Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi poses in front of one of his paintings, entitled Autoportait, on Oct. 17, 2013 at the Museum for Modern Art in Paris, ahead of the first restrospective of his work in France.
Ahead of his extraordinary solo exhibition in London, we put our hands together for expressionist Zeng Fanzhi. No longer just the superstar of New China, he’s now one of the most important artists in the world…
It is easy – at a quick glance, but too fast for a quick study – to look at the work of the recent generation of Chinese artists, and see generic paintings full of representations of Chinese citizens beleaguered by the state. I remember walking around the first Saatchi show of Chinese art in its new space in Chelsea in 2008, and thinking how similar many of the figurative images of people were. These artists all shared a childhood spent deep in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, and it showed.
Then, when I first saw the work of Zeng Fanzhi a short while later, I was mesmerised by the mad, gurning faces of the people in his pictures. Their eyes looked like the eyes of Asian Bratz dolls, like images from a comic-horror graphic novel. They looked as though they were in pain, as though there was no other way to feel. If you looked closer, Zeng’s characters all appeared to wear the same uniform, too, or at least versions of the same type of uniform. Then I found out why: most of the suits his male characters wore were based on a Tom Ford Gucci cut. Even his 2010 portrait of Francis Bacon sees the painter standing, facing forward, dressed in a blue Tom Ford suit. Look at the images from his famous “Mask” series – where the figures look anxious and fretful, scared of their own shadows – and you see men in beautifully tailored Tom Ford suits, for all the world looking as though they’re dressing for their own funeral.
When I asked Zeng about this, when I met him in his enormous, modernist studio on the outskirts of Beijing this summer (he is a neighbour of one of China’s other famous contemporary artists, Ai Weiwei), he nodded, thought a while, and then said, in the considered manner he has, “When I was 20, in 1984, everyone in China wore a Mao suit and nobody wore a [Western] suit, so that’s why at that time they were a very curious thing for me. At the end of the Eighties and at the beginning of the Nineties, everyone began to wear [them] and that’s why in my ‘Mask’ series, a lot of people wear suits. Also, at that time even the leader of China, for example, began to wear suits and ties, so that is basically a reflection of that.”
Zeng surrounds himself with beautiful things, and to walk into his studio is to immerse yourself in the good life. When you enter you’re crossing a Rubicon, walking from a world that is very quickly learning to adapt to intense consumerism, to one where the transaction has already been made. You can smell the luxe. A slight man, Zeng dresses soberly in designer polo shirts, black Armani slacks and the most expensive limited-edition Nike training shoes. He wears a Rolex Submariner with a green dial, smokes Cohibas (he has designed his own humidor) and drinks vintage Bordeaux (the empty bottles line up across the top of his wall-long fridge). He has Hermès soap in his lavatories, and plays Mozart and Bach whenever he has visitors. On his bookcases are little framed photographs of the artist from the likes of Robert De Niro (a huge fan of his work), the Hong Kong businessman and socialite Sir David Tang, basketball player Kobe Bryant, restaurateur Richard Caring and the chief executive of ICAP and former treasurer of the Conservative Party, Michael Spencer. Not for him the grabbed sandwich or cappuccino while he paints; every meal is prepared by his resident chef. In his self- portraits, of which there are many, Zeng stands proud, stoic, with characteristically oversized hands and head. In his paintings, as in real life, he has immaculate fingernails.
He is surrounded by the trappings of success – there is a framed cover of Chinese GQ which has him on the cover – and it is a success he wears lightly. The New China might be rapidly overtaking the Old West, but the surface smarts and the new money indicators of wealth are all here to see. He has what you could call a healthy obsession with sophistication.
“I am very curious about fashion, about style, especially in the Nineties, because at that time everything was new to us. Before the Nineties in China, there were virtually no fashion magazines here and the fashion magazines that we got were usually out of date, and some were more than a year old. At that time those magazines were very new and we were very curious about it all, because we didn’t have the opportunity to go abroad and see what things were like for ourselves. Now, gradually, we have started to have many more choices. You come to a point where there are so many choices that you don’t know how to make a choice.”
Speak to any contemporary art panjandrum and they’ll tell you that the art world has moved on from China, but no one appears to have told Zeng Fanzhi. Fêted by the rich and the powerful, right now Zeng is one of the most important artists in the world. In May 2008, “Mask Series 1996 No.6”, a large oil-on-canvas diptych of youths wearing absurd masks and Red Guard scarves, was auctioned for £6.2m, one of the highest prices ever paid for contemporary Chinese art.
Stylistically he is an expressionist (he studied the German expressionist painter Max Beckmann at art school, and fell in love with the way in which he worked), and unlike the didactic work of many of his artistic peers – Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang or Zhang Dali, say – Zeng’s work is introspective, reflecting psychological pain instead of projecting political statements. His early works were often brutal metaphors (as in his pessimistic “Hospital” series), but his “Mask” series, for instance, represents the existential isolation that many of China’s white-collar city dwellers felt during the Nineties, one of the most turbulent periods of social churn in the New China. His work in those days could easily be described by one word: trauma.
“I do not want to focus on the political elements of my artwork,” he says. “In my work, I would like to focus on diversity, not only political ideas. The ‘Hospital’ paintings were more political, as I was living in that kind of environment [he lived opposite a hospital, inspiring him to paint harsh, ugly representations of the way in which China was changing]. And at that time I was an angry young man, so that’s the way I looked at the world, that’s the way I expressed the world in my painting.”
He has hardly become emasculated, though, and his recent work is as dense and as haunting as ever. It is certainly more complex. In some respects, he is a chameleon of styles, chopping and changing to suit his mood – something that is obvious from the new works on show at the Gagosian Gallery in London next month. His current style is one that owes as much to symbolism as it does to expressionism, although it is very much the artist’s own. These paintings involve layers and layers of extraordinary washes and carefully woven lines, an intricate, fascinating process that Zeng has captured exhaustively on film. The work is dense, immersive, and is a world away from the cartoon-like images of his early pieces. They are huge – intense, beautiful, occasionally monstrous. There is violent tension in them, and what initially look like benevolent landscapes are soon shown to be anything but. They are gargantuan, noisy pictures, the kind that in the wrong hands could cause you to die of decibelic exposure.
However, there is another twist in these pictures, another layer of meaning as, having experienced the turbulence, what Zeng wants you to take away is something else again. These works are almost of a religious nature. “These paintings are different because my heart has changed, or at least my understanding of it,” he says. “In this series of paintings I’m trying to focus on a belief, not just a religious belief or the belief of beauty, but a belief in love, because I think China needs this right now.”
These newer pictures are some of the most labour-intensive I’ve ever seen. It might seem silly to say so, but you can see the enormous amount of work involved, you can see the whole process in front of you, begging to be admired. It’s almost as though he were building a forest right in front of you, from scratch, from the undergrowth to the trees, filtered through the eyes of Steven Spielberg.
“They are not real landscapes,” he said, when quizzed about them by art website ArtZineChina.com. “They are rather about an experience of miao wu [marvellous revelation]. Miao wu does not fall into the common categories of cognitive process. Neither has it anything to do with reason. Instead of making something obvious, miao wu brought about an unmarked world, which underlies the deep strata of life, both novel and familiar. In this respect, the miao wu type of revelation concerns a disclosure of what is already embedded in the artistic ego – the revealed world is there, but it is unfamiliar and amazing. Miao wu constitutes a restless journey of discovery.”
The inspiration for these works – and especially for the new “Praying Hands” painting – comes from Albrecht Dürer, the German painter who is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance, and whose work involved highly detailed preparatory drawing. Dürer came from a large family in Nuremberg, and had 17 siblings. He had an equally talented brother, although the family could only afford to send one of them to art school. Albrecht’s brother decided to stay at home, so the painter was forever in his brother’s debt. “Dürer’s brother made a sacrifice, going to work in the mines instead,” says Zeng. “He worked in them for so long that eventually his hands became almost handicapped [crippled with arthritis]” – making it impossible for him to follow in his brother’s footsteps.
This is a famous story, and one that resulted in a famous picture, Dürer’s best-known work, “Study Of The Hands Of An Apostle”, an homage to his brother that immediately became known as “The Praying Hands”. It is Zeng’s version of this painting that is the centrepiece of the London show, a beautiful, recalibrated interpretation of one of the most famous images from the Renaissance. Zeng’s is a lush affair, a vast expressionist jungle of colour and line, the result of months and months of painstaking brushwork, with the artist working up to 12 hours a day. It is one of the most extraordinary things he has ever made.
Zeng is as excited by the growth of the art scene in China as he ever was, although he is circumspect about the huge numbers of artists now plying their trade in the galleries in Beijing’s famous 798 art district, and in the major galleries in Hong Kong.
“I think China is more a centre of excellence than ever before,” he says, “and is much richer and much more diverse, not like in the past. This world used to be kind of simple; now there are a lot of contemporary artworks, although the quality is not always what it could be.”
Zeng is now a very rich and famous man, and keeping the world at bay becomes ever more problematic. He enjoys his spoils, but lives a relatively quiet life. He’s only done three interviews in the past year, and has become obsessive about guarding his work from the media. He knows how much his reputation is worth, and knows not to flood the market. He has reached the stage where he no longer has to explain his work – he reckons this happened about two years ago – and spends most of his time in his studio, going over his paintings with ever more intricate brush strokes.
“I hope to give people a view of my work while they are looking at it so I don’t have to explain to them what it means,” he says. “Death obviously plays a huge part in my work, because that is everyone’s abiding fear. Which is why expressionists used it so much. Death is truth, one of the few undeniable truths. It is one of the classic themes, and every artist feels differently about it, as every person does.”
Zeng Fanzhi enjoys his success, and uses that success to push himself. You can tell that he is as worried about complacency as he is about the effects of fame.
“In our country, I like to think we will still focus on the energy of creating. That is so important. Because here in China, when you have fame, people will try to destroy you. For example, if you look at Weibo [China’s Twitter], there will be some very horrible things on it. So fame and the larger environment is not always that helpful. You have to stay true to your heart, and try to ignore the outside world.”
Having said that, the outside world has informed all artists of Zeng’s generation, because without that world, he wouldn’t be an artist at all.
“Sometimes the feeling of repression can motivate my desire to create, that is to say, there is a feeling of rebelliousness and I can express these kinds of rebellions in my artwork in a much more positive way, conducive to my creation. Living in an environment like Europe where everyone is free, where is your motivation? My national identity is everything. In terms of inspiration and creativity. These days, my life here in Beijing is more important than ever.”
Zeng Fanzhi’s solo exhibition runs from 20 November 2012 – 26 January 2013 at the Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street, London WC1. gagosian.com
read our profile on the artist and collector, from the November 2013 issue
By Aimee Lin
Fly, 2000, oil on canvas, 200 × 179 cm. Courtesy Fanzhi Studio, Beijing
Interior view of the artist’s studio in Beijing, Photography by Wang Tao
Hare, 2012, oil on canvas, 400 × 400 cm (in 2 panels). Courtesy Fanzhi Studio, Beijing
Zeng Fanzhi’s studio is situated in the northeastern suburbs of Beijing, in Caochangdi, where he has a small and quiet courtyard of his own. The studio is luxuriously spacious. Adorning one wall is a 4 × 4m oil painting, Praying Hands (2012), that was shown as part of the artist’s solo exhibition at the Britannia Street branch of Gagosian Gallery London in 2012.Another canvas, recently finished, has been crated up for shipment to Paris, where Zeng’s next solo show, at the Musée d’Art Moderne opened in mid-October. And while this is by no means his first solo museum show, it is his first midcareer retrospective and will present, in reverse chronological order as you walk through the exhibition, more than 40 of his paintings and sculptures from 1990 to the present day.
Zeng has always been a media favourite. Over a dozen awards and trophies are lined up under his studio window
Zeng enjoys considerable fame in China as a result of the prodigious numbers his work has managed to realise at auction. In Sotheby’s 2008 Hong Kong spring auction, a 1996 oil painting from his celebrated Mask series was sold for the astronomical price of $9.66 million. According to ArtPrice’s latest tally, of the ten highest-priced contemporary artworks sold at auction in Hong Kong between July 2012 and June 2013, three were by Zeng.
A few days before the writing of this article, Sotheby’s Hong Kong announced that the Belgian collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens had put Zeng’s The Last Supper (2001), the largest and best-known painting from the Mask series, up for auction. Most of Zeng’s highest-selling works have come from this series.
Zeng has always been a media favourite. Over a dozen awards and trophies are lined up under his studio window, while photos of his appearances at various commercial events frequently appear in a range of magazines. A year ago, however, Zeng grew tired of the excessive social appearances and media exposure, and has since made a successful effort to keep a lower profile.
Indeed it was only via social media postings that we found out that this May he flew in a cinema magnate’s private jet to Venice, where two large-scale – 2.5 × 10m – oil paintings from his 2010 Landscape series are on show in the central hall of François Pinault’s Punta della Dogana, a showcase for the Frenchman’s private collection of contemporary art.
It’s become widely known that in early 2012 Zeng rented the top floor of one of Beijing’s many highrises, and subsequently converted it into a 1,000sqm art space called Yuan Space. In old Chinese, the word yuan means the origin, the beginning and the source – a concept that one may project the idea of art onto. Several important shows have already been held there. The latest was a group show featuring young, local, experimental artists curated by Chinese contemporary art expert Karen Smith.
The summer slot featured painter Yu Youhan, who, despite having played an integral role in the development of contemporary Chinese art (from his early Expressionist painting in the 1970s and 1980s to his Pop art in the 1990s, as well as his significant abstract painting throughout his career), for political reasons has never had a large-scale retrospective.
At the beginning of 2013, Yuan Space exhibited more than 30 works from Zeng’s private collection. These included drawings on paper by masters such as Balthus, Caspar David Friedrich and Giorgio Morandi. This show, Dancing with Virtuoso, has now toured to the Nanjing University of the Arts.
Indeed, Zeng is a prolific collector, with an interest that spans multiple fields. In addition to paintings, drawings and photographs, he also collects furniture, picture frames (dating from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century) and objects that were popular with ancient Chinese literati for their ludic and relaxing qualities (writing instruments, rocks and ‘natural’ sculptures such as root formations).
While deeply infatuated with traditional Chinese culture, as an oil painter Zeng is profoundly influenced by Western art. Accordingly, he owns three oil paintings by Morandi and over 100 drawings by European artists from various periods. Zeng has a photograph of a small oil painting in his Samsung mobile. It’s a recent purchase – an 1880s painting by Paul Cézanne that was once owned by Paul Gauguin. After several changes in ownership, the little painting is now on its way to China.
The exhibition space and Zeng’s collection are a rehearsal for a larger dream: to build a museum (also to be called Yuan). The seeds of all this were sown over 20 years ago, when the artist, in the company of prominent collector Uli Sigg, visited the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland.
There he saw, for the first time, art lovers entering an open and friendly space in which they could appreciate art at their own leisure. It was “extremely beautiful and very moving”, he tells me. Of course, during the 1990s, Zeng couldn’t, in his wildest dreams, have imagined that he might one day build a museum of his own.
Things are different now. I pick up a copy of Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s latest monograph from Zeng’s coffee table; a rendering of the Yuan Museum is on its front cover. It is to be built beside the Liangma River, next to the Embassy District of Beijing, with Ando’s signature plain concrete adorning the riverside facade. The museum differs from Ando’s earlier, more disciplined neomodernist works, however, in that the surface features a curve that is sober, calm, but extremely difficult to construct.
“I had planned to announce the museum project next year, but Ando couldn’t wait to publish his architectural design in his new book. Many people who’ve seen the book have come asking questions,” Zeng says. This single building, situated among high-end hotels in the middle of the city, is currently under construction but due to be structurally complete by 2014 and open a year later.
There is an elaborate scale model of it in Zeng’s studio that can be deconstructed layer by layer like a Lego castle. Zeng holds a red laser pen and excitedly explains the design and future plans for each section of the building.
‘I expect that over the next 20 years, half my income will be invested in this museum’
What’s more surprising to me is that the construction of this 8,400sqm building (with three floors above ground and three below) is being funded in full by Zeng. Ando’s designs are known for their technical complexity and the difficulty of their subsequent construction. Zeng, on the other hand, expects the absolute best in everything he does (when he needs anything, such as security, lighting, or museum-quality elevators, he typically requests quotes from the three top companies in the world).
As a result, and even as the construction progresses, it is no longer possible to estimate the total investment. “I want to invest on my own, I won’t seek sponsorships and additional investments from my friends until they see the building is up. That way I can be more convincing. On the other hand, I expect that over the next 20 years, half of my income will be invested into this museum.”
Finally, he has made mention of his friends. Arguably, in China Zeng is the artist with the largest group of wealthy friends. He consults for art collections of the superrich – both in mainland China and in Hong Kong – and frequently advises them to buy Western classics from auctions. He has influenced a number of the region’s wealthy who have no prior knowledge of art to begin their collections with classics from the canon of Western art-history that are valued well beyond the means of ordinary collectors.
Upon completion, the temperature- and humidity-regulated Yuan Museum would be the perfect place to exhibit the masterpieces he helped others to collect. Indeed, he has made detailed plans for the museum’s long-term operations. He wants it to be home to Chinese, Western and contemporary art (as well as a section dedicated to experimental art), and he wants to accomplish this without state sponsorship.
For any institution in China to hold an exhibition of classical Western oil paintings, the country’s current laws require an astronomical sum in customs bonds alone, which is why the vast majority of such exhibitions are organised by official cultural institutions backed by diplomatic assistance and state guarantees. For Zeng’s dream to come true, he and his friends must create a heretofore nonexistent art sponsorship tradition among the nouveau riche, where wealthy individuals provide sustainable support for expensive but nonprofit museum projects.
Strangely, my conversation with Zeng rarely broaches the subject of his own art. Zeng, like many other painters, is cautious when talking about his own work. When it comes to specific works, he prefers to talk about techniques. People have described different phases in his work with statements such as ‘mixing a contemporary history of China with the artist’s personal history’, ‘signs of Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Balthus and Jackson Pollock may be found on his canvas’, or ‘a combination of Expressionism, abstractionism and traditional Chinese landscapes’.
A constant sense of loneliness and tragedy may be found throughout Zeng’s paintings and sculptures, perhaps reflecting a sliver of his innermost world. And no matter how hard he works to expand China’s collection of Western classics, Zeng prefers to think of his style as an extension of traditional Chinese paintings. People are whispering that he has created a series of paintings on paper, which, while unseen by the world, are a combination of Chinese literary painting traditions and his unique brand of abstractionist language.
Zeng has said in another interview that he ‘[likes to] wander outside of the physical world, to be mired in his own thoughts, while still facing this world with sincerity. When [he] was still a student, life was simple. There was no marketplace or galleries… it was a wonderful time.
To Zeng Fanzhi, it is still a wonderful time, maybe a better one, with the marketplace, the galleries and a midcareer retrospective in an art museum. Zeng, as a sensational individual case study, demonstrates how a Chinese artist, starting with paintings, conquered the modern art marketplace and galleries to become a worldwide influence, and further exerted his personal wealth and authority among the superrich to realise his dream of building a world-class museum.
Zeng proclaims that in the library of the future Yuan Museum, visitors, especially students, will be able to view original paintings, sketches and photographs by Western masters up close (as long as they make an appointment), because to his mind there simply is no replacement for seeing originals up close.
When he talks about the library, just as when he talks about his museum and collection, I can almost imagine the Zeng Fanzhi of his youthful years, when he started to study oil painting with a neighbour in his hometown Wuhan. That young man, full of energy and passion for art that borders on zealotry, is a distant memory. But the same spirit is still very much alive in the middle-aged man, as he sits quietly beside me.
It was 1998 and Zeng Fanzhi was struggling to find somewhere to display his paintings. The market for modern Chinese art barely existed. Thanks to help from a fledgling local dealership, Zeng was able to hang a piece in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Shanghai and was extremely pleased when the painting – “Mask Series No 6” (1996) – was sold to a visiting American tourist for $16,000.
Just 10 years later, the same piece was bought for more than $9.7m at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong, making Zeng the most expensive living Asian artist – and the American tourist who sold it a very happy man.
Today, Zeng is an icon in the art world and his career provides an analogy for the development of modern Chinese art – perhaps even Chinese society – from the utilitarian social realism of his childhood during the cultural revolution to the giddy heights of global art fairs and seven-figure price tags.
I arrive for our interview at his studio in a famous artists’ district on the outskirts of Beijing to find a serene oasis away from the frenetic pollution and noise of the Chinese capital. An inner courtyard of rock fountains and tall trees leads into an entrance hall dominated by an exquisite wooden Buddha that pre-dates the founding of the Tang dynasty in AD618.
The hall opens to the left into Zeng’s high-ceilinged, sunny studio, lined with enormous finished and half-finished canvases, casually strewn with millions of dollars worth of his creations. Puffing on a fine Cuban cigar, Zeng is busy poring over a small-scale model of his latest exhibition with a visitor – a retrospective of 40 of his paintings and sculptures from 1990 to 2012 that will open at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in October.
An assistant makes me a delicious espresso in an adjoining kitchen area and after a few minutes Zeng appears, apologising profusely for making me wait and for the lack of air conditioning in the studio, which he explains is necessary so his paint can dry slowly.
