signed in Chinese; dated '96' (lower left)
The First Academic Exhibition of Chinese Contemporary Art, Ning Nan Arts Publishing Co., Guangzhou, China, 1996 (illustrated, plate 1, p. 76).
Zeng Fanzhi 1993-1998, ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai, China, 1998 (illustrated, p. 50).
I/We: The Painting of Zeng Fanzhi-1991-2003, Hubei Fine Arts Publishing House, Wuhan, China, 2003 (illustrated, pp. 110-111).
A History of Art in Twentieth-Century China (Revised Edition), Peking University Press, Beijing, China, 2009 (illustrated, p. 1025).
Zeng Fanzhi: Every Mark Its Mask, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, Germany, 2010 (illustrated, pp. 60-61).
New China, New Arts: Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Artists, Artist Publishing Co., Taipei, Taiwan, 2010 (illustrated, pp. 106-107).
Thirty Years of Adventures, Timezone 8, Beijing, China, 2010 (illustrated, p. 397).
Zeng Fanzhi: Parcours, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing, China, 2016 (illustrated, p. 83).
Masterpiece of an Era, Best of the Mask series
Zeng Fanzhi is the most popular Chinese contemporary artist in the international art scene. After his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art City of Paris, followed by another one at the Louvre, his artistic creations have since been well recognized by the highest art institutions of the West. This unique honor not only serves as a milestone in the history of the individual life of the artist, but also as a particular one for Chinese contemporary art after 30 years spent catching up with the West, displaying its parallel excellence.
The Mask series, which began in 1994, is a key period of creative time for Zeng Fanzhi. At the same time, it also serves as a crucial starting point of self-awakening for Chinese contemporary artists. Zeng no longer look up to the Western masters in the past, while successfully making use of the artistic language learnt from them.
He reveals the state of survival in Chinese society after the economic development of the 1990s, discussing the hidden feelings of self-desire in the hearts of modern people. He no longer imitates the language of Western artists, but rather develops a parallel dialogue on creative methods, symbolizing an important change in Chinese contemporary art history. One of the pieces created during his early period, Mask Series 1996 No. 6 (Lot 173) , uses the composition of group photography to represent a small-scale society in China. Whether it represents the key point in the creative process of the artist or the symbol for the group experiences about this time, it can be said to be the masterpiece of the era, as well as the best work of the Mask series.
Realistic Trauma, Emotional Agitation
In 1991, Zeng begun his career as an independent artist before graduating from the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts. The first stage of his creative career mainly consisted of his Hospital and Meat series. Through the expressions of brushstrokes, he focused on presenting the pressure and trauma of the figures spiritually. In the eyes of these characters, mostly a sense of hesitation and helplessness is revealed. The silent composition is like a voiceless prayer, filled with the sense of pessimism that the artist has felt his entire life. Zeng once said, "At that time, I lived in a place close to the hospital, and I could see people queuing and waiting to see doctors inside, as well as many accidents and rescues of patients every day. I suddenly felt that these were exactly the kind of feelings I wanted to draw.” Zeng just simply thought that he should use his heart, along with colours and lines, to present the people he felt a connection. The difficulties and loneliness they possess have become the juncture for his creations of three consecutive great works, such as Hospital Series among others.
In the early stage, a sense of heavy oppression in his paintings was not only represented by expressive lines, but also by the cold white colour and bloody flesh tones to highlight the depressed atmosphere which the artist wanted to convey. Once, after seeing the scene of someone lying on raw meat to cool off, Zeng involuntarily put the skins of all characters under his paintbrush into the colour of raw meat. The anxiety and cruelty stirred something in him, making him release his inner feelings onto the canvas. Since then, it has been more than ten years. He said, "In the beginning, it was a single piece of flesh without any human. Later, I mixed some flesh with people, for example: people and meat lying together, meat placed below, people lying on top ...... whereas I have always been thinking, that’s why I wanted to paint this way. Later I thought that it might be some other feelings which made me paint in this way. I thought that the colour of the human skin and that of the meat sometimes were very much alike. There was also a leg out, pressed down by something, and things chopped off from those meat, all placed together. When I saw them, I thought about this feeling I had about humans.” As if venting one’s mood, the characters under his brushstrokes are enlarged in the head as well as their facial features, while the representation of hands are especially prominent. The joints of the bones on their giant palms are distinctly seen. These protruding joints, with rugged dynamics, produce an intense psychological entanglement. The profound grasp of Zeng’s understanding about flesh and blood shows his feelings regarding life and death. This sense of flesh and blood has become the medium of exchange for the artist and the viewers on an emotional level, showing extraordinary strength and quantity. With the artist leaving home and living in different places, the extroverted characters in the paintings have shifted gradually to become more inward, one by one starting to put on masks, and ultimately contributing to the unique artistic style of the Mask series.
