Summary of Zeng Fanzhi
For over three decades Zeng Fanzhi has been working to clear a path for Chinese art that offers a frank critique of contemporary Chinese life while creating an art historical dialogue between East and West. Zeng's oeuvre shifts between portraiture of artists, of himself, and of everyday workers; abstract color fields; landscapes; and satirical figurative works. Dedicated to the utilization and representation of emotion in painting, his works are challenging, hard-hitting, and evocatively rendered reflections on political and personal worlds.
- Zeng Fanzhi's most important contribution to contemporary art and painting is in his critique of communist-era Chinese propaganda, including the restrictive controls on art and artists, where Socialist Realism was the only permitted figurative painting model, featuring idealized images of political leaders and happy, healthy citizens.
- Zeng's paintings present his own hybrid identity comprised of Western and Eastern influences (artistically, personally, and stylistically) and broader East/West hybridity brought on by increasing globalization. He also often challenges Westernization and Chinese tradition simultaneously in one painting, presenting complex renditions of global relations today.
- His early work used thick, painterly techniques to reproduce flesh and meat - creating haptic, corporeal images of contemporary China through the literal bodies of the country's everyday workers and citizens.
- Later, masks became an important signifier of loss, alienation, and the whitewashing of Asian identity in Zeng's work, where white-masked figures repeat themselves in different groupings.
- His recent work includes abstract techniques to render landscapes, whose process (for example painting with two brushes simultaneously) gives them complex political meanings for example challenging the idealized landscape of a famous nationalist poem, thus continuing his interest in place and the weight of recent history in China.
Progression of Art
Hospital Triptych No.1
This larger than life triptych was Zeng's graduation piece, and it marked a huge shift in contemporary painting in China at the time - presenting menacing, fleshy, and nightmarish visions of realities of the people he saw in daily life, in stark contrast to the clean symbolic idealism of the state sanctioned Socialist Realism of the time.
The paintings are dominated by brown and grey tones and depict scenes from a hospital; patients waiting in a hallway; a naked figure facedown on an operating table surrounded by surgeons; and a full ward of clearly miserable and sickly patients convalescing. While the first painting might be read as fairly benevolent, the claustrophobic crowd of surgeons around the prostrate naked figure in the middle panel and the grinning doctor in front of suffering patients in the third panel suggest a class-based suffering in which vulnerable patients are powerless at the hands of sadistic doctors, who might also represent other kinds of powerful authorities.
Scenes witnessed by Zeng in a hospital in his hometown inspired those depicted in this work, as well as in other pieces from his Hospital series. He explains, "I used to walk to the Academy [of Fine Arts]. Life was very different then, we were poor, I mean really poor. I lived next to the hospital and we didn't even have a toilet so I used those of the hospital every day. What I saw left a strong imprint on me." At the same time, he was studying German Expressionism, including works by Max Beckman and the work of Willem de Kooning, focusing his work on the intense emotions that accompany social upheaval.
Zeng painted this piece for his final senior show at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts in 1992. It caught the attention of Li Xianting, China's leading art critic at the time. Li brought the work to Johnson Chang, owner of the Hong Kong gallery Hanart TZ, where he had a solo show five years later.
Oil on canvas - Ullens Center for Contemporary Art
This painting, along with others from the Meat series, bears many similarities to his Hospital series, with its muted grey-brown color palette and harsh, aggressive brushstrokes. This image shows a back room of a butcher shop, with two large knives hanging on the wall, and several meat hooks hanging from the ceiling, many holding animal carcasses. Several other carcasses lie on the floor, partially covered by a white sheet. There are two male human figures in the painting. One stands behind the pile of meat on the floor. He is wearing white boxer shorts, a white vest, and is holding another carcass. The second figure stands at the front of the image, topless, in white boxers, and bloodstained running shoes. He is holding a lit cigarette and looking out at the viewer. There is a great deal of blood in the image, smeared across the floor and walls, and on the human figures themselves.