He is studiously polite and almost shy in his quiet, unassuming manner but his eyes look like they are made from granite and, as we sit down in the courtyard garden with a pot of expensive Chinese tea, I have the feeling he is used to people flattering him. “We are now in a period of great artistic flourishing in China,” he says. “In the 1990s there was almost nothing but there are countless artists now. Whether they are all good is not for me to say, only people in the future will be able to tell.”
This is a typically oblique and diplomatic comment from Zeng on the millions of counterfeiters, copycats and opportunists drawn into the Chinese art boom by the promise of great riches. Rather than waste time thinking about the state of the art world or even the state of the wider world, Zeng says he focuses almost entirely on his painting. He insists that every brushstroke must be made by him so he ignores weekends, spending 330 full days a year in his studio, with just one month’s break during the oppressive Beijing summer for travel with his family.
This dedication to art has been the defining feature of Zeng’s life since he was born to workers from a printing factory in 1964 in the gritty central Chinese city of Wuhan. “I was always a bad student; I refused to let people force me to study things I wasn’t interested in and I was only really interested in drawing and painting,” he says.
Wuhan was one of the epicentres of the cultural revolution, which began in 1966 and involved the persecution or death of millions of intellectuals, professionals and officials. Because his parents were designated as working class, Zeng’s family was relatively safe but they were not left unscathed by the convulsions ripping through society.
“At the time everyone wore the same clothes but my mother liked beautiful things and she sometimes wore a bit of colour – some pink flowers on her clothes,” he says. “For that she was persecuted for her ‘petit bourgeois sentimentalism’ – that experience affected my whole family deeply.”
Although Zeng’s mother was not subjected to the violent “struggle sessions” that others endured, the family was publicly humiliated by groups of militant Red Guards who pasted denunciations outside their house and at his mother’s factory in the form of “big character posters” – large handwritten banners of Chinese calligraphy that have been used since imperial times to protest or spread popular messages.
Not long after this, the young boy began to draw for pleasure and for a break from the monotony of formal Mao-era schooling. When he says he was a bad student, Zeng is not exaggerating or dabbling in false modesty. He did not finish high school, dropping out at 16 to work in a printing factory like his parents and taking formal painting lessons in his spare time.
When he discovered there was such a thing as art school he decided to apply but, because of his deficiency in subjects like maths and science, he failed the university entrance exams five years in a row before he was finally admitted to the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts in 1987 at the age of 23. “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,” he says.
Although all he wanted to do was stay home and paint, Zeng was assigned by the government to work at a fledgling advertising agency when he graduated in 1991. It would turn out to be the dawn of the advertising industry in post-revolution China. “When I started there the only advertising that could be displayed was political slogans but that soon changed,” Zeng says. “I managed to get a big ad contract for the agency and so then I didn’t have to go to the office for a year. I did some of my best work in that period.”
Much of his formal schooling was meant to produce social-realist works in the traditional Soviet style but he also developed an appreciation for German expressionists and, in his brief foray into advertising, he even read books by ad guru David Ogilvy on how to sell beer and shirts. He produced his first major works, including the haunting and grotesque “meat” and “hospital” series, in which his subjects already sported the oversized hands that would become a signature feature of his work.
Zeng was able to quit his job altogether and move to culturally rich Beijing at the start of 1993, after selling his first paintings to Johnson Chang, the renowned Hong Kong collector. Partly on the advice of the influential art critic Li Xianting, Chang paid $2,000 each for four large canvases, an enormous sum of money at that time in China.
Zeng says Chang still has the four pieces, which must be worth multiple millions of dollars today. “At that time those two [Chang and Li] were the most important people in the Chinese art world and they really gave me my start,” says Zeng. “It wasn’t just money, they also gave me confidence.”
In Beijing he found a community he says he could “eat with and play with” and that would later comprise some of the most famous artists in China. He also embarked on a relentless process of renewal and reinvention, adopting and then rejecting new styles at a furious pace. “We consider Fanzhi to be the greatest living artist in China, in part because his visual imagery has changed over and over again,” says Nick Simunovic, director of the Hong Kong branch of the Gagosian Gallery, which represents Zeng outside China. “He’s never satisfied with a single identity and in many respects he’s getting better and better; his art really maps the development of China.”
About a year after arriving in Beijing, Zeng began working on the “mask” series that would eventually make him a multimillion-dollar artist. These pieces used a different style and technique from earlier works and reflected his feeling that people in the capital were hiding their true identities from each other and themselves. Although his mask paintings have been his most financially successful ones, in 2004 his style changed radically again as he directed his efforts to the study of Chinese traditional landscapes and calligraphy.
He lists Romantic painters, German expressionists, Cézanne, Picasso, pop art and Chinese traditional painters as influences but says his own life and experiences are the most important in shaping his work. His latest works are dominated by large, intricately painted landscapes distorted by forests of thorny lines while others contain direct references to some of Zeng’s favourite German painters.
The Chinese art market has been through a few gut-wrenching cycles in the past decade but the prices of Zeng’s work have stayed remarkably stable, Simunovic says. That is partly because he is so well-known in art circles outside China and because the bulk of his works are sold to international collectors.
“The financial crisis [of 2008] was very good for the Chinese art market because it cleared out the speculators and left the real art lovers behind,” says Zeng. “But it had no real impact on me because the price I sell my work for stays about the same no matter what happens in the secondary market.”
In 2011, Zeng’s auction record was eclipsed by a 1988 work from Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang that sold for $10.1m in Hong Kong. But prices for modern Chinese art remain volatile and subject to waves of speculative buying, particularly from mainland China. In post-communist China, anyone who is wealthy is by definition new money, or baofahu (literally, “explosion of wealth people”), with all the materialism and conspicuous consumption that comes with sudden riches.
Zeng has clearly enjoyed the trappings of success – designer clothes, expensive watches – but like an increasing number of the country’s nouveau riche, he seems now to be searching for something more substantive. “When I started out I wanted to earn more and more money and spend it on expensive cars and airplanes but in the last couple of years I’ve really changed a lot,” he says. “I think if everyone is just doing everything for money then this society is finished.”
As he has become richer his life and his tastes have become simpler and these days, he says, his only real indulgences are Cuban cigars and costly Chinese tea. His biggest expense is the more than Rmb10m (£1.04m) he spends each year on running his own gallery, which is intended to support a new generation of young artists by allowing them to exhibit and build their own profiles.
The only point in our interview at which Zeng becomes cautious and uncomfortable is when I ask him about the role politics plays in Chinese art. The world-famous dissident artist Ai Weiwei lives just a couple of blocks away from Zeng’s studio, in a compound that is regularly besieged by goons from China’s ministry of state security. “It’s not that I don’t pay attention to politics, it’s just that I pay more attention to my art; I’m not a political artist,” Zeng says. “Ai Weiwei is my neighbour and I don’t resent or dislike him; he makes his choices and he has his reasons [for doing what he does].”
Zeng’s cigar is almost finished and our interview is drawing to a close but, before I go, I want to know what happened to the American tourist who made nearly $10m from investing in this unknown artist in 1998. “I don’t remember his name but he came to Beijing to see me after he sold the piece at auction [in 2008] and he was very happy because it got such a good price,” Zeng says. “I guess he wanted to see what the artist looked like. I was also happy that he made so much money.”
Musée d’Art Moderne Launches a Retrospective of Zeng Fanzhi’s Politically-Minded Oeuvre
Chinese political history meets Pop Art and surrealism in a major retrospective of Zeng Fanzhi’s work now on view at Paris’s Musée d’Art Moderne. Coming of age under the shadow of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Zeng places his personal narrative against the backdrop of China’s fragile relationship with its growing artist community and the influx of Western ideologies. At the exhibition, 40 of Zeng’s paintings and sculptures are arranged in reverse chronological order, ending with the artist’s earliest works created while he was still living in his home city of Wuhan in 1990.
The specter of China’s political instability is everywhere in Zeng’s work—in Tian’An Men, Mao’s abstracted face almost completely obscures Tiananmen Square, the site of the 1989 student protests; in Mask Series No. 6, Chinese students, all sporting the ubiquitous red scarf, wear grotesque masks with absurdly large smiles. But Zeng also draws much of his imagery from the history of Chinese decorative arts, with his landscapes and portraits taking on a fantastical sensibility.
Through February 16, 2014, at Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris; mam.paris.fr
ZENG FANZHI,Self-portrait, 2011, oil on canvas, 150 × 100 cm. Photograph by Wei Leng Tay for ArtAsiaPacific.
ZENG FANZHI,A Man in Malancholy, 1990, oil on canvas, 110 × 90 cm. Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.
Gagosian’s first exhibition by Zeng Fanzhi—incidentally the first Chinese artist to enter the blue-chip stables—provided a surprising overview of recent and early paintings, many from the artist’s collection, ranging from 1989 to several new works completed this year, shown at the gallery’s spacious, new Hong Kong branch.
Zeng, well-known for his series of “masked” figures from the 1990s, continues to set auction records. At Gagosian, the inclusion of earlier works, not for sale but simply exhibition, may have been to offer some background to the auction hype. At Sotheby’s “Contemporary Asian Art” auction on October 3, just a week after the artist’s solo show opened, five of the top ten lots were by Zeng, including Mask Series 1998 No.5, which sold for a reported USD 3.96 million. Previously bought by European collectors, the work of Zeng, alongside Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and others, is now a firm favorite amongst a burgeoning group of Chinese speculative collectors, who lack diverse local investment options for their sizeable, rapidly-made fortunes and hence are putting money into art.
At the gallery entrance a mature Zeng greeted viewers in Self-portrait (2011), standing confidently in a blue tailored jacket and bright red pants, with characteristically oversized head and hands, his fingers striking a casually interlocked pose. The brushwork is confident, the somber grey-brown tones of the background contrasting the intense oily red—an effect repeated in other portraits where figures are often dressed in some article of eye-catching red. However, the depicted man standing before us, half life-size, seems distant, unable to project his inner world. The characteristic motifs—the mask-like face, smeared quality to the paint, atmospheric drips or washes, as well as heavy, oversized head and hands—signify it is “a Zeng Fanzhi”; but otherwise the academic and distant quality of the work feels like it could be painted by someone else, reminiscent of aristocratic portraits at the root of the genre in Europe. Here the artist becomes just another character in a largely European canon. Similar recent works were portraits of Pablo Picasso and Lucien Freud both from this year, as well as two earlier portraits of Francis Bacon, from 2010 and 2008. In the ostensibly anonymous, Portrait (2009), one also finds patron-collector Uli Sigg, a great supporter of Chinese contemporary artists, in a pale pink shirt.
The eye skimmed easily over such slick portraits, their rich whites, reds and greens, and their lavish frames creating a formal contrast to the raw brown canvas backgrounds, which Zeng has begun to leave untouched. This contrast demonstrated the almost decadent skill of an established artist, sure of his style and prestige at home and abroad.
Yet the highlights were elsewhere, in early works from the late 1980s and early 1990s. A Man in Melancholy (1990) is a classic portrait of angst, of a man slumped in a chair, holding his head in his hand, painted in a loose impressionistic style, which might be read as a portrait of many artists in the years immediately after the Tiananmen incident of 1989. In the large triptych No.1 Hospital Triptych (1991), different stages of medical diagnosis, surgery and recovery are depicted in strong lines on bleak backgrounds. In a small but beguiling canvas, Meat (1993), a naked man’s pink flesh blends into a piece of meat he is laying astride, suggesting some desperate, carnal emotion. This visceral quality is even stranger in the larger painting, Man and Meat (1993), showing a frenzied abattoir, with butchers handling meat while large fleshy tigers devour carcasses in the foreground.
These works appear less technically accomplished, with rough clunky lines and muddy colors, and less complex handling of space and symbolism, yet they nevertheless have an ambitious energy, urgency and intrigue. If there is more introspection in the “mask” series, as Zeng’s symbolism matured, it seems to have evaporated from the most recent portraits. Though he is no doubt one of the most significant Chinese contemporary painters, Zeng may be burdened by such success, now replicating and refining a signature style that eclipses his subject. Like a number of his compatriot artists who have been favored by the market, perhaps he faces the dilemma of how to meaningfully reflect or comment on the forces of rapid social and material change in China, while being symptomatic of them.
Elusive and something of an outsider in the Beijing art world, painter Zeng Fanzhi has shot to the head of the class.
On a drizzly spring day in Beijing, Zeng Fanzhi is serving espresso in his studio, looking every bit as serene as the Tang dynasty stone Buddha stationed cross-legged on a nearby pedestal. As raindrops tap the skylights 25 feet overhead, Italian opera fills the newly built 5,000-square-foot space designed by the artist himself. Beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows is a Suzhou-style garden with an array of monumental scholar’s rocks surrounding a goldfish pond.
Inside the studio several of Zeng’s latest paintings are propped against the wall, most depicting wild, almost menacing nighttime landscapes overlaid with dense thickets. “I think they are peaceful,” Zeng says somewhat cryptically through a translator, looking at scenes that seem anything but. A group of these works will be included in a show later this year at Acquavella Galleries in New York, the blue-chip dealership that recently signed Zeng to what is rumored to be a multimillion-dollar two-year contract.
The deal is the latest step in the 44-year-old artist’s ascent from newcomer in the Beijing art scene 15 years ago to his position as a leader in the Chinese market. In May, only days after our meeting, his painting Mask Series 96 No. 6 sold for $9.7 million at Christie’s Hong Kong, a record for any contemporary Chinese artist.
Handsome and somber, Zeng answers questions with carefully measured words. He’s still something of a loner in Beijing’s lively social network of artists, and he is reluctant to share personal information or give opinions on the changes in China over the last three decades. And he seems uninterested in discussing business, though he’s not entirely free of arrogance about his success.
“Sometimes these supercollectors come to my studio and say, ‘I own every bit of Chinese art except your work,’ but I will never sell to this kind of buyer,” says Zeng. Such collectors, he believes, lack the taste or connoisseurship to truly appreciate him as an artist. “Though I have deep regard for Chinese culture, as you can see from my garden, I never wanted to be merely a Chinese artist in my paintings.”
