Gagosian Quarterly

Fall 2017 Issue

zeng fanzhi:the early years

The first two decades of Zeng Fanzhi’s career offer great insights into the artist’s trajectory. Gladys Chung, editor of the artist’s catalogue raisonné, investigates these formative years.

Zeng Fanzhi with Hospital Triptych no. 1 (1991). Photo: Guo Shaoming

Zeng Fanzhi with Hospital Triptych no. 1 (1991). Photo: Guo Shaoming

Gladys Chung

Gladys Chung is a specialist and consultant in Asian art with ten years of experience in major auction houses including Christie’s, Poly Auction, and others, and has lectured at several universities in Hong Kong. She is the Hong Kong- and Beijing-based director for the Fanzhi Foundation for Art and Education.

The first volume of Zeng Fanzhi’s catalogue raisonné will encompass the work of the first two decades of his career, from 1984 to 2004—the first peak of his trajectory and a crucial period in the development of Chinese contemporary art. Illustrating many early works never published before, and the complete Mask Series, which was accomplished within that period, the book will also include rarely seen archival photographs and documents as well as conversations with Zeng. It will certainly provide a new and unprecedently comprehensive perspective on this acclaimed artist and his oeuvre. The introduction to the catalogue, written by its editor, Gladys Chung, is excerpted below.

Zeng Fanzhi has rarely exhibited or discussed his early works, and many of them are scattered or even lost. Tracking them down has been a task of more than archival value; it has shed light on the artist’s virtuosity, his pioneering strategies, and the aesthetic quests that he initiated in his youth and that run through his ongoing career. This is especially clear from the following representative works.

1988: A Mind at Odds with His Time

Still Life with Kettle (1988) shows Zeng’s obsession with art history. When he was a student, it was a normal part of the curriculum to paint copies of masterpieces, as so many famous artists had done before. Many of Zeng’s contemporaries chose to duplicate masterpieces by the French Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne, but Zeng went beyond mere imitation, aiming both to capture the spirit of Cézanne’s art and to treat it in an innovative way. Copying Cézanne’s Still Life with Kettle (between 1867 and 1869), he worked not only from the original image but from real fruit, and tried hard to find a high-waisted coffeepot with a white handle (making do with a saucepot) he even located a table and cloth like Cézanne’s. The reconstructed still life sparked a new feeling in the artist’s mind, and although the overall composition and layout of the painting can be traced back to Cézanne, the hue and ambience belong wholly to Zeng. He referred to and learned from the classics and at the same time resisted and departed from them, inserting his personal feelings and subjectivity. The trait would remain prominent throughout his career: even images inspired by canonical art-historical tropes are permeated with personal sensations and interpretations. The practice extends into later works such as From 1830 till now (2014) and Laocoön (2015).

Zeng Fanzhi: The Early Years

Zeng Fanzhi, Still Life with Kettle, 1988, oil on canvas, 19 ⅜ × 21 ½ inches (49 × 54.5 cm)

Socialist Realism and German Expressionism

Though Zeng was always a subjective artist, in his early period in the 1980s he was inevitably influenced by Socialist Realism and the Soviet rural-themed art so popular in China at the time. The question of how Socialist Realism influenced Zeng demands further research, but certainly the impact is more complex than most critics suggest—nor was it absolutely negative. The technical skills required for Socialist Realism are far from invisible in Zeng’s work; being trained to paint rural themes and portraits, he developed virtuosity in painting the human figure, its volume and silhouette. The mastery of modeling, chiaroscuro, and facial expression apparent in many of his early paintings can be attributed largely to his art-school training in Socialist Realism, a training that surely nurtured his passion for figurative painting and portraiture.

At the same time, the skills of Socialist Realism required a sacrifice of subjectivity, since this mainstream style called for formulaically positive depiction and for obscuring accordingly the unique personalities and emotions of both the portrayer and the portrayed. The rigidity of Socialist Realism could not prevent Zeng’s emotion from spilling to the canvas, albeit in masterfully subtle portrayals:

I painted models as required by the curriculum in class, but after class I adopted a totally different style. I loved drawing people around me, like my friends and people in the street. Sometimes I took photos; sometimes I did sketches but mainly portraits. At that time what I desired to express was my feelings. I also did abstract paintings, but finally I found that figure painting was my favorite. I always get a special feeling when I see the emotions of people in pictures.1

Zeng Fanzhi: The Early Years

Zeng Fanzhi, Narration, 1989, oil on canvas, 46 ⅛ × 32 ⅞ inches (117 × 83 cm)

The way Zeng was exposed to, understood, resisted, and transcended the Chinese painting tradition that was dominant in his early years is central to his work of the time. In his four years at art school, he insisted on exploration. Every work represents a break from tradition, a search for his own style and subjectivity. Some of his most important inspirations here were German Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism: he learned a great deal from artists such as Max Beckmann and Willem de Kooning. He has also often said he was inspired by the brushwork of Raoul Dufy. His study of these masters was methodological, examining the form, brushwork, line, and color of their work to find ways to escape from the norms of Socialist Realism. He located himself between these artistic traditions, learning the essence of both and internalizing them to fuel his own style.

I painted models as required by the curriculum in class, but after class I adopted a totally different style. I loved drawing people around me, like my friends and people in the street.

Zeng Fanzhi
1989–1991: A Radical Breakthrough

For a period in 1989–91, Zeng abandoned his desire for storytelling and inclined increasingly to formal components such as color, line, and textural brushwork. Relinquishing traditional perspective and the illusion of three-dimensional space, he turned instead to notions of flatness, realizing that abstraction might give him a way to bring subjective emotion and physical sensation into his work. That urgent focus underpinned his interest in de Kooning: “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.”2

Many works of these years demonstrate Zeng’s early attempts to explore the expressive powers and sensibilities of color, to which he had been sensitized by German Expressionism. To convey states of psychological anxiety, he began to use glaring hues such as blood red and stark white, a totally different palette from the browns and somber blacks of mainstream rural-themed painting. In producing his first consciously abstract works—Narration of 1989, for example—he felt that he was creating his own style:

I started to produce abstract paintings in the late 1980s. At that time, I was mocked at by many of my schoolmates. “Why?” they asked. “Why do you use lavishly so many materials and paints?” That’s right. I used all kinds of materials. I painted with my hands. In order to explore something new, I painted a lot, employed impasto, and wasted a lot of paint. But exploring new things is very important. When you are trying something new, you are feeling the paints and even communicating with them. What I felt then was totally different from what I feel now. I was like a baby feeling for something that was in my body and could not be taken away by anyone else.3

Zeng Fanzhi: The Early Years

The artist and friends in his studio, Wuhan, 1989

Baptism by Abstract: Exploring Brushwork

Having experienced something like a religious rebirth through his experiments with abstraction, Zeng found himself equipped with a new strategy and a reinforced self-assurance with which to return to portraiture. With growing confidence and virtuosity, he adopted German Expressionist techniques, using vigorous, emotionally charged brushstrokes to outline his figures. In Haircut (1989), for example, he used thick gray and coarse white to highlight the intricate folds and creases in the figures’ clothes. The contrast between these colors brings out the coldness and indifference of the subjects’ expressions, foregrounding the meaningless monotony and dullness of daily life. Zeng’s solid training in modeling also allowed him to give his figures a sense of volume and three-dimensionality with only a few brushstrokes.

In works such as this one, Zeng found a subtle balance and unity of realism and expressionism. In many portraits of the time, he portrayed his figures in strange perspectives—bottom up, profile, frontal, displaced, even hybrids of different viewing angles. This extraordinary sense of space was doubtless a lesson learned from expressionism. He also drew inspiration from the deformed and elasticized figures of Cézanne: many portraits of 1989–90, especially the Hospital Series and Mask Series, show the oversized, warped hands and eyes that would later become signature motifs. Expressionism certainly widened his artistic path and played a distinctive role in his career.

1991–1992: Hospital Triptych: A Broader Paradigm and Thematic Transpositions

In the summer of 1991, Zeng began to prepare for his graduating exhibition. He wanted to create a work that would both summarize what he had learned at art school and establish his personal style. This led him to adopt a larger size and the triptych form, an appropriate platform for portraying the complexity of human experience. For his subject Zeng looked to an important experience in his life. He had lived for a long time near a hospital in the Hankou district of Wuhan. Passing through the facility every day, he had witnessed many life-and-death moments and watched suffering patients preparing to meet their fates. Their helplessness in the face of indifferent doctors and nurses had a huge impact on him and became a grounding theme of Hospital Triptych.