Like the Hospital series, Zeng's Meat series was inspired from his day-to-day experiences. On his way to school, he passed several butcher shops, where he often saw workers lying on top of frozen meat in an attempt to cool down during the hot months. He recalls, "As a young man, these were vivid and indelible images that conjure powerful and mixed feelings. One of those was hunger because we were poor. But also horror as the blood of the meat stained the workers and handlers. I used a lot of red during this phase of my work, the color repulsed yet fascinated me at that time."
Again, we see that Zeng refuses outright to follow the rules of Socialist Realism in Chinese art, in which figures must be represented as "decent, grand, and deprived of any imperfection", rather painting meat workers, who both fascinated and repulsed the artist when he encountered them in the street. Through color, brushstroke and a sameness in rendering flesh (of both dead animal and meat worker) Zeng proposes an equivalence of bodies, reminding us that human beings are also constituted of flesh, or meat, and suggests the objectification of people as things in oppressive societies.
He also plays with religious iconography in his paintings, allowing potential religious associations to complicate the meaning of the work. In this image, for instance, the white sheet covering the meat on the floor elicits associations with the shroud that covered the body of Christ, while meat and bleeding bodies in the bible symbolize both sacrifice and salvation, leaving open questions of what is offered up in this composition of bloodied bodies, and to whom? This painting presented a radical challenge to Chinese art and painting at the time of its production, and remains affecting and unusual in an international context via its uneasy ambiguity.
Oil on canvas - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Mask Series No. 6
This painting depicts eight youths wearing t-shirts and red kerchiefs around their necks. All of the figures also wear white masks with huge, toothy smiles. The group poses amicably, with their arms around each other's shoulders, as if they are posing for a group photograph. The background is solid yellow.
This work, from Zeng's Mask series, came about shortly after he relocated to Beijing. Of this time he recalls, "It was a drastic change; everything was so monumental in scale. I felt a total sense of solitude, of isolation." These feelings spurred his Mask series. He explains, "China was changing very fast in the '90s, people wore suits and ties. But you could tell they were uncomfortable inside. There is a tradition of performing with masks, and I painted every character with a white mask on."
He felt that he, as well as the other modern Chinese urbanites, were obliged to hide behind figurative masks, hiding negative feelings of sadness, distress, and loneliness and instead pretending to be happy and thriving. Thus the masks represent an invisible barrier that exists amongst people. The white masks he paints bear a strong resemblance to masks used in Chinese opera, and also reference the 'mask' of Western dress and modernity, the mask of whiteness Zeng references in his recollection of the changing face of China in the 90s.
The exaggerated expression on the masks indicates that the facade they present to the outside world holds the figures hostage. The seamless way in which Zeng's masks fit on to the wearers' faces indicates that they go beyond the purely physical, instead being deeply entrenched in each person's psyche.
The figures in this particular painting are recognizable via their red kerchiefs as Young Pioneers, the youth movement of the Communist Party in China. Zeng had grown up during a time when every schoolchild aspired to receive the red kerchief, a sign of acceptance and achievement in the Little Red Guard. Years later, he still resented being denied this reward by a teacher at his elementary school that he describes as "strange" and "vindictively abusive", leaving him as one of only three children (in a class of fifty-four) without it. He was routinely mocked and bullied by his peers for not having a red kerchief. The figures' oversized hands make them both comical and disturbing, cartoonlike, but also able to cause physical harm.
Both a critique of the Westernization of China due to global business practices, and of oppressive Chinese regimes, this Mask painting is an important document of Western and Chinese relations in the 1990s.
This enormous painting broke auction records in 2008, and became the highest-grossing work by a contemporary Asian artist.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
In this, Zeng's second known self-portrait, the artist depicts himself against a golden-yellow background (monochromatic wall and floor). On the wall behind him is faded Chinese writing. Several smashed watermelons lay strewn around him. The artist stands at the center of the frame, wearing Western clothing (an unbuttoned trench coat, crumpled trousers, and a blue t-shirt) as well as the red neckerchief signifying communist China, which appears in many of his other works. His signature oversized hands are down by his side, and he gazes out calmly at the viewer.