Zeng grew up in Wuhan, in the central province of Hubei, where his parents worked at a printing house. As a student at the nearby Hubei Academy of Fine Arts, Zeng found himself drawn toward Western masters such as Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning, Raoul Dufy, and Max Beckmann. It is this amalgam of influences that resulted in his expressionistic paintings, which were quite different from the Pop Art styles of many of his Chinese contemporaries in the early nineties.
In the beginning Zeng painted slabs of meat as if they were human characters and, later, people as if they were piles of meat—two series inspired by a butcher shop and a hospital near where he lived. One of his first major works, Hospital, a triptych depicting a group of the dead and suffering in an arrangement modeled on Michelangelo’s Pietà, was painted for his senior show at the academy in 1992. It caught the attention of Li Xianting, the country’s leading art critic of the period, who brought it to Johnson Chang, owner of the Hong Kong gallery Hanart TZ. Similar early works were featured in Chang’s 1993 exhibition “China’s New Art, Post-1989,” which essentially introduced this generation of Chinese artists to the outside world.
In 1993 Zeng left Wuhan for Beijing, which he’d visited several times to see exhibitions like the influential 1985 Robert Rauschenberg show at the National Art Museum. Once there, in a huge city full of strangers, he experienced profound loneliness and alienation, even as the country embarked on its tremendous economic advances of the post–Tiananmen Square period.
Instead of moving to the artists’ village near the Old Summer Palace in northwest Beijing—where Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, and other now–art stars had formed a bohemian outpost—Zeng found a small courtyard-style residence in the embassy district, then a quiet part of town. There he began his famous “Mask” series, paintings in which the characters wear skintight white masks, their huge, bulging eyes staring out from behind.
In early paintings from the series, the figures are dressed in school garb, including the famous red kerchief, occasionally in groups coalescing as a team. Zeng had grown up at a time when every schoolchild aspired to receive the red kerchief, a sign of acceptance and achievement in the Little Red Guard. Years later Zeng still felt the sting of being denied this reward by a cruel teacher at his elementary school, leaving him as one of the only children without it.
In later Mask paintings the dress shifts to the latest fashions, reflecting the emergence of young yuppies in Beijing by the late nineties. Throughout the series the figures appear happy and relaxed, superficially, at least. But they seem distanced from each other, bound by social conventions that make it impossible for them to be genuine. These works were a personal statement of Zeng’s emotional state at the time. “I was lonely and a total stranger in this big city, which led to very introverted feelings,” he recalls. “These paintings were about being afraid to show myself, about hiding, so that I wouldn’t get hurt.”
For most of the nineties, Zeng worked without much recognition. A 1995 solo show at Hanart TZ in Hong Kong generated only modest sales at very low prices. A couple of years later Zeng began his long association with Lorenz Helbling of Shanghart, essentially the only contemporary art gallery in Shanghai then.
Around 2001 Zeng began to move away from the “Mask” series and started doing large-scale portraits. Sometimes he painted close-ups of faces composed of circular brushstrokes not unlike Chuck Close’s famous portraits. In others he painted Communist icons such as Marx, Engels, and Chairman Mao with stray lines and expressionist brushstrokes nearly eclipsing their visages. While many Chinese artists repeat themselves as their work gains in popularity, Zeng is a rarity, constantly experimenting and pushing his imagery in new directions.
“Zeng Fanzhi’s works often have to do with the society he lives in, the situation in China for his generation,” says Helbling, who showed the artist’s latest works this summer at Shanghart’s new Beijing gallery, right next door to Zeng’s studio in Caochangdi Village. “I think he follows this sensibility quite accurately yet with a lot of intuition.”
The artist’s recent works are his most imaginative and abstract yet. The scenes are desolate—glowing landscapes glimpsed through dense thickets. Wild animals have also crept into his paintings. “The elephant, in particular, is a symbol of stability,” says Helbling, suggesting that these works may be about a hope for inner stability amid China’s relentless economic boom and Zeng’s own surging career.
In 2006 his Mask Series 99 No. 3 brought $816,400 at Christie’s Hong Kong. Just a year later his 1992 Hospital triptych fetched $5.7 million at Phillips de Pury in London. Around the same time Zeng had solo shows at the Singapore Art Museum, the Musée d’Art Moderne in St.-Etienne Métropole, France, and Gallery Hyundai in Seoul. As a result of his success, he was able to lease the plot of land in Caochangdi and build his new studio.
Collectors have been coming ever since. New York collector-dealer José Mugrabi, who met the artist through Fabien Fryns of F2 Gallery in Beijing, had bought few Chinese works. “Honestly, I received many propositions from Chinese artists,” Mugrabi says, “but the only one who really interested me was Zeng Fanzhi.”
Mugrabi played a key role in Zeng’s deal with Acquavella. The gallery would seem a great fit for the artist, who first visited it two years ago to see a Lucian Freud exhibition. Only when he returned to the gallery in December to negotiate his own show did Zeng remember it was where he’d first encountered the British master, another key influence on his work.
Tentatively slated for December, the show will cover all periods of the artist’s career. “Serious collectors are likely to find it much more compelling than they expect, given their wariness about Chinese contemporary art being trendy,” says gallery director Eleanor Acquavella. “Zeng Fanzhi is above and beyond the trend.”
Zeng Fanzhi is represented by Shanghart in Beijing and Shanghai (shanghartgallery.com) and Acquavella Galleries in New York (18 E. 79th St.; 212-734-6300; acquavellagalleries.com), which is planning a show for December.
NEW YORK TIMES
Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation
By Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop
Published: Thursday, May 3, 2007
SINGAPORE — Many Chinese artists have embraced American pop culture and fused it with social realism to develop their own artistic style of social and political commentaries on the fast-changing Chinese society. Among the crowd, however, Zeng Fanzhi stands out for the introspective nature of his work, which often reflects his personal life and emotions.
From the red scarves – a symbol of achievement in Communist China, something he yearned for as a child, but never got – to his famed “Mask” portraits, his take on Chinese society in the mid-’90s, Zeng’s work has always portrayed his own feelings.
The Beijing-based 43-year-old artist was recently in Singapore for the opening of a major retrospective of his work. In an interview, he pointed out, with the aid of a translator, that the ideological changes in China have clearly influenced him, but his work remains personal: “I grew up in the environment of the Cultural Revolution and all these ideologies take a lot of space in my mind, but when I paint I just want to portray my inner feeling and the people around me. I’ve never been interested in my art becoming symbols of political ideas.”
In the current frenetic Chinese contemporary art market, where many artists are happy to stick to a working “formula,” Zeng frequently alters his work and style.
“Zeng Fanzhi is one of the major artists shaping Chinese culture of today,” said Lorenz Helbling, director of ShanghART Gallery, one of the galleries that represents the artist. “He is reinventing himself all the time, not afraid of letting/leaving behind great and successful works, which may now sell for a lot in auctions, to develop ever new, surprising, more mature works even if they often confuse people at the beginning.”
“Idealism” – running at the Singapore Art Museum until June 3 – shows Zeng’s artistic evolution through 36 paintings that have been chosen to reflect his entire body of work, from his graduation piece in 1991 to several new, never-exhibited paintings. “We chose the theme of idealism because there is a certain celebration of ideals in many of his works, yet a certain sadness it might not be achieved,” said Kwok Kian Chow, the museum’s director.
