Zeng Fanzhi - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Saturday, November 23, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private Collection
    Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 31 October 2004, lot 314
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Literature

    Pi Li, ed., Zeng Fanzhi 1993-1998, Beijing, 1998, p. 43 (illustrated)
    He Lijun and Pi Li, ed., I/We: The Paintings of Zeng Fanzhi 1991-2003, Wuhan, 2003, p. 88 (illustrated)
    Jean-Marc Decrop and Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Modernités Chinoises, Paris, 2003, p. 110 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Creation is a tool of mine, it is the way I connect with the world. As an artist under the influences of different cultures, my hope is that my art reflects the social and aesthetic experience of an individual in the present time” — Zeng Fanzhi

    Mask Series No.1 is an exceptional work, one of the early paintings from the Mask Series by Zeng Fanzhi - one of China’s most celebrated contemporary artists who has deservedly established his position within the lexicon of the global art-historical canon for his astoundingly rich and varied body of work. As indicated by the work’s title, Mask Series No.1 was the first painting executed in 1996. Impressive in both its scale and graphically rendered composition, the viewer is presented with a curious scene: a pair of figures, both donning masks, set against a nebulous ochre background that is typical of Zeng’s Mask early works from the mid-90s - and is exceedingly rare. Adorned in vibrantly-coloured clothes that nod to European haute couture, and articulated with clean, black brushstrokes, the subjects of the present work appear to pop off the hazy canvas with an almost three-dimensional quality. Imbued with metaphors that are a testament to the richness of Zeng’s art-historical sensitivity and distinctiveness, whilst undeniably based on the artist’s own personal memories, the present work exudes a unique blend which has paved the way for the Mask Series to become one of Zeng’s most recognisable and iconic works.

    1996 is a year considered to be a mature apex in the artist’s mastery of his most famous masked subjects. A rumination on the culture shock Zeng experienced having moved from relatively provincial Wuhan to metropolitan Beijing in early 1993, the Mask Series works portray a stark societal shift to which the young artist was unaccustomed: “In the mid-1990s, China was transforming fast”, Zeng perceived, “Chinese officials started wearing suits and ties… Everybody wanted to look good, but there was an air of fraudulence in it” (the artist quoted in Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, ‘Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation’, The New York Times, New York, 3 May 2007, online.) Whether an act of silent retaliation or a coping mechanism, Zeng explored the plight of the modern city dweller in his work, serving a valid portrayal of the difficulties and anxieties of the Chinese adapting to rapid urbanisation at that time.

    The fashionable couple in Mask Series No.1 is a far cry from the figures populating the artist’s earlier Meat and Hospital pieces, though they still recall these previous works in their sinewy and sanguineous limbs. Although the pair are clearly comfortable in each other’s presence - their body language friendly as the woman drapes her arm over the man’s shoulders - Zeng’s employment of the mask as a powerful symbol of concealment evokes a strange sense of superficiality. With both masks caught in a ‘poker-face’ expression simultaneously poised between a grimace and a mocking smile, the couple’s genuine feelings are cloaked away. In spite of this, however, turmoil and anxiety nevertheless seep through, via the pairs’ exaggeratedly engorged, veiny hands that are a telltale sign of honesty. As critic Li Xianting summarises Zeng’s masterful rendering of the fleshy hands, composed of crimson hues that derive directly from Zeng’s earlier Meat series: “the overall effect is of people who are trying to suppress their emotions in order to present an air of calm – yet they are betrayed by their hands; they are unable to conceal their hands”. Showcasing an extraordinarily mature and refined technique through his expressive brushwork, the emotion that is concentrated in the faces and hands of Zeng’s subjects command contemplation and internal reflection from the viewer, as opposed to astonishment alone.

    Directly contrasting the ability of masks to conceal, paintings can be examined for what they reveal, as traces of mark-making offer the viewer an insight into a work’s compositional history. In scraping the surface of Mask Series No.1 smooth with a palette knife, Zeng has eradicated any trace of his brushwork in the background of the piece, cleverly extending his exploration of the theme of concealment into the formation of the painting itself. In doing so, the viewer’s eyes are automatically drawn to the more gestural brushstrokes employed to compose the subject of the painting, of which an immense depth of historical references are evoked. With its air of splendour, the present work is a prime example of how Zeng stylistically situates Western Expressionism within a heavily Chinese realm. Drawing on multifaceted allusions that range from the essences of British artists Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud; yet steeped in distinct Chinese symbols including Chinese opera masks and Northern Song scrolls (in Zeng’s deliberate choice of the background’s brown hue) - the artist has achieved his desire to “find an artistic voice that belonged solely to [him]”.

    With a practice that is unparalleled in the world of Chinese contemporary art, Zeng has earned critical acclaim and the attention of prominent museums and collectors worldwide for his now-iconic Mask Series that challenges the traditions of figurative painting. Alongside international gallery Hauser & Wirth who announced its worldwide representation of Zeng in March 2018, the artist has presented solo shows at key galleries and institutions around the world - indicating that confidence in the artist’s oeuvre continues to grow.

Property from an Important Hong Kong Collection


Mask Series No. 1

signed and dated 'Zeng Fanzhi [in Pinyin] 96' lower right
oil on canvas
200 x 180 cm. (78 3/4 x 70 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1996.

HK$14,000,000 - 24,000,000 

Sold for HK$19,350,000

Contact Specialist
Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 24 November 2019