Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong

Zeng Fanzhi
B. 1964
signed in Chinese and dated 92.6 
oil on canvas
130 by 95 cm; 51⅛ by 37⅜ in.
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Private Collection
Cheng Xuan Auctions Co., Beijing, 7 November 2005, lot 266
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner


China, Beijing, Longrun Art Gallery, Zhou Chunya, Zeng Fanzhi, Ji Dachun, 2006, unpaginated, illustrated in colour
Korea, Seoul, Gallery Hyundai, Zeng Fanzhi 1989-2007, 7 - 25 March 2007, unpaginated, illustrated in colour
Singapore, Singapore Art Museum, Zeng Fanzhi: Idealism, 30 April – 3 June 2007, p. 219, illustrated in colour
France, Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Zeng Fanzhi, 18 October 2013 – 16 February 2014, p. 107, illustrated in colour
China, Beijing, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Zeng Fanzhi: Parcours, 19 September – 19 November 2016, p. 21, illustrated in colour


The Paintings of Zeng Fanzhi, ShanghArt Gallery, Shanghai, China, 2006, unpaginated, illustrated in colour
Zeng Fanzhi Every Mark Its Mask, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, Germany, 2010, p. 44, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

Meat. In the beginning I just painted meat. Then I painted meat and men together … To me, the flesh of men and the flesh of meat were of the same colour … In my later paintings, it was that colour of flesh that I used.

Zeng Fanzhi

Evincing with arresting immediacy a stark, unadorned carnal intensity, Meat from 1992 is an extremely rare early masterwork from Zeng Fanzhi’s acclaimed oeuvre – the first painting from the artist’s defining Meat series and one of the most important early works in the Chinese master’s career. While Zeng Fanzhi’s name is synonymous with his universally iconic Mask series, which began in 1994, it was his preceding Hospital (1991-1992) and Meat (1992) series that marked the sublime emergence of the artist’s epochal aesthetic and the initial establishment of his recognition within Chinese art circles. Works from these two series were produced in Wuhan, Hubei, before the artist moved to Beijing in 1993. These pre-Mask, pre-Beijing and pre-fame works evince a primal visceral passion – a raw hunger of an extraordinary force that can no longer be detected in his later more refined Mask paintings. The present work from 1992, being the genesis of the Meat series which both anticipated and influenced the artist’s later Mask series, is a fascinating and powerful work that manifests as the fulcrum of Zeng Fanzhi’s creative genius, categorically setting the direction of his legendary era-defining oeuvre. During Zeng’s 2013-2014 solo exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the present work was hung prominently right next to The Last Supper, the artist’s magnum opus that currently holds the artist’s world record auction price – a testament to the significance and importance of Meat, both within the artist’s oeuvre and in the context of the entire history of Chinese contemporary art.

In 1991, Zeng had just graduated from art school. He was living near a hospital, the Wuhan No. 11 Hospital, and visited it often to use its facilities because his house did not have a lavatory. Beside the hospital was a butcher’s shop, and the two sites combined – hospital and meat stall – deeply impacted Zeng Fanzhi’s early work, giving rise to his Hospital and Meat series. In the Hospital series, Zeng captured scenes that depicted the patients’ fragility and suffering that evoked general existential conditions of modern China. In the artist’s words: “Every day I saw patients standing in line waiting to be seen. Every day I saw emergencies and desperate treatments. Suddenly I thought: here is the feeling I want to paint”. The pathos of the Hospital works opened up new expressive possibilities for Zeng; he subsequently began the concurrent Meat series, taking the butcher’s stall adjacent to the hospital as his subject. In the Meat works, Zeng seized on the dynamic visual interplay between the flesh of men and the flesh of carcass. The artist recalls one particular striking scene: “In summer it was scorching in Wuhan City, and at that time there was no household air-conditioning. In some places there were electric fans but not in every place. There was a store selling meat. All the meat was carried from the meat processing factory. The whole meat was an ice block, iced meat. A lot of people were sleeping on it, and it was very comfortable lying on it in summer. I took some photos and then painted the picture”.

The prime significance of Zeng’s Meat series, vis-a-vis the concurrent Hospital series and the ensuing Mask series, lies in the colour red – the colour of flesh. By painting human flesh and carcasses in similar colours and techniques, Zeng asserted a potent visual connection or even conflation between the two subjects: if human bodies are bought, sold and even ‘hung’ like pork, what about souls? The crimson bloody hues in the Meat works laid down an important signature style for the artist: whereas Hospital Triptych No. 1, painted in 1991 before the Meat series, was rendered primarily in brown tones, Hospital Triptych No. 2, painted in 1992 and exhibited at the Guangzhou Biennale of the same year, displayed a new blood-red palette. The artist himself explains: “To me, the flesh of men and the flesh of meat were of the same colour, seen in a stretched out leg and a stack of chopped meat […] In my subsequent Hospital paintings, it was that colour of flesh that I used”. Most notably, the crimson hues of flesh continued into Zeng’s iconic Mask paintings – into the exaggeratedly rendered hands of his masked figures that belie the quaking tremors of social anxiety; Zeng’s figures don masks, attempting to conceal their psychosocial identities and emotions, and “yet they are betrayed by their hands; they are unable to conceal their hands” (Li Xianting).

Albeit being a mere fresh graduate at the time, the Meat and Hospital series reveal not only Zeng’s precociously matured vision and style but also extraordinary technical skill; at this early age, the young artist had already found his unique painterly voice. The present work reveals traces of influence of German and American expressionism; during this period, Zeng often turned to Max Beckmann and the early canvases of Willem de Kooning to study their brushwork. Being the only work in the Meat series to feature only meat, the present work also holds its ground within the long historical lineage of still life meat and carcass paintings, recalling masterpieces by the likes of Rembrandt, Jean-Baptiste Chardin and Chaim Soutine, amongst others. In contrast to traditional still lifes, however, Zeng references Francis Bacon in linking meat to the human condition – and specifically for Zeng, to the individual’s pathological relations to greater systems of power. Hung in a packed and compressed disposition, the vivid flesh in Meat appears at once vitally anthropomorphic, eager to stretch and come alive yet restrained and resigned – a singularly compelling metaphor on the carnality of daily life in the rapidly developing China of the early 1990s. In the artist’s own words: “I have experienced the drastically changing environment in China and I cherish the experience because it has provoked emotions that are so intense”. The gripping pathos of the Meat series was short-lived, as Zeng only continued the series for a year before moving on to painting Masks in 1993; accordingly, as the first work of the series, the present masterpiece stands as an unquestionably rare and important painting within Zeng Fanzhi’s oeuvre.

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong