Zeng Fanzhi

曾 梵 志

Painter, *1964 Wuhan, lives in Beijing

Zeng Fanzhi, 2010, photo Alain Truong, canal.blog

Zeng Fanzhi grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. He attended Hubei Academy of Fine Arts - he graduated in 1991 - where he was influenced by German Expressionism.

He became one of the influential and most successful artists of the younger generation.
Photos from ShanghArt

Hospital Series

Hospital Series, 1994,

His early works depicted scenes in a nearby hospital, painted in the expressionist mode: hands, faces. However, even a cursory examination reveals that contrary to German Expressionism, he does not imply any social criticism, the doctors are happy, the patients in the often brutal scenes (not shown here) at worst distressed by pain: The coarse features are actually hiding their and Zeng's emotions.
Zeng appears to share this need with many of his artist colleagues, if not with most Chinese: personal emotions are not publicly displayed....

Mask Series

Mask Series No 2-4, 1995, 114x84 cm each

For the next six years, Zeng, dissatisfied with the lack of depth in his painting, goes even a step further and hides the faces of the people he depicts behind impersonal paper masks! For the Western viewer this now appears like true social criticism – but was it that for Zeng too? He has the painterly skills to say anything he wants to, but doesn't notice this shortcoming.
Incidentally, this psychological disability is one reason underlying Ai Wei Wei's humanitarian outcry in support of the victims of 2008 Sichuan earthquake disaster, in which 69 000 people died – among them many children.

Portrait Series – “We”

“We-no2”, 2002, Selfportrait, 250x250 cm

In his search for the emotional content of his portraits Zeng examines again and again his own face, inventing ever new techniques of hiding the telltale signs. His camouflages are novel and ingeneous, like in this selfportrait of 2002.

“Tian'anmen”, 2004, 215x330 cm

Zeng's breakthrough on the international market came with this large painting commemorating the fifteenth anniversary of the 1989 Tian'anmen massacre. The overlay of Mao Zedong's eyes and the Heavenly Gate to the Forbidden City expresses the horror of the event masterfully – although Mao was dead since 1976.


Great Men, 2004

The Great Men of Communism, Zeng portrays in realist if idealized paintings, - they are dead effigies and except for Mao not Chinese.

Andy Warhol, 2005, 200x200 cm

Selfportrait, 2005, 100x100 cm

But when he arrives at Warhol (why Warhol?) and his own portrait, their detailed features vanish again, this time in a dense thicket of branches.

A Land so Rich in Beauty...” (1936 Mao Poem)

A Land so Rich in Beauty No 1, Mao Zedong, 2006, 215x330 cm

The dense macchia he invented for a new series of landscape paintings that became Zeng's characteristic mark for the next 6 years, was motivated by a poem of Mao Zedong, whose benevolently smiling figure graces painting No1 of this series.
It is impossible for an American audience to fathom and appreciate the deep emotions towards the “great men” in the childhood memories that some of us carry with us, be it, Stalin, Hitler, or Mao Zedong. They never vanish completely – not even after 30 years.
For a more charitable interpretation of Zeng's portraits see Robert Morgan/ ShanghArt

Untitled, 2007, 280x540

The series of intriguing landscapes that Zeng painted between 2007 and 2009 truly express his sentiments for the Land of China, the brambles that cover its mountains and rivers, 山水. Except for a Hui minority family, people have vanished from his canvasses and a white elephant appears to him in the thickets, who promises 太平有象- tai ping you xiang, stability and heavenly peace.

Untitled, 2008, 119x105 cm

太平有象- tai ping you xiang, Sign of peace, an elephant,
2007, 200x200 cm

Untitled, 2008, 330x645 cm

Selfportrait, 2010, 200x200 cm

Comments by another observer:
“With outsized heads and misshapen bodies, none of Zeng's portraits of individuals smile out of the canvas; on the whole, their stares are blank. In addition, Zeng often leaves the bodies apparently unfinished, with paint dripping down absent limbs. The bodies in his portraits appear as if smeared across a flat surface. Furthermore, with his tendency to exaggerate hands and diminish bodies, his portraits straddle the boundary between portrait and caricature. Among his best-known works are those of the Mask Series, one of which, Mask Series, 1996, no. 6, was sold for just over $9.7 million in 2006. Only in these masked figures do we detect Joker-like smiles that reveal nothing of the individual behind the mask.”
By Stephanie Chang