In some sense, Hospital Triptych necessarily marked an advance in maturity: as a graduate piece, it embodied the stylistic breakthroughs that Zeng had accumulated over the years preceding. But its chosen theme elevated it still further. For the first time, Zeng focused on groups of tragic characters, which he arranged in scenes that echoed Greek tragedies; and he began to explore religious iconography. His construction of symbolic images remains a point of study in his work to this day.

Zeng Fanzhi: The Early Years

Zeng Fanzhi, Hospital Triptych no. 1, 1991 (middle panel), oil on canvas, 70 ⅞ × 59 ⅛ inches (180 × 150 cm)

Numbing and Indifference

Hospital Triptych no. 1 establishes the scenes and characters of the entire oeuvre of hospital-related paintings in the following years. The work comprises three scenes that can be viewed both as independent stories and as a left-to-right sequence: patients waiting to see doctors; patients during an operation; and patients after the operation. These works, cold and cruel in atmosphere, mix Zeng’s incisive observations of human situations with his personal interpretation of reality. We see maniacally smiling doctors handling patients who lie on the operating table like raw meat to be butchered or writhe and groan in agony on the ward. Their anxious looks and physical suffering starkly contrast with the indifference of the doctors who treat them like meat, using scornful fingers to examine their secret parts and ridiculing them when they groan. Physical suffering is associated with spiritual abuse, and the doctors’ maltreatment points to the brutality in human nature. Zeng captures every tiniest detail: needles full of blood, scalpels, pallid hospital clothes. In recording patients’ suffering he reveals indifference and cruelty. As art critic Pi Daojian writes, the work dovetails “the indifference of the participators and the anxiety of the audience.”4

Radical Break from the Norm

Only by mapping Zeng’s portraits onto their historical context can we understand the innovative significance of Hospital Triptych. At the time, Socialist Realism dominated art in China. And Socialist Realism advocated that portraiture be “decent, grand, and deprived of any imperfection,” imposing uniform postures, manners, and appearances. Its figures were idealistic symbols—abstract concepts embodied by fictitious stereotypes. They were painted merely as propaganda tools for the revolution. The figures in Hospital Triptych, though, or even in the earlier A Man in Melancholy, break the bonds of mainstream Socialist Realism and display complexity, individuality, and feeling—indeed, dark and negative feeling. A type of portraiture then rare in China was born.

Religious Imagery and Universal Pathos

Hospital Triptych no. 2 embodies a thematic shift, leading the viewer to ponder individual suffering and death. It meanwhile reinterprets themes and iconography from Western art history and offers a new ideological perspective. The latent compassion and solemnity of the Hospital Series are overt in Hospital Triptych no. 2. The patient’s collapsed body and the doctor’s hold on it evokes the schema of the pietà, of Mary holding the broken body of Christ after his descent from the cross. This was the first time Zeng had applied this sort of Renaissance model in his painting, a cultural leap that raises his Hospital Series to the realm of philosophy: the transition is made from the depiction of an individual Chinese patient to consideration of the universal problems of human suffering.

Zeng Fanzhi: The Early Years

Zeng Fanzhi, Meat no. 2, 1992, oil on canvas, 71 × 59 ¼ inches (180.4 × 150.5 cm)

There’s no redemption for Zeng’s patients: Jesus was crucified for humanity’s sins and eventually ascended to heaven to sit at God’s right hand, but the body depicted in the painting will never ascend or attain sainthood. A raw pessimism seeps through the work: there is no hope of release, no hope of sublimation. The Hospital Series questions the nature of suffering, its apparent meaninglessness accounting for the tragedy of the human condition.

Zeng’s work can be seen as a chemical combination of constantly changing artistic compulsions, bubbling and boiling down to a deep and thorough contemplation of human nature, a distillation that surmounts any specific temporality or geography.

The rise of contemporary Chinese art in the late 1980s and early ’90s was a product of each individual artist’s reflections on real-life situations, with which they mostly dealt in sarcastic, absurd, cynical ways. But Zeng chose to contemplate such circumstances in a sympathetic and humanitarian way, giving his themes global appeal. His paintings are vast and complex, capable of moving the viewer on a deeply personal level across classes, borders, and cultures. That is the true essence of art.

