Lot 1083
  • 1083

ZENG FANZHI | Mask Series

Estimate
4,000,000 - 6,000,000 HKD
Sold
7,320,000 HKD
bidding is closed

Description

  • Zeng Fanzhi
  • Mask Series
  • oil on canvas
  • 85 x 100cm
signed in Chinese and Pinyin and dated 1998.9

Provenance

Private Collection
Christie's, Hong Kong, 27 November 2010, lot 1027
Acquired by the present owner from the above sale

Catalogue Note

From Mask to Self-Portrait
Zeng Fanzhi

In the mid-1990s, China was transforming fast. Chinese officials started wearing suits and ties… Everybody wanted to look good, but there was an air of fraudulence in it. I felt that the thing they wanted to change was their appearance, and I represented this feeling in the earlier pieces of the Mask series. - Zeng Fanzhi

The overall effect is of people who are trying to suppress their emotions in order to present an air of calm—yet they are betrayed by their hands; they are unable to conceal their hands. - Li Xianting

Wholly iconic and each instantaneously arresting, Mask Series and Sky Series: Self-Portrait are superior archetypes of different periods of Zeng Fanzhi’s larger-than-life oeuvre and encapsulate the singular aesthetic of one of the most seminal artists of contemporary China. The 1990s was a time of great maturation for contemporary Chinese art. Equipped with the rigorous training of Social Realism, artists of the time held the fate of the traditional portrait in their hands and updated it according to the rapidly changing times. Departing from the idealism of the 80s, their portraits became highly individualistic in style, earning them international recognition and acclaim. Zhang Xiaogang’s Blood Line: Big Family series, for example, is a surrealist record of the traumas of a generation of Chinese people. Fang Lijun, on the other hand, used portraits of bald men to convey the “thick-skinned” and “bald-faced” philosophy and attitude shared among the Chinese during the 1990s. During the same period, the artist Liu Xiaodong used realist but not entirely representational techniques to convey the joy and exuberance of the Chinese youth. And during this very time, Zeng Fanzhi, in an Expressionist style, penetrated and portrayed the psychological state of the Chinese person from a personal perspective.

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, Zeng received training predominantly in a Social Realist style, a background partially responsible for the pathos that enshrouds so many of the subjects of his paintings. And yet, independently, outside of the studio, Zeng steadily developed his own techniques. The approaches he was being instructed in had left the artist dissatisfied, and out of this dissatisfaction grew an individual style that can be likened to German Expressionism; a distinctive mélange of methods that matured both within and beyond the classroom. The eminent Mask series, for which Zeng made his name, is a body of work that emerged from the artist’s Hospital series. The masks are often discussed alongside the artist’s relocation to Beijing in 1993, a move which was overwrought with difficulty for the artist, and represented a drastic departure from the familiar, more rural environment to which he was accustomed. The dynamism of the city represented to the artist a dramatic tension between outward appearances and inward emotions, engendering a feeling of tension and anxiety, which at the same time pointed to a broader rupture in the traditional culture. "In the mid-1990s, China was transforming fast”, Zeng observed, “Chinese officials started wearing suits and ties… Everybody wanted to look good, but there was an air of fraudulence in it. I felt that the thing they wanted to change was their appearance, and I represented this feeling in the earlier pieces of the Mask series" (Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, “Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation”, New York Times, May 3 2007).

The mask is a potent symbol of hiding, and Zeng employs such a motif by using a palette knife or scraper to flatten the surfaces of his subjects’ faces. His technical inspiration came from a few of the later paintings in the artist’s Meat series, a time during which he began to experiment with the palette knife. “I got the idea that I could use this technique in painting a person wearing a mask, a large painting, so that the effect would be obvious”, he notes of his earliest Mask creations. Still, according to Zeng, his subjects’ attempts to hide away or cloak their feelings and put on a ‘poker face’ is unsuccessful, and Zeng communicates this by exaggerating dramatic tension whilst depicting his subject's hands. Art critic Li Xianting observed that “the overall effect is of people who are trying to suppress their emotions in order to present an air of calm—yet they are betrayed by their hands; they are unable to conceal their hands". 

At the turn of the millennium, Zeng began adding abstract lines to the masks, marking a new foray into Abstract Expressionism in his work. Zeng’s adoption of luanbi (loose-brush technique) is perhaps his most significant stylistic change, beginning in 2002. This style came from Zeng injuring his right hand, and then experimenting with using his left hand to paint. The result was that, from out of this accidental creative process, a new method of expression emerged – loose-brush lines or luanbi xiantiao. Zeng explored using luanbi in his landscapes, amongst which certain figures appeared, as in Sky Series: Self-Portrait from 2005. The work is rich in significance as it is situated at the very midpoint of Zeng’s exploration of lines, a project he undertook in the years 2001 to 2011. As such, works like the present painting look both backwards and forwards at Zeng’s oeuvre; alluding to past works as well as foreshadowing later ones.

Throughout his successful career, Zeng Fanzhi periodically looked inwards; scrutinising himself, and occasionally produced self-portraits that reflected the styles of this shifting artistic language. The use of the self-portrait in the present work is particularly significant as Zeng’s oeuvre is only peppered with a few of such internal investigations. Zeng once commented, “My figures are all pieces of a mirror; they reflect our inner selves, and our feelings towards other entities”. When exploring the Western influences behind the piece, meanwhile, one finds a palpable undercurrent of Jackson Pollock’s style. Zeng is no doubt well-known for drawing inspiration from different Western artists, such as Francis Bacon and Anselm Kiefer. However, when he turned towards his line paintings, a new stimulus came in the form of Pollock, whose line and drip paintings have formed the backbone of the West’s Abstract Expressionist movement. Pollock’s revolutionary “drip paintings” from the 1940s to 1950s were influenced by Surrealist styles, along with the concept of “psychic automatism,” a physical representation of the unconscious. Likewise, Zeng's luanbi Self-Portrait can be seen as a conscious and unconscious documentation of his self-exploration; at the same time constituting a powerful reflection on China's transformation from Communist past to Capitalist future.
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