The Origins of the Mask Series
In 1993, Zeng moved from Wuhan to Beijing. Faced with feelings of indifference about interpersonal relationships in the big cities, he experienced the "loneliness of the individual self and alienation among groups" expressed by the Nobel Prize winner, Albert Camus, in his world famous novel, The Stranger. Surviving in a time of rapid change and urban development, people have to cover their own desires from others in accordance with the realities of their living environment, creating a public image for camouflage. Zeng uses masks to allude to the feelings of distance and alienation among people, covering the sense of anxiety and estrangement of modern people behind the masks. He has taken the contradictions of one’s inner self against the reality of the environment as a creative structure, thus starting the Mask series for as long as ten years.
A thrilling and symbolic sign
Zeng once discussed the origins of the Mask series in his talk with Li Xianting. He said, "I dislike to paint only to complete these things as tasks for work. I still hope to get a feeling of happiness in the process of painting, whether this kind of happiness is venting or just an expression of something. To tell the truth, I found out later that I was already a little faking it at that time. I felt that this could not allow me to go any further, and I failed to paint. Of course, at the same time, my style was always somewhat changing and usually I paid attention to skills. I used occasionally palette knife to paint hospitals and meat as well. I wanted to use these techniques to paint a person wearing the mask and paint him big to see how it felt. I tried it and didn’t think too much, but the visual effect was good. Many changes of mine at that time were because of the emphasis on the visual feelings.” To break through the limit of his artistic path, Zeng has extended the characteristics of highlighting the images to strengthen the inner emotions, those were originated from expressionists Max Beckmann and Francis Bacon. By chance, he tried to put on the masks for the characters with his brushwork. Through adding the thrilling symbolic sign to enhance the visual effect on canvas, this new change of style also happened to coincide with the conflicts and contradictions he felt inside. It captured his own lost mental state of surviving and compromising himself to fit reality under the development of society.
Till the mid-to-late 1990s, the Mask series has already evolved from a narrative style of the third-person perspective to the elaboration of a personal experience. He has departed from the grim depiction in the past. In the Hospital series, he has portrayed the characters like a story plot, showing a two-way emotional interaction by using two kinds of roles of doctors and patients. Until the Mask series, Zeng was no longer standing in the role of an observer, but he placed himself inside the picture, focusing on the deeper spiritual layer of the symbolic masks, while implying with his image of the alienated indifference and the lost of the self. The principle for making his characters can be traced back to the Theory of Painting Life like Portraits in the Eastern Jin Dynasty by Gu Kaizhi, which also has influenced the historic development of Chinese figure paintings. Gu brought forth the idea of “using shape to portray the reality”, in which through depicting the external appearances the painters could show the inner monologues and the personality traits of the characters. Furthermore, Zeng’s Mask series is just that: through painting the external shapes, he can grasp the inherent nature of the characters. On a similar basis of forms, he uses masks as the symbol to show further the disturbed mental state of the masses at that time.
