beginnings.
1 David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London: Thames and Hudson, and New York: Pantheon Books, 1975 Interview 1: October 1962, first broadcast on 23 March 1963, first published 14 July 1963