Zeng Fanzhi - Portrait
"If we consider Zeng Fanzhi's developing oeuvre as reflective of a psychological journey, where does that journey lead? Ten years ago the protagonists in his paintings were helpless victims inhabiting an illogical world. Next, they donned masks to participate in a realm of urban flaneurs sharing superficial relationships. Now the masks are off and the protagonists are utterly alone, stripped to raw flesh and dissolving. Having abandoned pretense, can they now rebuild a sense of self?"
-Britta Erickson, Raw Behind the Mask, 2001
The artist Zeng Fanzhi moved from Wuhan - a place he had lived his entire life - to Beijing in 1993. Despite this move, Zeng Fanzhi was not quite ready for the intense cosmopolitan environment and rapid development of China's capital city, a disjuncture often revisited in his works. Beijing and indeed China in the early 1990s was in the throws of a uniquely challenging historical situation, where superficial change altered the fabric of everyday life faster than ever before. The Chinese as a nation were not ready for capitalism, or for the new social performances thrust upon them as they were compelled into a world previously unknown. In these unfamiliar new surroundings, the creation of the Mask series insulated Zeng and allowed him to identify the kind of 'face' one was expected to show in polite society. The strong juxtaposition of contrasting elements gave the Mask series its powerful visual and emotional impact: the paradoxical image of tailored bourgeois suits and fitted masks coupled with the engorged hands and glimpses of skinned flesh with exposed sinews.
The Mask series began to dissolve in 2000 when Zeng began literally removing the mask from his subjects, exposing large gleaming eyes and the inner emotions of the depicted men and women. In his Portrait from 2007 (Lot 1026), we find a man elegantly dressed in a dark suit and gleaming red trench coat, and we see the deepening of Zeng's psychological and portrait studies by contrasting the work with other classical portraits and the artist's own earlier series. Classical Renaissance portraits, like those of Rembrandt van Rijn, focused on a minimum of details and attributes to bring their subjects to life (Fig. 1). Rembrandt in particular relied on the position of the hands and facial features, often in contrast to the dark clothes and deep chiaroscuro of the composition, to give a more psychological penetrating inflection to his portraits. This fundamentally classical approach to portraiture can be found in Zeng's works as well, albeit with the twists of his own artistic legacy and subjective disposition. Indeed, the parallels to Rembrandt extend beyond just compositional tools, as the artist was also a chronicler of the emergent merchant capitalist class of Amsterdam.
Zeng has stated, "I was interested in expressing the attitudes of moods of people, an individual person, and to do in a direct response, aimed at conveying the person's expression, emotion, thinking, and my own sense of that person" (I/We: The Painting of Zeng Fanzhi 1991-2003, Hubei Arts Press, Hebei, China, 2003, p. 56). As such, Zeng's works are not portraits in the traditional sense, but portraits of his own subjective feelings towards others. He takes the essential tools of portraiture and strips them to an even greater minimum than Rembrandt, leaving us only with his subject's sartorial choices, his sharp features, a casually composed posture and the slightest hint of an environment with the slashing diagonal stroke behind his heels, suggesting a street scene or interior wall. All other signifiers are eliminated, and the figure stands alone against the raw and starkly unarticulated canvas. Dressed with distinction, previously such a figure would appear masked, as he stands for a symbol of China's emerging middle class echelon of society, one penetrated by Western traditions and values. Unlike the figures of his earlier Hospital and Meat series, the men of Zeng's post-2000 paintings are immensely civilized (Fig. 2). In those works, Zeng's figures' features, poses, and expressions were marked by a dullness that spoke to their alienation from their environment, highlighting the cruel indifference of time spent in a bureaucratic environment like a provincial communist hospital. Here the figure is dressed fastidiously, in a dark fitted, black leather shoes, and a long, high collared, cardinal red coat. An emerald green shimmers from the lining of the coat and the pattern of his vest. The details of his dress are finely rendered, while the extremes of his figure dissolve into a smoky inkwash. The figure's material presence and literal materialism is therefore contrasted with his apparent annihilation. His features are sharp and exaggerated, to suggest a caricature and a probable likeness to someone, and yet to no one in particular. A surprising continuity can then be found in this oritrait with Zeng's earliest works. Over time, while his technique has become more refined, motifs and imagery have changed, but the blank, dulled expressions remain. Ironically, whatever suffering Zeng might have observed in his Hospital works, those paintings were still based on observations of a broader social milieu, of communities. Here, the social milieu is present by virtue of its absence. A newly capitalist, consumerist society has liberated the individual to become a free agent, agents of self-invention and self-representation. But Zeng suggests that this is an exchange of environments that has only replaced one alienation with another, leaving his subjects utterly alone with themselves. As such, Zeng once again demonstrates his extraordinary insight into the shifting dynamics of his social environment, and the emotional and psychological strain it places on individual lives.