The Symbols of Red Neckerchiefs
In Mask Series 1996 No. 6, apart from the red neckerchiefs, all the clothes, objects and gestures are filled with the influence of Western capitalism. Every one of them-the shirts, t-shirts, skirts, belts and others-are passed from the West into China representing a cultural infiltration in 1990s China. The red neckerchiefs represent the ideology of communism, while at the same time, carrying the colours of Occident, such as the image of ties. Karen Smith in her article Visions of Sights: Zeng Fanzhi's works of art, 1991-2003 mentions: In conversation, Zeng Fanzhi reveals that, like Proust, he is consumed by memory, by the habitual act of prompted remembering, of not being able to forget, no matter how or what. In the atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution, members of the Young Pioneers of China would be granted a red neckerchiefs symbolizing glory and serving as proof of recognition by the organization. However, in his childhood, because the teachers didn’t like him, he came to be one of the only three students who couldn’t become the members in the class of fifty-four people. This shadowy event has since been deeply inscribed in his memory. After growing up, the image of red neckerchiefs has often appeared in his artworks. In Self-portrait (1996), Zeng put a red neckerchief on himself. On the one hand, he yearned to become a member of this collectivism. On the other hand, it was a comfort to his traumatized youth. Each character in Mask Series 1996 No .6 wears a red neckerchief, symbolizing unity. The man on the second to the right obviously highlights the painted canvas, since he is the only individual wearing clothes of high-tone colours. The contrast of the sky-blue shirt and the yellow background is very strong, making a distinction from the rest. However, the appearance of this character, dressed in a blue T-shirt and red neckerchief looks the same as that in the Self-portrait created at the same year. One cannot help but think whether the artist perhaps put himself in the role within the painting.
The Evolution of the Mask Series
“I never let my painting remain in a particular place. Once the initial mood has dispersed, I begin to turn to other ingredients, other feelings.” This is how Zeng explains his own creative mentality and process. Forever conducting inward reflections, he has never compromised on artistic achievement for the sake of convenience, while challenging himself endlessly. His Mask Series 1996 No. 6 marked a fundamental difference with the works from his earlier career in 1994. The atmosphere to his works became even more pure, while background colours gradually went from dusty gray, earthy yellow, and other turbid tones to the three primary colours of red, yellow, and blue. The dynamics of earlier restless figures became harmonious. Yet, their overly intimate body language suggested a sense of helplessness hidden within them. Warm and charming colours stand completely in contrast with indifferent, alienating and numb emotions, enabling Mask Series 1996 No. 6 to become the artist’s most spiritual and representative masterpiece.
The Mask Series 1996 No. 6 and The Last Supper
Mask Series 1996 No. 6 and The Last Supper are both extremely rare group portraits of Zeng Fanzhi’s Mask series. In 2008, Mask Series 1996 No. 6 set the world record for a work of Chinese contemporary art at an auction. This record was only broken in 2013 by The Last Supper. In one fell swoop, he set two world records for the auctioning of Asian contemporary oil paintings. In 2016, Wu Guanzhong’s The Zhou Village broke another auction record at Poly Auction Hong Kong, setting the current world record for a Asian contemporary oil painting. For Mask Series 1996 No. 6 to show up at another auction in ten years would be an extremely rare occurrence.
Mask Series 1996 No. 6 adopts the rare diptych format of the Mask series. Its composition is more like that of a fixed photo, which focuses on describing the details of a portrait. The artist uses a bright monochromatic background to contrast the refined details of the human figures. Whether the pairs of big spasmodic hands filled with blood vessels, or clothes with folds caused by dynamic motion, it is not difficult to find the precise treatment used by Zeng during his earlier stages. Mask Series 1996 No. 6 can be described as the origin of the group portraits of the Mask series. To highlight the importance of the figures in the painting, the artist uses a flat background as the foundation. From a minimalistic monochrome tone, he unfolds a story-like narrative. The harmony between the figures suppresses the expression of inner feelings. This strong contrast presents the artist’s in-depth exploration of the psychology of the painting’s protagonists, while delicately reflecting the artist’s personal conditions at the time. In fact, this is the sincerest expression of his own story.