This work not only embodies self-exploration for Zeng, but also an exploration of Chinese national identity. By combining the red kerchief, a symbol of his upbringing within communist collectivism, with western attire, Fanzhi is representing not only his own hybrid identity, but also the increasingly globalized identity of the People's Republic of China. The kerchief also alludes to childhood, as the Young Pioneers who wore those kerchiefs were between the ages of six and fourteen. When viewed in tandem with the faded Chinese calligraphy on the walls, much like that which would be found on the walls of any typical Chinese classroom, Chinese viewers of this work would be instantly transported back to their youth. This calligraphy also reminds Chinese viewers of the tradition of literati portraiture, where scholars would accompany their own self-portraits with poetic ruminations on their philosophies, written in an ornate, calligraphic style. The smashed watermelons in the painting serve as a proxy for raw flesh, at the same time as their red hue symbolizes Chinese communism and its ruins. The violence apparent in the torn, smashed watermelons contrasts sharply with the calm demeanor of the figure of the artist, creating the sense of tension between chaos and serenity, typical of nearly all of Zeng's artworks.
We also find Western Art historical references in this work, particularly to Max Beckmann's Selbstbildnis mit rotem Schal (Self Portrait with Red Scarf) of 1917. Both feature the artists with a red scarf around their necks (albeit with very different cultural significance), as well as distorted, over-sized hands. Zeng's referencing of Beckmann, an artist who used self-portraiture to question the validity of his occupation, is fitting, as Zeng struggled for many years as an artist rejecting Socialist Realism in newly capitalist China.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
In this huge abstracted self-portrait, the viewer is confronted with a close-up shot of the artist's face (from just below his lips to just above his eyebrows), rendered in swirling corkscrew-like brushstrokes.
With this painting, Zeng discomforts the viewer by rendering his face so large and close up, with the features moving in and out of visibility as the viewer moves towards and away from this towering canvas. The abstracted, ringlet-like "screen" through which the face is seen (not unlike the abstracted effect Chuck Close applies to his portrait paintings) serves a similar purpose to the masks in his previous work; he is indicating to the viewer that it is impossible to truly know someone, no matter how close you may be. Zeng states that "I paint portraits of myself quite a bit, and even as my techniques have become more sophisticated, these portraits are my process of discovery and searching for my own identity." However, through the use of the title "We", the works in this series go beyond self-portraiture, implicating others (perhaps his Chinese compatriots, or perhaps humankind more broadly) in the meaning of the work.
Oil on canvas - Saatchi Gallery
This Land Is So Rich in Beauty 2
This landscape painting is composed along a diagonal axis, from top left to bottom right. Above this line is a thick cluster of leafless trees and bushes, while below the line is snowy ground. Several erratic brushstrokes create a chaotic frenzy of lines superimposed above the natural setting.
In creating this, and his other landscape works, Zeng employs a technique wherein he uses two brushes simultaneously: one to depict the figurative landscape, while the other "leav[es] traces of his subconscious thought processes." In this way, he uses Abstract Expressionist and earlier Dada and Surrealist techniques to leave traces of the psychological tension within both his personal psyche, as well as within contemporary Chinese society and culture. Even without including human figures, Zeng manages to represent loneliness and vulnerability in the work. He explains, "As I paint, I create yet destroy. One of the brushes is creating while the others have nothing to do with me." He attributes his inspiration for these frenzied brushstrokes to Willem de Kooning, saying "I have been fascinated by de Kooning's lines since I was at college. His brushwork gave oil paints an irritating and maybe even agitating sense, as if something were being torn off and ripped. It embodies an impact that touches other senses, including that of sight and physicality."
The title of this work, and others in the same series, This Land So Rich in Beauty, comes from a poem by Chairman Mao Zedong. The tension created in the paintings, through the use of dual brushes and brushstroke style, is meant to offer a critique of Chinese propaganda, which exaggerates the beauty of the country and suppresses any expression of discontent. The same poem by Mao Zedong also describes "the beautiful landscape clad in white snow in the rising sun", a scene which Zeng has astutely reproduced here, but overlaid with a screen of disorder and agitation.
