- Zeng Fanzhi
- Mask Series No. 14
- signed in Chinese and dated 1994
- oil on canvas
- 149 by 129 cm.; 58⅝ by 50¾ in.
Poly International Auction, Beijing, 31 May, 2007, lot 713
Acquired by the present owner from the above sale
Lü Peng, The Story of "Art" in China - from Late Qing to Present, Peking University Press, Beijing, China, 2010, unpaginated
“It is almost impossible to confide in each other as everyone hides their true nature, so that when they appear in public, the outer mask is all everyone else sees.”
In the earlier part of the nineties, the vindictive style in which Zeng’s works were executed; the distressed dispositions that gawked at famous curator and art critic Li Xianting who was inspecting his works, seemed at odds with the youth of its painter, a mere fledgling then in his late-twenties. The young artist’s rare talent was refreshing yet unexpected; demonstrative of a prowess beyond his years. This exceptional ability can no less be found in the 1994 work on offer in this sale, Mask Series No. 14 (Lot 50), a monumental piece in the series that would one day become synonymous with Zeng’s name. The rare work on offer is also from the earliest segment of the Mask sequence, a collection of initial works that spanned only two years. Its rarity is furthermore instantly evident when one considers the grey mask, an item that makes an appearance only twice in the entire nineties collection. In addition, Mask Series No. 14 was first showcased at “Behind Masks: Zeng Fanzhi” presented by Hanart TZ Gallery in 1995, the first exhibition the artist participated in outside of Beijing. Its harshness, and raw intensity, would soon disappear as Zeng’s canvases gave way to more refined strokes.
Zeng was schooled in the renowned Hubei Academy of Fine Arts from 1987 to 1991, home to alumni such as Ma Liuming, Xu Wentao and Wei Guangqing. While there, he received training in a predominantly Social Realist style, which may explain the pathos that enshrouds so many of his characters. And yet, while alone and out of the studio, Zeng steadily developed his own techniques. His dissatisfaction with the approaches he was being taught brought forth an individual flare that can be likened to German Expressionism; a distinctive melange of methods that matured both within and beyond the classroom.
The present piece, part of the eminent Mask series for which Zeng has made his name, is a body of work that promptly grew out of the Hospital phase. The masks are often discussed alongside his move to Beijing in 1993, which was overwrought with difficulty for the artist, and represented a drastic departure from a familiar, more rural backdrop. Mask Series No. 14 is a unique example of the restrained disdain that the Hospital series gave way to, and serves as a prime sample of a new movement that would mark a decade-long exploit for the artist.
“In the mid-‘90s, China was transforming fast,” Zeng observed. “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, and these are the feelings that I represented in the earlier Mask series.”1
The uniqueness of Mask Series No. 14 is immediately apparent when one sets eyes on the rare opaque grey mask clamped onto its stoic wearer. The leaden mask, which is uncommon among its counterparts of mostly whites, off-whites, and mustards, is eclipsed by a shadow to the figure’s right. The man’s countenance is virtually unreadable; his seemingly hollow eyes offer no insight into his psyche. His hair, moulded to a perfect standstill, divulges no amount of humanity, resembling an object such as a helmet more so than anything organic. His clothing looks almost sculpted; the exaggerated crinkles and folds as if in a heightened state of humanisation, reproduced and overstated to imitate life rather than act as a reliable portrayal of it.
Zeng’s use of masks evokes the dramatic Chinese opera usage of lian pu, a technique involving painting the face of the actor to represent key characteristics of the role he is playing. In Mask Series No. 14, the grey colour of the mask, between black and white, respectively representing moral uprightness and neutrality, and cunningness, seems to symbolise the ambiguity of the individuals in society as seen through the artist’s eyes. The use of masks was also extremely common in the German Expressionist styles that inspired Zeng, such as can be found in Emil Nolde’s Masks (1911). Perhaps even more fitting was Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s employment of masks, which can be seen in works like Street, Dresden (1907). With the same departure as Zeng, Kirchner wanted to epitomise the disintegration of human interaction, which are conveyed in the gaudy colours he uses.
Zeng reflected similar things as Kirchner in his works, except rather than using luminous bright colours; his works were much more understated. The canvas is dominated by dull colours; yet, the lack of emotion, or humanity for that matter, is betrayed by a slither of rubicund flesh peeking from behind the grey mask. The exposed neck, forehead and ear are the only indications of life; the only colours visible on the canvas. This brief glimmer of crimson is reminiscent of Zeng’s Hospital and Meat series, works that were dominated by grizzly scenes of flesh and blood. In other earlier works, Zeng granted his masked figurines glimpses of flesh; the unusual restrain the artist exercises in this particular piece intensifies the falsity and inhumaneness he sought to capture. Mask No. 14 is thus a valuable piece that documents the paucity of human compassion.
The flippant, rough and aggressive strokes also reminds one of the macabre doctors and contorted meats in the Hospital and Meat series, two bodies of works that presented their titular concerns in meticulous manners verging on obsession. The coarseness of Mask Series No. 14 is reminiscent of how cold a city can feel; a visceral emotion that becomes polished and constrained in Zeng’s later pieces. The settings of these later works are also multifarious, and the characters comical. In comparison to these, the present work is much more controlled, and yet in this work is a latent sense of energy. Standing against a dull yellow panel, the work also conjures up a feeling of the city’s lights draping themselves on passers-by.
The distinct omission of hands strips from the man the last vestiges of his character, alienating him from us. At once a statue; at once a caricature of the average city-dwelling man, this figure is frozen in a lonely state trapped amongst clones. Although they all don identical costumes, each of Zeng’s mask-wearing individuals have nothing else in common; perpetually trapped behind masks that distance rather than unite them. However, the level of exclusion in this piece is rarely seen in other works. Coupled with the loss of the hands, Mask No. 14 is an exceptional and sober reminder of humanity.
There is a sense of resignation in Zeng Fanzhi’s Mask series; a sense that the persons in his Mask series have conceded to their fates. In this piece, the anger and frustration Zeng feels towards his fellow citizens, carved out in baleful strokes that frame them, materialise into nothing more than an acquiescent slump of the shoulders. In the present work, which is situated midway through the Mask paintings, this criticism, so imbued with irony, is even more bathetic, and more valid than in Zeng’s previous pieces. The opaque mask serves as a rare insight into just how deeply impenetrable modern society has become, acting as a valuable precursor to many more veiled men to come.
1 Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, “Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation”, New York Times, May 3 2007