Zeng Fanzhi’s portraits are globally celebrated for his use of expressionist representational techniques that document a prolific period of social and economic development in Chinese history. With an artistic career stretching across 30 years, Zeng Fanzhi has continuously sought to infuse western theories, calligraphy and social realism developing a body of work with symbolically rich and emotive images that have been universally lauded.
Based in Beijing, China, Zeng Fanzhi was born in Wuhan in 1964. Growing up during the later years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, his parents who were printmakers were avid supporters of his creative interests, even when the family struggled to make ends meet. At 16 he travelled solo to Shanghai after learning of a travelling exhibition of French art. The show, 250 Years in France, surveyed paintings from every stage of French art history1. The show left a lasting impression on Zeng Fanzhi and would influence his art in the years to come. Honing the technical skills of social realist painting, Zeng Fanzhi studied Fine Arts at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts from 1987 to 19912. Frustrated with the restrictive teaching methods, he trudged through his studies feeling uninspired as the curriculum consisted only of communist-approved art training, far from the colourful expressionist works he witnessed in Shanghai as a 16-year-old.
Figure (Mask Series) 1999 is striking in both its colourfully rendered composition and compact size. An anonymous masked figure stands in front of an idyllic beachside setting. Zeng Fanzhi’s distinct colour palette here is vivid, the figure illuminated with joyful yellows, blues and pinks all rendered to perfection, reminiscent of the key traits in social realist paintings from the mid-20th century. The subject appears youthful, healthy and well clothed, evoking a sense of prosperity and success, a heavy contrast to his critique on the current social problems faced by his homeland. Like many works by Zeng Fanzhi during this period, the face of his subjects are almost always obscured by a white mask. From 1994 and until 2001, this period became known as his Mask Series3. Revealing common feelings amongst the Chinese population, this concept prevents the viewer from seeing the figures true emotions.
Between the subject and viewer lays a bed of pink and white flowers in the foreground, a subtle acknowledgment to the brutalities of the Hundred Flowers Movement leaving citizens untrusting and scarred. Initiated by the government in the mid-1950s, the move was intended to engage intellectuals, students and artists who were previously alienated by the Chinese Communist Party. Encouraging them to express their opinions freely, it was designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and progress of science. Following this brief period, those who spoke out were persecuted, resulting in convictions, re-education camps and executions4. The artist’s signature oversized hands are down by the subject’s side, natural to the figures mid-stride motion. Zeng Fanzhi’s reference to the enlarged hands and head speaks to the shared anxiety amongst his subjects. As critic Li Xianting summarises “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”.
Zeng Fanzhi’s deceptively simple depictions are carefully crafted constructs of the Chinese landscape in which he found himself in. Steeped in symbolism and hidden meaning, Zeng Fanzhi depicts the relationships between individuals and society, especially during times of political change. As an accomplished artist, Zeng Fanzhi has chosen to live and work in his home country with the intention of supporting other contemporary artists whose practices do not follow the Social Realist constructs. In 2009, Zeng Fanzhi represented China in the Venice Biennale, and in 2013 he exhibited at the Musée d’Art Moderne and the Louvre in Paris. With a practice unparalleled in the world of Chinese contemporary art, Zeng Fanzhi has also been recognised internationally. In 2007, he scored his first 7-digit auction result in London, multiplying the low-end estimate by 11 times. In 2008 a work from his Mask Series fetched US$9.6 million in Hong Kong (five times its mid-range estimate), reaching his height in 2013 at US$23.3 million for his work The Last Supper, marking his place as one of the world’s highest selling contemporary living artists.
1. Zeng Fanzhi-Biography and Legacy, The Art Story, theartstory.org/artist/zeng-fanzhi/life-and-legacy/
2. Li, Xianting, Zeng Fanzhi, ShanghART Gallery
3. Erickson, B., Zeng Fanzhi: Raw Beneath The Mask, Shang Art Gallery, Shanghai 2001
4. Short, P., Mao: A Life, Macmillan, New York 2000 pp. 457–471.
Lucy Foster | Fine Art Specialist
Banner Image: ZENG FANZHI (Chinese, born 1964) Figure (Mask Series) 1999, coloured pencil on card, 20 x 18cm | $60,000 – 80,000