Oil on canvas - Saatchi Gallery
This painting features the building in Tiananmen Square, painted in bright red, yellow, and orange, with an abstracted rendering of the face of Chairman Mao painted overtop. Mao's eyes and forehead are clearly visible against the blue sky, while the rest of his face from the nose down is more obscured by its superimposition over the building.
The recognizable images in this painting (namely Mao's face and the building at Tiananmen Square) serve as symbols of China's troubled recent past. Specifically, the site is remembered as the location of the famous June 4th massacre, where student-led popular demonstrations, which received strong support from the general public, were met with a forcible military response from the government, who sent in assault rifles and tanks, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties. The artist's use of wild, erratic brushstrokes (much like those used in his earlier works) further emphasizes the psychological turmoil prevalent over the past few decades with the figure of Mao looming as "a lingering ghost presiding over popular consciousness." After graduating from university, Zeng was appointed for a short time by the government to work at an agency that produced nationalist propaganda, thus he is intimately familiar with the techniques used by the rulers, making him the ideal artist to critique it in his work as in this piece which overlays the highly recognizable and much reproduced (in both the East and West) image of Mao with one of the country's most violent atrocities.
Oil on canvas - Saatchi Gallery
Van Gogh III
Zeng was commissioned by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to recreate six of Vincent Van Gogh's self-portraits, with his own spin. For instance, the work re-created here is Van Gogh's Self-portrait With Linked Ear And Pipe, Arles (1889). Zeng opted to faithfully recreate the paintings, and then overlay them with his own signature style of erratic, frenzied brushstrokes, which symbolize anxiety, angst, and inner turmoil - a fitting tribute to an artist with a troubled psyche.
Zeng explains his reasons for focusing specifically on Van Gogh's self-portraiture, stating "To me, Van Gogh might have been reflecting on himself by constantly turning to self-portraits, making this genre an important area in his oeuvre. The self-portrait served as a window for him to express himself, and he referred to it constantly in his correspondences with other artists. I aim to study him via the same window." Self-portraiture has also been of high importance in Zeng's own oeuvre. He considers this to be an important process he needs to go through during every significant period of his life or career, through which he can engage in a process of "internal inspection". He explains, "After each experience of self-observation and reflection, my past is seemingly emptied and I am reborn."
Zeng has admired Van Gogh since he was a student, saying "I came across his works in the March 1980 issue of Meishu, the cover feature of which was dedicated to Van Gogh. In 1982, when I was 18, I bought some posters of his works, among which Hospital at Saint-Rémy, painted in 1889, was my favorite. I even placed it on the wall near my bed so that I could look at it every day. The dynamics of the twisting pines and the unique compositional structure were inspirational [...] his paintings still excite me a lot. I can sense the courage with which he insisted on his own way. However harshly he was criticized, I know he was a man of perseverance. He showed no hesitation in any stroke of his paintings." Zeng says of the experience of creating the new works, "I gradually gained a deeper understanding of him - not as literally as this might sound, but in the sense that I, as an artist, came to perceive the spontaneous emotion of another artist." He continues, "The more I paint, the stronger the impression I get that Van Gogh is like a character from a fairy tale. I cannot explain why. But as soon as I finish the works, he becomes a legend in my heart."
Axel Rueger, the director of the Van Gogh museum, notes "Many of the works by Vincent Van Gogh have become so iconic that you always feel that you know them, and we tend not really to look at them anymore. That an artist really dares to enter into that confrontation again, and look at Vincent's work afresh, and ... do his own thing with it. That is for us of course, really interesting and really inspiring," It is also somewhat poetic that an Asian artist is the one to reimagine these works, as over one hundred years ago, Van Gogh was strongly influenced by the Japanese art of his time".
Oil on canvas - Van Gogh Museum
Biography of Zeng Fanzhi
Zeng Fanzhi was born in 1964 in Wuhan, Hubei, and grew up during the later part of the Cultural Revolution in China. His parents worked at a printing house, and he says that they encouraged him to take up painting "to keep me out of trouble, off the street." He recalls, "When I was young, life was so tough that it was difficult to think about one's future. At the time, the most important thing was whether we could make ends meet and feed ourselves. I think before my 20s the most important thing to me was whether I could feed myself."
