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Mask No. 14
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Mask No. 14
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Mask No. 14

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About the object

Zeng Fanzhi, Mask No. 14\nSigned and dated 97\nOil on canvas\n150 by 130cm.\n59 by 51¼in.
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notes

Painted in 1997, Mask No. 14 is one of the most stunning and intensely emotive examples from Zeng Fanzhi's most iconic and celebrated series. In these works, painted exclusively between 1994 and 2001, Zeng Fanzhi depicts a cast of solitary figures, each a metaphor for the individual immersed in a society founded on outmoded ideals of collectivism. Growing up under the aegis of the Cultural Revolution, the force-fed ideologies of his youth doubtless play a central role in Zeng Fanzhi's art. However, his paintings stand out from much of the art produced in China in the 1990s for their deeply introspective charge and their candid vision of modern China. Like Gerhard Richter, Zeng Fanzhi is an artist who has continually sought to reinvent his style, moving increasingly towards abstraction in recent works. For this reason the paintings from the Mask series are particularly rare and sought after, the artistic reflection of a very specific moment in the evolution of the Chinese avant-garde.

After completing his studies at the Hubei Art Academy, where Zeng Fanzhi received a traditional training geared towards producing works in the Socialist Realist vein, the artist moved to the madding crowd of Beijing in 1994 to pursue a career as an artist. At that time, Beijing was undergoing a momentous transformation. Following the reform changes introduced by Deng Xiaoping, the city became a major commercial hub and witnessed a significant influx of economic migrants from poorer regions of the country, particularly rural areas, seeking production line jobs in the burgeoning electronics industry. The paintings that comprise Zeng Fanzhi's Mask series are directly inspired by his experiences of the faceless anonymity that he encountered on moving to the fast changing capital and a sense of the introvert artist's personal isolation pervades these images of solitary figures, which in turn are representative of a broader generation of urbanised youth. Caught up in the fast pace of societal change, the strong bonds of family - a sacred institution in Chinese society - are ruptured. As urbanisation strives forwards in the name of progress, there is a sense of loss as historic neighbourhoods, with their communities and customs, are bulldozed and replaced by utilitarian dwellings and monotonous skylines. The emotionless chalky white mask, worn by each of the characters in the series, symbolises the dislocation of the individual from the family unit and broader community in modern China. An invisible barrier between people, the mask represents the persona behind which the individual can withdraw, concealing true emotion in an impersonally pragmatic social code.

This dichotomy between the blank mask and bottled-up emotion is particularly poignant in the present work. The figure, leaning on a balustrade along the seafront, clutches a single red rose as if attending a romantic assignation. This gesture is in stark contrast to his expressionless face with puzzled eyes which stare out blankly at the viewer. The mask recalls the mask-like faces of Edvard Munch's paintings and indeed there is a striking similarity in the present work between the steeply receding diagonal of promenade toward the horizon line and the Norwegian Expressionist's infamous painting The Scream. This is no coincidence; while studying at the Hubei Academy, Zeng Fanzhi became fascinated by the European expressionists and his first series, the Hospital series, was profoundly influenced by his European forefathers, in particular Max Beckmann. Like the Expressionists, Zeng Fanzhi focuses on capturing vivid emotional reactions through powerful colours and dynamic compositions. Yet in the Mask series, the aggressive expressionist gestures have subsided into a more settled painterly manner. With emotion drained from the face, feeling is nonetheless conveyed through the haptic disproportion of hands, which exaggerate every knuckle and joint, and the close attention to posture. This is set off in the present work by the shrill flamingo-pink backdrop. Unlike Munch's work which represented the angst-ridden existential cry of humanity, in Mask No. 14 there is instead a pervasive sense of disenfranchisement, anomie and aloofness from society. The figure's Western suit, a product of the influx of Western ideals into Chinese society, marks him out as a subscriber to the incoming societal model, that of the capitalist free market economy. Compared, for example, to the uniform, functional attire worn by the protagonists of Zhang Xiaogang's paintings, the figure seems dapper, fashion conscious, affected and ultimately false.

This is ultimately the message that Zeng Fanzhi communicates in the Mask series, nowhere more eloquently than in Mask No. 14. In these works inspired primarily by his personal experience of Beijing, the narrative of the artist, of the individual and his isolation from the crowd, evokes the story of an entire generation caught in the spiritual vacuum of modernisation.

medium

Oil on canvas

creator

Fanzhi Zeng

dimensions

150 by 130cm. 59 by 51¼in.

provenance

Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong

Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 2000


*Note that the price is not recalculated to the current value, but refers to the actual final price at the time the product was sold.

*Note that the price is not recalculated to the current value, but refers to the actual final price at the time the product was sold.


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