Mask: The Breakthrough
The paintings are about real people. I exaggerate and embellish the figures to emphasize what's behind the forced intimacy and laughter. -- Zeng Fanzhi
Last year, Zeng Fanzhi's solo exhibition “Parcours” at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing was the flagship event for the institution and also the artist's mots complete solo exhibition in China to date. The exhibition demonstrated the full scale and breadth of Zeng Fanzhi's diverse oeuvre, beginning from his Hospital series of the late 1980s to his Mask series starting from the mid-1990s and through to his Abstract Landscape series in the 2000s. Transitioning from a figurative style to an abstract aesthetic, and exhibiting a complete mastery of Eastern and Western art, Zeng Fanzhi occupies an important position in international art circles. His work has been shown in countless exhibitions around the world in recent years, including a major retrospective in 2013-14 at the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris have also featured his paintings, and in 2015, the Gagosian Gallery in New York hosted a solo exhibition for the artist.
Created in 2000, Mask Series No.6 (Lot 1025) is an exquisite painting from the series of the same name. Having remained in a private collection in Europe since its creation, this artwork is appearing on the auction market for the first time. The artist takes the Western classical figurative tradition as his foundation and paints in an Expressionist style, adopting a different perspective from that of Western portrait masters such as the Irish painter Francis Bacon or the British painter Lucian Freud. This series of paintings depicts the generation of Chinese people who experienced the transition from Socialism to Capitalism. Zeng uses Symbolism to expand the possibilities of painting in the new Chinese context and form his own distinctive artistic style. Having spanned more than twenty years of the artist’s career, the Mask Series, begun in 1993, is Zeng Fanzhi’s most important creative project. The series displays the artist’s observations and stylized interpretations of Chinese people amid the process of urbanization. Moreover, it participates in the re-imagining of national portraiture that has preoccupied many key 1990s artists, including Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijuin, and Liu Xiaodong.
Compared to Zeng’s earlier works in the series, Mask Series (2000) is more polished and mature. It represents the artist’s transition from his earlier expressive style to a more precise style of painting with meticulous brushwork in its presentation of Chinese people amid the process of urbanization. The people in the painting are white-collar workers wearing suits. They sit on the railing beside a river and look steadily at their observer. Their fine clothing and impassive masks conceal any human emotion; the anxiety of urbanization is hidden behind their masks, which steadily stifle any hope of emotional catharsis.
As it was, the 90s was a time of great maturation for contemporary Chinese art. These artists were equipped with the rigorous training of Social Realism, the traditional portrait converging with the times in their very hands. They departed from the idealism of the 80s, and stepped forward from a broader starting point, their portraits 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, 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-‘90s, 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.”
Zeng Fanzhi’s art has assumed such power in the context of contemporary China not simply because of its considerable formal merits, but because this artist’s story is that of so many of the current new elite. Born into humble circumstances, they have made their way through society with a rigid determination and tactical savvy that often calls for the kind of self-concealment that Zeng’s paintings so poignantly depict. Zeng belongs to the second generation to come of age after Reform and Opening, ever so slightly distinct from the lionized ’85 New Wave artists that came before him. As critic Pi Daojian—a professor at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts during Zeng’s student days, and among the very earliest observers of his work—has noted, “[Zeng] started his artistic activity from a higher place than the ’85 Generation. He did not need to think, as they did, about how to use artistic tactics to criticize culture or society or pursue the sublime…He was never burdened with thinking about how others painted, he just followed his heart, using color and line to express the difficulties and loneliness of contemporary life".