In contrast, The Last Supper is a later masterpiece of the Mask series, created five years after Mask Series 1996 No. 6. The time arrangement of The Last Supper is comprised of continuous action. In the painting, Jesus and his disciples converse with one another using vivid gestures and physical movements. On the table, the watermelon symbolizes the distribution of power, while Chinese calligraphy hangs on both sides. The creative method to The Last Supper focuses on the story narrative, and the display of the background and props. Through the reinterpretation and deconstruction of a famous scene from the Bible, the artist conducts an overall comparison between Western capitalism and Chinese communist collectivism. The creative concept is already divorced from the descriptive depictions of personal memories seen in his earlier stage work. Furthermore, Zeng uses a macro view to allude to the greater environment, yet also through a more indirect and obscure approach. This is different from the inner turmoil and personal roles found in the paintings of his earlier works.
An Important Milestone in the History of Chinese Contemporary Art
The Shanghai Biennale was first officially held in 1996, as if echoing the state of development in academia. That same year, Lorenz Helbling established the first widely recognized Chinese contemporary art gallery in Shanghai at the Portman Ritz-Carlton. During a time when the concept of contemporary art was still gradually taking shape, the opening of the ShanghART Gallery undoubtedly represented a giant leap forward in the development of Chinese contemporary art. Lorenz Helbling once said, "Zeng Fanzhi is one of the artists most influential to the shaping of the Chinese culture of today." Helbling first collaborated with Zeng Fanzhi in 1998, for Zeng's Mask series which served as an important representation of Chinese culture and lead other artists in pushing aside international barriers. The Mask Series 1996 No. 6 displayed during the exhibit was not only used on the invitation card covers, it was also the focal point of the exhibition, further symbolizing the gallery and artists' recognition of the uniqueness and importance placed on this piece. This piece is unparalleled in its interpretation, understanding, and imagination toward the state of the current social status quo in China's current.
Beyond the Existing Aesthetic Frameworks of East and West
“All along I wanted to find an artistic voice that belonged solely to me, without being affected by any great masters.”
Like the Western masters, Pablo Picasso, Zeng Fanzhi utilizes a creative style that continuously changes along with the course of his life. His personal breakthroughs, verification of East and West, and non-opposing relationship between traditional and avant-garde art creates an unique context that surpasses both ancient and modern. Beginning with German expressionism before subsequently developing a symbolic Mask series style, Zeng utilizes a mature artistic language to launch his first pinnacle stage, in which Mask Series 1996 No. 6 serves as a key masterpiece.
The Mask series plays an important role in the creative process of Zeng Fanzhi. The conveyance of subjective emotions of extreme expressionism develops into an abstract expression of an infinite cycle of brushstrokes. The Mask series plays the role of a bridge between figurative and abstract, while viewed as an irreplaceable pivot for Zeng’s creative process. After 2000, he covered the figures in his paintings with spiral-shaped lines, announcing a breakthrough in abstract style. Later on, he further merged deconstructed linear calligraphy into his works, while extending them into the completely abstract scenery of his works. In the process of transformation from figurative to abstract, Zeng abandoned the nutrients derived from familiar Western art theories, and instead refined the spontaneity of freehand calligraphy into Western abstract expression. While complying with the norms of brushwork in traditional Chinese calligraphy, he created the brushstroke effects of his Chaotic Strokes series, successfully opening up the distance with Western abstract painting. Furthermore, he has recently been using a series of paper works to hint at a return to Chinese traditions. While converting from Western to Eastern techniques, he opened up an unprecedented dialogue. After several trials, he broke through the existing Western aesthetic framework, liberating inherent aesthetic concepts and creating a value model that transcends the binary relationship between East and West. This is unprecedented in contemporary art history.
The Evolution of the Mask Series
Actually I wanted to paint in a rather radiant yet also very pretentious manner, just like a kind of setting on the stage. What man seeks is a kind of self-comforting. The man is in a posture that awaits someone to take pictures of him. Including his hands, the entire person poses himself like a downtown man with illusory pride…After I came to Beijing, I didn’t have many friends with whom I could truly open myself. I had a mixture of feelings when meeting new people, and I had to interact with a lot of them… I had to learn to get along with strangers in a new environment, and these feelings stirred me deeply, so I think the paintings are a reflection of things in my heart, not necessarily all people’s. It’s just my personal feeling.