Zeng Fanzhi - BRIC London Thursday, April 14, 2011 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong; acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    China!: Kunstmuseum Bonn, 29 February – 16 June 1996; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 1996; Künstlerhaus Wien, Vienna, 1997; Art Museum Singapore; Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw

  • Literature

    CHINA!, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Bonn, 1996, p. 166 (illustrated in colour)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Dating from 1994, the first year of this series, Zeng Fanzhi’s Mask Series No. 21 sounds a hugely important grace note to this defining sequence in his constantly evolving oeuvre. The painting depicts a single figure of ambiguous gender, clad in a two-piece skirt-suit. Hair pulled back, she strikes a pose of coy surprise, making the S-shaped contour of classical sculpture. No feet appear, but right knee is bent before left leg, and right hand raised daintily to shoulder. The attention paid to drapery – the bunching of fabric at her elbows and lower torso – deepens these classical echoes. The figure’s substantial left hand extends alone into the painting’s right half, its nails painted red. A yo-yo dangles somewhat incongruously from her index finger, the string tracing a fine zig-zag down toward the amorphous shadows which occupy the canvas’s lower reaches. The orange-red of the yo-yo strikes a discordant tonal note with both the deep red of the nail polish and the fleshy pinks of the figure’s body. Her white mask is punctuated by heavy eyebrows and, notably, leaves space for her open eyes to peek through. The strap which marks the mask as an appendage is clearly visible on either temple. Perhaps most remarkably, the figure wears an expression that suggests two distinct readings: either of a face agape in horror, or one preparing to speak to an absent listener.
    Many questions have been asked about the true meaning of the mask in Zeng’s work, from the semiotic to the metaphysical. Fifteen years ago, Johnson Chang saw it as a covering, a façade. “A mask represents a stable identity,” Chang posited. “By assuming a public face, the self has assumed power.” (1) Such a reading dovetails nicely with the artist’s own commentary, particularly the closest he has offered to a defining interpretation for the entire series: “The true self will always be concealed. No one appears in society without a mask.”(2) Other interviewers have drawn Zeng out on the moment when he relocated to Beijing from his native Wuhan, and the Hubei Academy of Art where he received his training in the early 1990s. “After I came to Beijing, I didn’t have many friends with whom I could truly open myself,” he famously told Li Xianting in an interview. “So I think the paintings are a reflection of things in my heart, not necessarily all people’s. It’s just my personal feeling.”(3)
    Most recently, critic Richard Shiff has written an extended meditation on the mask motif in Zeng’s work, moving beyond this biographical determinism and into philosophical speculation. Shiff’s investigation, ‘Every Mark Its Mask’, is the title essay for the closest Zeng currently has to a catalogue raisonné.(4) It begins by comparing Zeng’s use of masks at the turn of the 21st century to James Ensor’s and Francisco Goya’s plays on the same motif, one and two hundred years ago respectively. Quickly dismissing these art-historical parallels as coincidental, Shiff enters into a sort of metaphysical inquiry. “Despite the limited extent of the mask,” he writes, “it fits the form of the face and head so precisely that – whether we regard the mask as social fantasy or physical reality – we cannot imagine how anything underneath would be different.” Importantly, the mask thus offers both the thing itself and its uncanny double.
    Mask Series No. 21 belongs to the earliest group of Mask paintings, and was shown in the original solo show Behind Masks at Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong with which the series debuted. It was later shown in the exhibition China! at the Kunstmuseum Bonn in 1996, Zeng’s most important exhibition to that point. At the time, eminent critic Li Xianting declared the series a new stage in Zeng’s artistic development, calling it “a strong departure from the intense and explosive quality of his earlier work”, exhibiting “a new quality of detachment and rationalism”.(5) This particular example, aside from exhibiting all the traits which make the early Mask paintings so important (the rigid poses, the Western dress, the flesh still reminiscent of the earlier Hospital triptychs) tweaks the common understanding in two main ways. First, in depicting an ambiguously female figure, it suggests the full range and vision of Zeng’s Mask project. From the very beginning, it suggests, the series was not about presenting a single self-portrait visage, but about depicting contemporary Chinese society in all its complexity. Second, it includes a seemingly superfluous toy in the yo-yo. Toys occur throughout the early Mask paintings, starting with the wooden dog in the bottom left corner of Mask Series No. 1. Asked about the significance of the yo-yo, Zeng replied simply that “it carries no special meaning; I just thought of a yo-yo while making the painting, and decided to incorporate it directly into the composition.”(6)
    Distinguished by its composition and vintage, Mask Series No. 21 is a key early work that offers unique insight into the breadth and depth of the entire Mask series.
    1. Johnson Tsung-Zong Chang, ‘The Naked Eye: Zeng Fanzhi 1990–1994’, in Behind Masks, exh. cat., Hanart TZ Gallery, 1994.
    2. Artist’s statement, in Zeng Fanzhi: 1993–1998, exh. cat., Central Academy of Fine Arts Gallery, Beijing, 1998, p. 84.
    3. Zeng Fanzhi, interview with Li Xianting, I/We, exh. cat., 2003, p. 170
    4. Richard Shiff, ‘Every Mark Its Mask’, in Zeng Fanzhi: Every Mark its Mask, Ostfildern, 2010, p. 22.
    5. Li Xianting, ‘Life Masks: Symbol and Expression in the Recent Paintings of Zeng Fanzhi’, in Behind Masks: Zeng Fanzhi, exh. cat., Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong, 1994, p. 14.
    6. Zeng Fanzhi, in an email interview, March 2011.


The Mask Series No. 21

Oil on canvas.
180 x 150 cm (70 7/8 x 59 in).
Signed in Chinese and dated 'Zeng Fanzhi 94' lower right.

£800,000 - 1,200,000 

Sold for £993,250


14 - 15 April 2011