He travelled all around China when he was young, often to see art exhibitions. In 1980, at the age of 16, he travelled alone by boat to Shanghai to visit an exhibition titled 250 Years in France, a survey of iconic paintings from every stage of French art history. Zeng says of the exhibition, "Almost every Chinese artist, including myself, thought of this show as required viewing and we rushed to Shanghai in a frenzy to study Western painting in person. I was amazed by what I saw". Then in 1986, he viewed Robert Rauschenberg's exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. He recounts that the exhibition "sent shockwaves through the avant-garde artist community in China. This moment woke virtually every young Chinese artist out of their slumber. We were shocked, we were inspired, but above all, we were instantly aware of how far behind we were. The Rauschenberg exhibition made manifest those impulses in my work which previously had been obscure and charted a course for my future."
Education and Early Training
Zeng dropped out of high school when he was 16 to work in a printing factory like his parents. In his spare time he took formal painting lessons, and decided he wanted to attend university for painting. He failed the university entrance exams five years in a row before finally succeeding. He says, "I was lucky that my parents did not pressure me or discourage me; they were very supportive and each year my exam marks got a little better until finally I got in."
Zeng attended the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts from 1987 to 1991, where he studied oil painting and developed a strong interest in German Expressionism. He says of his time at the Academy, "The biggest received experience was in using line, color and form to express my response to a topic, form or emotion. I learned to utilize my emotion to produce a deep reflection upon a subject rather than making a painting that merely illustrated something." However, he notes that it took him some time to find what worked for him, saying "I was very unhappy during my first two years of college. I felt that I learned nothing, but I was able to unlearn all the technical skills of my Socialist Realist training. We'd be asked to draw nude models, and I'd make some abstract drawing instead. I wanted to renounce all that I knew about art making and become someone who didn't know at all how to paint, which is why I started making abstract art. Around 1989, I began to feel emotionally connected to the abstract paintings, and looking back at figure drawing and portraiture, I suddenly found a direction."
While studying at the Academy, many of his teachers immediately recognized and applauded his rebellion against the prescribed genre of Communist-approved Socialist Realism. He recalls, "The head of the library at my school said if I wanted to see better art books, I should go to the library in Zhejiang Province. I took a leave and traveled three days and nights by train to Shanghai, and then another three hours to Hangzhou." It was there that he discovered the German Max Beckmann and the American Willem de Kooning.
By his third year of art school, Zeng had completed 45 works, all of which rejected Socialist Realism. His teacher, Pi Daojian, encouraged him to mount a solo show. Pi later recalled that Zeng "painted what he saw. He found his own way to express emotion." However, local propaganda officials took note of the dark, sullen attitude of the work and called Zeng down to the exhibition space where he was interrogated with questions such as: "What is the meaning of your paintings? Are you trying to make a political statement? Is this blood on his face?" He responded, "Yes, it's blood, but it doesn't mean anything." The authorities closed the show to the public, only allowing art students to attend.
Zeng didn't allow himself to be deterred by this, and continued to paint raw, bold images of hospitals and butcher shops, in his series Hospital and Meat. He says, "I went on trips to paint exotic landscapes with my classmates, but I wasn't inspired. I then decided to paint what's happening around me. Both series captured the lifestyle back then in Wuhan." These works impressed an influential art critic, Li Xianting, who encouraged Zeng to move to Beijing in 1993. Zeng says, "In Wuhan, people who see my work kept silent and some would smile. I could tell from looking at their faces that they thought I was mad painting subject matters like these. I knew I had to move to Beijing, I had been told contemporary art was more progressive there." Rather than settling into the artists' colony on the outskirts of the city, Zeng opted to live in a tiny, dilapidated apartment in the upscale embassy district.
Despite the initial difficulties that Zeng had in moving to Beijing, he said, "I love the cultural atmosphere here in Beijing. For instance, my life is not different to that of ordinary people. I go every day to the studio to 'work'; I try to find a balance between rationality and sensitivity, also between reality and the ideal." He continues, "In general today, the art community in Beijing is very active although the level still needs to be improved. Artists currently in China are living with the most fabulous historical background and social environment, it offers the artists the most diverse and powerful life experiences and stories".