Zeng, who was born in Wuhan in Hubei Province in 1964, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, said that his family encouraged him to take up painting “to keep him off the street.”
While at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts, he studied German Expressionism, which would have a strong influence on his work. The expressionistic style of his 1991 graduation piece, “Hospital triptych No. 1,” with its wild strokes and fleshy colors, attracted the attention of the Chinese art critic and curator Li Xianting and was selected by Johnson Chang of the Hong Kong-based Hanart TZ Gallery to appear in “China’s New Art, Post-1989” at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, a 1993 exhibition now famous for having brought several new contemporary artists international attention.
“I lived next to the hospital and because my house didn’t have any toilets I had to use those of the hospital everyday. What I saw there left a strong imprint on me,” said the artist, who used these memories for his Hospital series, which portrays doctors and scared patients in operating theaters and emergency rooms.
His second series, the Meat series, was also inspired by everyday experiences. Passing by a nearby butcher, he often saw workers laying on top of the frozen meat to cool down and sleep during hot summers. The artist remembers intense, mixed emotions: “Some feelings were of hunger, because I was hungry in those days, others were of horror, as the blood of the meat would stain the people laying on them. I think this is why I use a lot of red in my work, it fascinates me,” he said.
In 1993, Zeng moved to Beijing. “I felt Beijing was the place where I could create art and where my work would be taken seriously,” he said. “In Wuhan, when people looked at work they would smile, and in their smile I could see they thought I was crazy. In Beijing they saw I was a person with ideas.”
Yet after he arrived, the introvert found it difficult to make friends and his feelings of solitude and isolation became the main theme for his next series, the Mask series, where the well-dressed urbanized population wear white masks, looking at the viewer with blank stares or puzzled eyes. “In the mid-’90s, China was transforming very fast. Chinese officials started wearing suits and ties,” he said. “Everybody wanted to look good, but it also looked a bit fake. I felt they wanted to change themselves on the surface, and these are the feelings that I represented in the earlier Mask series. Later on, the series used more vibrant colors; I think it makes people look even more fake, as if they are posing on a stage.”
The Mask series, which first appeared in 1994 and continued until 2000, brought Zeng to international prominence. “Mask 1999 No. 3” set the artist’s world record at auction, selling for $816,400 in November 2006 at Christie’s Hong Kong. But it also pigeonholed him. “I didn’t want to be tied down and I wanted to paint freely, which is why I started the chaotic strokes style,” he said.
In 1999, Zeng started to paint people without the mask and by 2004 he had introduced helical strokes into his portraits, as evidenced in the exhibition in the Great Men portraits: five panels representing Karl Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.
Most recently, Zeng has turned his interest toward landscape, which he is exploring in the Untitled (Night) series. Painting thick woods with or without people, Zeng is now using a technique of frenzied and animated lines.
“Sometimes I paint with two hands. Sometimes I use two brushes, sometimes four,” explained the artist. “With this new technique, I create and yet I destroy. One of the brushes is creating, while the other three have nothing to do with me. I like such creation which happens by chance. Sometime I will loose control over the image, but after you loose control you look at what you have and you try to get it back again.”
While his earlier work was influenced by German Expressionism, he said he has become more interested in Chinese cultural art since the late ’90s, especially the paintings of the Song dynasty, which influence this latest work.
“Having moved away from the more rigid model of European Expressionism,” Kwok said, “Zeng’s recent works combine a calligraphic touch with a more romanticist view of man and his relationship with nature.”
Zeng Fanzhi is a Chinese artist whose work looks kind of like a cross between Francis Bacon and Tim Burton. On Wednesday, a smattering of art world types and fellow Chinese A-listers showed up to fete him at the Acquavella galleries on the Upper East Side before a dinner at Phillipe on 60th Street. Despite the recession, the gallery sold nearly a dozen paintings at prices that ranged between $100,000 and $2 million each. Before the market collapsed, Fanzhi’s work was selling for as high as $9 million, but everyone professed to being pleased with the evening’s results – from the Acquavellas to the artist himself. “I’m very content,” said Fanzhi, speaking thorugh his translator as guests like Zhang Ziyi, Vivi Nevo and Wendi Murdoch munched on steamed dumplings, spare ribs and sauteed string beans. (Get it? Chinese artist, Chinese food.) But Murdoch said she was holding out on buying because the paintings were still awfully expensive. “I’m hoping to get the one I want at a better price,” she said with a laugh. As for Ziyi, she was feeling a lot of pride for her fellow countryman. “Whenever I have a movie here, someone else from China gets quoted saying ‘I’m so proud of her as a Chinese person. It’s great for our country.’ Well, tonight I’m thrilled to say that as a Chinese person, ‘I’m so proud of him.’” Go China!
Chinese contemporary art was sold just like hotcakes in 2008. Looking back over the past, collectors used to buy their artworks and resold them; however, Chinese contemporary art entered a new phase after this 4 years. The days people trade at a high were gone and truly valuable artworks have been demanded. We visited Mr. Zeng Fanzhi, who is well known with his Mask Series that had a strong impact on the world.
A New Expression Over East and West
Ichii: You are going to have an exhibition in Basel in September, and also a solo exhibition in London this autumn.
Zeng: Yes, I participate in Art Basel every year, but I will have only one artwork for this group show. I am looking forward to the one in London because it is going to be a solo show.
Ichii: At Gagosian Gallery?
Zeng: Exactly. I am going to exhibit some new landscapes, instead of portraits. I need some large works too as Gagosian Gallery in London is huge.
Ichii: As I see those landscapes you have here, they are all mysterious that branches and treetops look like they are singing together.
Zeng: Oh yeah? That is a new opinion.
Ichii: You have various artworks such as Balthus here in your studio. This Buddha head was made in around Tang or Sui, right? Do you like this kind of works?
Zeng: Yes, this is from Tang. The Buddhist statue in front of the entrance is made before Tang.
Ichii: I saw your works for the first time at preview of Asian Contemporary Art Auction in Christie’s Hong Kong held at Hermes in Ginza in 2008. “Mask Series No. 6” had a strong impact that I was impressed. I sometimes recalled your masks after that and that is why I wanted to see you.
Ichii: You had Hospital Series that have doctors and patients before Mask Series. When did you start them?
Zeng: Started in 1991, I made them as my graduation work for bachelor degree.
Ichii: It feels like there is a lonely spirit just as Picasso’s Blue Period in your Hospital Series. You express the spirits of patients confronting their terrifying diseases or death, and doctors helping them, not just a portrayal of hospitals. The scene of nurse holding a patient at the middle of the painting reminds me of The Descent of the Cross.
Zeng: I was just expressing what I felt, what I saw and what happened around me at that time.
Ichii: And it seems to be influenced by Steen as well.
Zeng: Indeed, I did get influenced by him. I got to know of him thanks to a Japanese book called “Asahi Weekly Encyclopedia: Arts in the World”. I read that in a library in the university in 1987. It had his artwork of a chunk of meat, which had a great impact that I never forget. I was really impressed when I saw the original in Switzerland later on.
Ichii: You were able to see Japanese publications at that time.
Zeng: There was only one set in the university that we could neither borrow nor read alone. So we gathered to go to the library and read it together. There was no other way to read it due to the strict control in China those days.