1993: Blood-Soaked Meat, Dead Animals, and Human Bodies

From the Hospital Series stemmed two further series, Meat and Human and Meat. Although the latter two contain fewer works than Hospital Series, the three must be studied together to see their closeness. Through them, Zeng made a significant artistic leap and established an imagery with connotations distinctly his own—namely, meat.

Zeng Fanzhi: The Early Years

Zeng Fanzhi, From the Masses, To the Masses, 1993, oil on canvas, 70 ⅞ × 78 ¾ inches (180 × 200 cm)

Zeng Fanzhi: The Early Years

Preparatory sketch for From the Masses, To the Masses (1993)

Deliberately overlaying the image of meat onto human figures, in these works Zeng presented human bodies alternately with bloody flesh and dead animals hung or scattered around them, concatenating images of people and of beasts prepared for slaughter. This innovative iconography was a creative transformation of something Zeng had seen: shirtless workers sleeping on a frozen meat slab to keep cool, evoking an immediate union of living humans and dead meat. Unique emotions were thus extracted from the dullness of ordinary blue-collar lives. Zeng developed this imagery of unprocessed meat through the observation, distillation, and tranformation of his own environment, for the butchers and meat-packers of his old neighborhood would sometimes display meat on the streets. He took the work beyond that real-life situation, however, through the addition of critical details: in Meat no. 2 (1992), for example, a piece of grayish-white cloth covering the meat arouses associations with the shroud covering the body of Jesus, transforming an actual scene into religious iconography and endowing the image with many layers of meaning.

Lacerated meat and bleeding bodies are symbols of sacrifice and salvation in the Bible. In Genesis, God favors Abel’s bloody sacrifice of a lamb over Cain’s offering of the fruit of the field; in Leviticus, priests inspect the sacrificial lambs of Yom Kippur to ensure their physical and by implication moral perfection before their sacrifice. The theme is developed in the New Testament, where Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross substitutes humankind for the lamb and offers salvation with a stark message: hope comes at a cost. Zeng’s draped cloth—Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ is an example he may have drawn on—captures the passion of Calvary and transforms a humble meat-packing district into the locus of universal legend.

Blood-soaked meat and suffering human bodies are thus connected, reminding viewers of the patients and the dead in the Hospital Series. Several elements blend here to form a chain of imagery. For Christian saints, the decay of the body entails the noble elevation of the soul. For ordinary people, though, human bodies are unprocessed meat trapped in meaningless suffering; we are obliged to ask ourselves where solace and salvation lie. Human desperation, both compassion for and pessimism about the human condition, and a questioning of the meaning of life have always been Zeng’s concerns. Here they are explicitly conveyed through his system of imagery.

Zeng Fanzhi: The Early Years

Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series no. 3, 1994, oil on canvas, 65 ¾ × 70 ⅞ inches (167 × 180 cm)

The three series of Zeng’s early period, Hospital, Meat, and Human and Meat, reveal him as an observer who presents the brutal conditions of human existence with cold eyes. The sufferings he depicted at this stage were more universal than personal, in sharp contrast to the introspection and autobiographical quality of the better-known Mask Series, so deeply rooted in the private emotions of the artist’s loneliness and restlessness when he moved to Beijing in 1993. It was a lonely turning point and a new artistic chapter was about to emerge.

1Zeng Fanzhi, quoted in Li Xianting, “A Restless Soul—A Dialogue between Li Xianting and Zeng Fanzhi,” in I/We: The Painting of Zeng Fanzhi 1991–2003, exh. cat. (Wuhan: Hubei Fine Arts Publishing House, 2003), p. 167.

2Zeng, in conversation with the author, London, October 6, 2016.

3Zeng, quoted in Helen Ho, “A Close Look into Zeng Fanzhi,” Art and Investment no. 9 (2010), pp. 49–50.

4Pi Daojian, “The Indifference of the Participators and the Anxiety of the Audience,” in Behind Masks: Zeng Fanzhi, exh. cat. (Hong Kong: Hanart TZ Gallery, 1995), pp. 19–22.

Artwork © 2017 Zeng Fanzhi. Please contact for more information and to order the catalogue raisonné. Contributors include, among others, Fumio Nanjo, Philippe Dagen, and Chang Tsong-zung. Edited by Gladys Chung.

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