Zeng Fanzhi, ‘Portrait’, 2006, Phillips

Property of an Important American Collector

From the Catalogue:
As one of the most globally recognised Chinese contemporary artists, Zeng Fanzhi has created a body of work so rich and diverse that it spans several distinctly different periods, among which the portrait has always played a key role in his artistic expression. Zeng once said, "I'm interested in portraying people, individual people and their attitudes and moods, experimenting and giving expression to a kind of direct reaction, all for the sake of conveying this person's expressions, emotions, and thoughts, as well as my personal feelings towards this person." (Zeng Fanzhi, quoted in i/We: The Paintings of Zeng Fanzhi, 1991-2003, Shanghai Art Museum, Shanghai, 2003, p. 56) His Hospital and Meat series in the early 1990s displays his humanistic concern towards the suffering of ordinary people. The Mask series, which began in 1993, the year when he moved to the more cosmopolitan Beijing, captures his piercing observation of the contradiction between the external pomposity and the inner emptiness of urban dwellers. After 2000, the artist went on to unmask the protagonists in his canvases.

Completed in 2006, Portrait is a quintessential example of his style in this period. With his carefully calibrated expressionistic technique, Zeng portrayed a man holding his head with his over-sized hand, slumped in a chair, with hollow eyes looking away. While the lower body of the figure is presented partially with ethereal outlines and thin wash marks below his knees, the upper body is depicted with vivid red colour in dense layers and large proportioned hands. The stark contrast centres the viewer’s attention on the figure’s upper body, building further on which, the painterly brushstrokes render the creases from the figure’s frown broadly visible, thus building a character lost in deep contemplation and drawing the viewer to ponder what he might be dwelling on.

The composition of this work bears similarity to that of Zeng’s early work A Man in Melancholy, a crucial work painted in the artist’s junior year at college, marking the beginning of Zeng’s artistic career. The importance of this early work is testified by the fact the artist bought it back from auction in 2010 and that it was exhibited in several important exhibitions, including his most recent retrospective in UCCA last year. Compared to the early work, this present lot Portrait, while staying true to his inherent characters, has evolved in terms of the reduced backdrop and the approach of representing texture, testifying to the artist’s continuous exploration of portraiture as a method for conveying personal yet universally appealing emotions and self-reflection on his artistic journey.
Courtesy of Phillips

Signature: signed and dated 'Zeng Fanzhi 2006 [in Chinese and Pinyin]' lower right

Private Collection (acquired directly from the artist)
Bonhams, Hong Kong, 23 November 2013, lot 843
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

About Zeng Fanzhi

Zeng Fanzhi achieved recognition in the 1990s for his "Hospital" and "Meat" paintings, both rendered in the artist's signature fleshy red tones. In pairing men with butchered slabs of meat, the works from the Meat series pointed to Zeng's ongoing concern with modernity's problematic history (he grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution) and the isolation and instability of contemporary life in general. Later portraits of subjects like Francis Bacon and Stalin or the "Mask" paintings of well-dressed urbanites hiding behind masks further intensified this sense of alienation. Influenced by German Expressionism, Zeng commonly renders figures with large heads and exaggerated features in bold brushstrokes; Chinese traditional art and calligraphy are recent references.

Chinese, b. 1964, Wuhan, China, based in Beijing, China