"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."
Untitled (Mask Series) from 2004 is a singularly superior painting that elucidates the style and conceptual vision of one of China’s most celebrated contemporary artists. Replete with symbolism, idiosyncratic expressionist flair and many of the artist’s most iconic hallmarks, the work should be considered as an apotheosis of Zeng’s career. There is the red neckerchief and uniform of the Young Pioneers, which features in many of Zeng’s paintings including masterpieces such as The Last Supper from 2001; the enlarged hands with exaggerated veins knobbly knuckles; the watermelon, also featured in The Last Supper as well as other important works like Self Portrait from 1996; the rocky mountain peak inspired by Liu Chunhua’s Chairman Mao Goes to China; and of course, the mask itself and the eerie wide-mouthed grin. The casually reclining posture of the figure is a seldom-seen and exceptional compositional choice of the artist, marking this piece as a particularly outstanding painting within Zeng’s oeuvre; with the masked figure leaning back to enjoy his picnic of watermelons, the composition is evocative of masterpieces from the Western art historical canon such as Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. In every element of the work, Zeng plots China’s social-economic development in cultural, aesthetic and artistic terms, rendering the present piece an archetypal mature piece that exhibits Zeng Fanzhi at his finest.
Zeng was schooled in the renowned Hubei Academy of Fine Arts from 1987 to 1991, home to eminent alumni such as Ma Liuming, Xu Wentao and Wei Guangqing. While there, Zeng trained predominantly in a Social Realist style, a background in part responsible for the pathos that enshrouds the subjects of his paintings. Independently, outside of the studio, Zeng steadily developed his own techniques. The approaches he was being instructed in had left him dissatisfied, and out of this dissatisfaction grew an individual style – a distinctive mélange of methods that matured both within and beyond the classroom. The nascence of the eminent Mask series coincided Zeng’s relocation to Beijing in 1993, a move which presented a drastic departure from rural Hubei. The dynamism of the city overwhelmed the artist – in particular, what unnerved Zeng most was the dramatic tension between outward appearances and inward emotions, which for Zeng 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” (Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, “Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation”, New York Times, May 3 2007). The mask is powerfully employed as a potent symbol of hiding, of the ‘poker face’ and fraudulence; however, the narrative would not be complete without the exaggerated depiction of the subjects’ hands. Critic Li Xianting summarizes it succinctly: “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”.
Compared to earlier paintings in the series, the present work displays a heightened refined technical and compositional virtuosity. Zeng no longer portrayed his subjects before a mustard-colored backdrop but instead experimented with different settings, creating both depth and breadth within the painting. The present work engages playfully with works from the earlier Society series, which features figures standing upright atop a mountain peak – a scene reminiscent of the iconic painting Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan by Liu Chunhua. Liu’s painting portrayed Mao’s impressive presence against the vast backdrop of mountain and sky; echoing Liu's magnificent portrayal of Mao, the Society series reveals Zeng’s formidable ambition in his representation of the modern Chinese man caught between tradition and modernization, illustrating the anxiety and unrest rumbling beneath the process of urbanization. By presenting the figure in a casually reclining instead of upright position, and by replacing the motif of Mao’s umbrella with a smashed-open watermelon, the present work manifests as shrewd parody of Liu Chunhua’s work as well as Zeng’s own earlier Society series. Watermelons appear often in Zeng’s oeuvre, featured prominently and abundantly most notably in the artist’s record-holding masterpiece The Last Supper. As a symbolic motif, the structure of the watermelon – with its smooth and hardy green exterior contrasting vividly with the intense red of its fragile flesh – also points to the tension between external calmness and internal anxiety. Mashed and crumbling, rendered in intense red, the meat of the fruit is also redolent of the flayed and butchered meats from Zeng’s earlier Meat series, with the red hue suggestive of the Chinese communist party’s identity.
In keeping with the best of Zeng’s praxis, Western art-historical reference is also rife in the present work. Max Beckmann, who had a profound impact on this Chinese contemporary master, is expectedly important. Just as Zeng’s status as an artist who rejected Socialist Realism in newly capitalist China was uncertain, Beckmann used his self-portraiture to call the validity of his occupation into question. The German Expressionist’s work was self-deprecating and loaded with symbolism; he was able to take a sideways glance at society in a manner that was directly comparable to the artist at hand. Beckmann also served as stylistic precedent to Zeng: his Self-Portrait with Red Scarf features the same thin modelling, the same approach to distorted human figuration, and even the same distinctive neckerchief – although here it is deployed with entirely different meaning. The Young Pioneers in China was a mass youth organisation for children aged from six to fourteen, organised by the Communist Youth League. The red neckerchief and uniform in the present work thus not only represents Zeng himself as a child of Communist collectivism growing up in an increasingly capitalist world , but also emblematises the wider socio-economic state of China. Consummately executed, the present work stands as a superior paradigm within Zeng Fanzhi’s oeuvre.