Ichii. You were 23 in 1987, weren’t you?
Zeng: Yes. I was young, defiant, and so-called an angry youth! Schools at that time taught socialistic realism, which is totally opposite from my artworks. We had to include a story in socialistic realism.
Ichii: Steen is one of the artists in School of Paris that had lonely artists such as Picasso, Modigliani or Pascin. I assume that you used to be a lonely rebel against socialistic realism.
Zeng: Schoolteachers at that time did not want us to paint this type of works. We could not attend any important exhibitions with them due to the poor demand. Any artworks cannot be accepted as long as you cannot attend an official exhibition. Teachers kept saying that you have to master the fundamentals of art before painting different types of art; however, in the end, we wanted to express ourselves.
Ichii: Works by Steen have an attractive movement and texture of oil paintings. The movement of crooked branches in your landscape looks similar to his.
Zeng: Artists who inspired me were not only Steen but also Francis Bacon, German expressionists and American abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning. I learned various types of art when I was a student in order to find my way to express myself. I painted this one in 1990, when I was a student.
Ichii: Such a great work. 1990 is before you graduate, or before you started painting the Hospital Series. There definitely is the similar spirit to Beckmann, Nolde and Kirchner.
Zeng: I got to be conscious to express my internal spirit with this work as a start.
Took an University Entrance Exam Having a Job
Ichii: You graduated from university when you were 27, which is, generally speaking, a little bit late. What were you before you got into the university?
Zeng: You generally graduate from university when you are 22, but I got into the university when I was 23. I started working when I was 16 without going to high school. I did not even finish middle school!
Ichii: So you liked painting since you were a child?
Zeng: Yes, I liked painting since I was little. There was not such a job as professional painter in China around 1980s. I had to have another job creating artworks. I got into a printing company in the end even though I wanted to have a job somewhat relating to arts or painting.
Ichii: Did the job sort of relate to art?
Zeng: Just a little bit. I sometimes drew a cut inserted within text or designed a book.
Ichii: When did you decide to get into a university while you were working?
Zeng: I did not even know that there was such a thing as art school when I started working. I got to know of it when I was 17 or 18. And I started to take an entrance exam after that; however, the academic exam was too hard to pass. Since I have not studied in high school, it was probably harder for me than others feel. That is why I spent 5 years to finally pass it and it was when I was 23.
Ichii: I heard there were only 8 students per a grade in oil painting department of Hubei Art School.
Zeng: Yes. Oil painting department was the most crucial one that teachers made the students painters. There were more teachers than students. We were proud of ourselves to get into the department then.
Ichii: The elect few, you all were the elites.
Zeng: All the teachers and students were always excited about freshmen in that department every year. Actually, we had to have an athlete ability as well to get into Hubei Art School.
Ichii: What do your parents do?
Zeng: They both used to work at a printing company.
Ichii: How old are they?
Zeng: My mother is 68 and father is 73.
Ichii: So are you the oldest child?
Zeng: Yes. I have a younger sister and brother.
Ichii: I have read an article saying your mother influenced you, but how?
Zeng: My parents were typical employees in 1970s and 80s, and both liked literature. My father was a young lover of literature who loved “Paintings of the Four Elegant Pastimes”. My mother also has more knowledge on literature and arts compared with others. I think it was rare for people to read all those famous novels like my parents did. So I guess they partially have influenced me. I still remember that they used to sing a song together because they also liked a Beijing opera.
Ichii: I can tell that people used to be able to enjoy various genres of arts in China before the Cultural Revolution.
Debuted in the World with Mask Series
Ichii: Cultural Revolution started 2 years later you were born in 1964. 10 more years later, in 1976, it ends due to the death of Mao Zedong. You were 12 years old then. And there are Junior Red Guards in “MASK SERIES NO. 6”. Is this because of your experience on Cultural Revolution?
Zeng: I surely did paint what my memory had in the Mask Series: for instance, red scarf, an old memory and some important incidents that I remember. In fact, Cultural Revolution is what I was told by adults rather than what I experienced directly on my own. The faces, behavior and actions of people scared me. For example, when I said something that went too far, my parents got confused and told me not to say such a thing in front of others. I think tension that was running through everyday influenced me.
Ichii: It feels that you simply painted your spirit itself in your Hospital Series that you started creating as the graduation work. On the other hand, you viewed yourself objectively in the Mask Series. Therefore, the Hospital Series is your portrait in a way, while the Mask Series has an objective view.
Zeng: Exactly, right.
Ichii: You changed your theme after debuted with the Mask Series.
Zeng: Next stage comes naturally after you finish up what you wanted to express in one series. I don’t want to stay at the same place. I always want to go forward to move on. I don’t think it is cool to express the same thing on and on tied up with old memories because I am still young. I want to express something new that nobody has done before. All the works including the Mask Series are the past for me.
Keep Everything in Nature Inside Himself
Ichii: A large number of landscapes have been painted in China since the Northern Song Dynasty, though there is not an old tradition of landscape paintings in Europe.
Zeng: Landscapes of nature were the most popular in the Northern Song Dynasty in China. I would say that all my works and contexts were more westernized; however, what I have been working on is rather Chinese traditional arts. I have been looking for an original technique that I can mix both western oil expression and eastern artistry.
Ichii: Guo Xi or Fan Kuan tried to have a dialogue to express what landscapes were, not copy the landscapes they see like a photo. So I think the way you think what the Earth is or how to have a dialogue with nature seems to be similar to theirs.
Zeng: Artists back in the Northern Song Dynasty lived in nature to produce artworks. My works could be recognized as both landscapes and abstract paintings. These landscapes I paint are the ones what my soul saw, not the reality. They are invisible landscapes.
Ichii: I have got an impression on your landscapes that the world exists inside your heart, not outside of you. They seem that you hold everything in nature inside of you even though you used to express what you had in your mind to emit them outside.
Ichii: You have used a word “miao wu” in the interview on Michael Findlay for Acquavella Galleries in the states. What does that mean?
Zeng: I have been thinking about how to mix western techniques and eastern grounds since I read a Chinese traditional book. That word means to realize it.
Ichii: What is this song you are playing here, by the way?
Zeng: This is an opera called “None shall sleep” by Turandot.
Ichii: This music makes these branches look like they are dancing in your painting.
Zeng: I like to paint listening to music. Sounds influence my works. Good sounds help me to come up with a clear image. I look for my inspiration picturing a figure with sounds when I am drawing. Listen to this sound, for example. Let me just tap it. *Tapping something like a drum or cymbals*
Ichii: What a beautiful sound.
Zeng: Right? This sound reminds me of a religious sound from a temple in Tibet, or a ritual sound. Even a statue in the yard can make a sound that seems to be what you hear in an old western church.
Want to Paint with a Simple State of Mind
Ichii: When you had an interview and were asked when and where you wanted to be born if you could have chosen, you answered that you wanted to work with Cézanne.
Zeng: Hahah, yes. What I wanted to say in that interview was how a genuine state of mind is important. It is important to have a genuine condition that you are painting apples and cans as if you were a teenager. I guess Cézanne was painting like that. I want to do it in that way too, back in those good old times instead of in this complex society these days.