In 1993, the same year he moved to Beijing, he had held his first solo show in Hong Kong. In 1998, an art curator in Beijing named Karen Smith introduced Zeng to Lorenz Helbling, a Swiss citizen who would go on to become the most influential Western dealer in China. Helbling has represented Zeng ever since. Eventually, Helbling introduced Zeng to François Pinault, chairman of PPR, the third largest firm in the global luxury sector, which controls brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint-Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Sergio Rossi, Boucheron, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, and Balenciaga. Zeng recalls, "Pinault had been saying he wanted to come and see my works. I drove myself, and on the way there was a car accident. I kept Pinault waiting for three hours. People were calling me and yelling: 'Where are you?' I nearly screwed the whole thing up." When he finally arrived at the meeting, Zeng said to Pinault, "I was only going to sell you one. But since I am late I will sell you two." In fact, the meeting was a success, with Pinault purchasing two of Zeng's pieces and expressed interest in acquiring more. One of the pieces that Pinault purchased from Zeng is a portrait of artist Lucian Freud, which Pinault displays prominently in his Belgravia home in London, in a $100,000 18th-century frame. In 2005, Pinault acquired the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, where he presented a portion of his collection, including works by Zeng. The two have become good friends, spending time together whenever Zeng is in Europe.
In 2004, Zeng caught his right thumb in a door. He had to go to a hospital in Beijing for six stitches, and was unable to paint for two months. When he picked up a brush again, he learned how to use his left hand, and now he alternates between the two. Painting with his left hand gives his work an emotionally charged sense of imperfection.
In 2009, Zeng represented China in the Venice Biennale. A major retrospective of his work was held at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2013-2014. Zeng attributes his success to his selectiveness when it comes to which collectors he sells to. He says, "You might say I am very cunning. I only sell my paintings to those who really like them. Then those people will help me promote my works." Philip Tinari, the director of the Ullens Center, says of Zeng, "China needs a great artist, and the way he has gone about it is very intelligent. He understands the milieu his works circulate in, the actual collectors' homes, cultural institutions and galleries. He invites these key people to be part of his success, and as he achieves higher degrees of validation it's something everyone feels good about." Fabien Bryn, a friend and avid collector of Zeng's work, describes the artist as having an "affable and serene personality, a professional work ethic, impeccable taste in everything from art to fashion to wine, a broad knowledge of art history, and kindness and generosity in friendship."
Zeng currently lives with his wife, He Lijun, a former student whom he married in 1995, and their daughter, How Ker. He can usually be found wearing understated jeans and sneakers, with a Cuban cigar not far from his fingers. He works in an enormous two-story studio in Caochangdi, a neighborhood in Beijing's northeastern outskirts, which looks onto a manicured garden full of trees, two Harry Bertoia steel sculptures, and a goldfish pond. This lush green garden is Zeng's personal oasis from the brown grass typical of Beijing. The studio itself contains a Hermès leather-topped desk, and is decorated with Zeng's own eclectic art collection. He says, "My studio is the most important place, it is where I create. I build it such that not only is it big it must be able to allow me to view it from far as I paint huge canvases. For instance, I can go up to a height to look down at a painting for a bird's eye-view if I want to."
The Legacy of Zeng Fanzhi
In addition to being one of Asia's most financially successful artists, Zeng Fanzhi has seen international success, through his use of Expressionist representational techniques to depict the tense, tumultuous, alienating reality of Contemporary Chinese life. Unlike many contemporary Chinese artists, Zeng has chosen to remain in his home country, thus opening up possibilities for critical art practices amongst his Chinese contemporaries and successors. As Marcello Kwan, head of Christie's Asian Contemporary Art Sale asserts, Zeng's works "explore universal humanity through his personal experience." Along with other Contemporary Chinese artists such as Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng, Fanzhi has been working to clear a path for Chinese art that takes forms other than the standard fare of Socialist Realism, offering a frank critique of Contemporary Chinese life, and creating an art historical dialogue between East and West.