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  • Provenance

    Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong

  • Catalogue Essay

    Very little has been seen or heard about Zeng Fanzhi's rare and early Chairman Mao paintings of 1993, of which only two exist. One belongs to the artist's collection; another was bought by the esteemed collector and dealer Manfred Schoeni in the mid-1990s and acquired for the present collection, where it has remained until the present day.
    Born in Wuhan in 1964, Zeng studied at the Oil Painting Department of the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts. His work in this period was heavily influenced by modern realism, in particular German Expressionism, as well the Dickensian intercourse of this enormous industrial city. Unlike many of his peers in China, Zeng's works are internally focused, character portraits rather than socio-political commentary; he is internationally acclaimed for his psychologically illuminating portraiture and generally shies away from it. He is, however, no stranger to depictions of power and psychological violence, both of which figure prominently in his early work.
    It is not difficult to understand the 1993 Chairman Mao paintings in light of Zeng's oeuvre at that time. At this young age Zeng was already possessed of a heightened sensitivity toward the cruelty of mankind, stemming from both his introverted nature and personal experience. The critic Karen Smith writes:"...
    (Zeng) found himself drawn to late medieval altarpieces and early Renaissance Mannerists, in which the strong silent sadness and brutality of the Pieta, or Christ crucified, made sense to one who had been penalized for his own goodness or, superficially, the purity of his looks. I asked him how these images appeared to him at that time... "We had seen much worse than that," he said. "With our own eyes, and within our own immediate local environment. The image of Christ crucified was mild compared to that." (K. Smith, ‘All that Meets the Eye: Zeng Fanzhi's Art, 1991 – 2003' in I/We, Hubei 2003, p. 43)
    While still at the Hubei Academy, Zeng's capacity for composing intricate tableaux of hope and despair intensified rapidly. Spotting a man taking a nap on a frozen piece of pork one summer day, the young artist was inspired to produce the incisive, grisly Meat Series that paired fallen man with bloody carcass. His proximity to a nearby hospital that regularly offered up Dante-esque scenes in its waiting rooms inspired his Hospital Series and, in 1991, his graduation work Xiehe Hospital Triptych II. This monumental triptych featured a transcendent Pieta-like scene amid the stench of suffering in a crowded waiting room. "The ‘Hospital Triptych' was a product of the artist's experience, but without depicting the functions of a hospital, the artist had instinctively extended the implications of the hospital that he saw and interpreted: the psychological and physical pains, the tortures of medical treatment and the frequency of deaths." (P. Lu ‘Story of a State of Mind' in The Paintings of Zeng Fanzhi, Shanghai 2006, p. 10) Aptly, at the height of his artistic powers to express collective despair and masochism, Zeng Fanzhi took it upon himself to tackle the subject of the Great Leader. He was not quite thirty.
    While most of Zeng's works prior to 1993 were inspired by his immediate environment, this year marked a turning point where his works began to take on a more conceptual bent even as his virtuoso brushstrokes bloomed. In 1993 he moved to Beijing, and in this year executed his only two Chairman Mao paintings before embarking on the iconic Mask series. The Chairman Mao works are stylistically similar to the Hospital Series: intricate tableaux of human figures engaged in enactments of power, desire, and despair. In these works Zeng's rendition of weary flesh, hopeless gazes, gnarled hands, and collective suffering is pitch-perfect: "I feel that the color of human skin and the color of meat are sometimes very similar, like when pressure is applied to a leg, or unwanted pieces chopped away from a piece of meat – when you place them together, and when I look at them, they remind me of people." (F. Zeng taken from ‘A Restless Soul: Dialogue between Li Xianting and Zeng Fanzhi' in I/We, Hubei 2003, p. 168)
    Chairman Mao II presents a middle-aged Mao Zedong in People's Liberation Army garb, afloat in a sea of fawning cronies. Mao is elevated on a white divan against an opulent crimson room. His followers surge toward to him like beggars rising from a crimson smog, crying out for alms. Little Red Books – pocket-sized compilations of Mao's sayings that every Chinese citizen carried around like a talisman close to their hearts-- are thrust toward him as obeisance. The Great Leader's eyes are imperially cast upward; he appears barely cognizant of his followers' wretched countenances. The figure in the upper left appears to be Zhou Enlai, the cosmopolitan and popular Premier under Mao who was responsible for much of the ‘Four Modernizations'. He would become a political target of Jiang Qing, depicted in the lower left of the painting. He would become a political target of Jiang Qing, Mao's wife who is depicted in the lower left of the painting-a key mastermind of the Cultural Revolution and also leader of the historically important gang. The red scarves depicted were commonly awarded to and worn by young Party members known as the Young Pioneers; the scarf left a particular impression on Zeng as a prejudiced teacher had denied him one during his school days on grounds that the young boy was ‘arrogant'. It was, therefore, not only a sign of patriotism but also of abused power.
    Mao was a common subject of contemporary artists in the late 1980s and early 1990s, functioning both as a political trope and an artistic metaphor for the status quo. Artists working in entirely different schools dissected his image with the same fervor as Modernists reinventing the canvas. Luo Zhongli's Father (Fig. 1), an excruciating close-up of a peasant's weary, weatherbeaten face, was condemned and then celebrated as a parody of Mao's formal portraiture and a criticism of his rural policies. Wang Guangyi abstracted three images of Mao in the notorious Mao AO triptych that became known as ‘Mao behind bars' (Fig. 2). Yu Youhan and Li Shan made the Great Leader Pop; rendering the once-powerful visage a mere tool of commercial production and cultural critique.
    Zeng's Chairman Mao portrait stands apart from other artistic assessments. While most contemporary artists' critiques of Mao focus on his lone form and in particular his portrait, Zeng's composition addresses the intricate, multi-player structures of power and politics under Mao's reign. At heart, Zeng is not a symbolist. He works with physical tropes of masks and meat, but his strength lies in his extraordinary ability to meld mask with meat, to evoke complex shades of misery, hope, insecurity, and power in face and flesh. He breaks down the iconic power of Mao's formal portrait not through formal artistic intervention, but by placing a cigarette in the Great Leader's hand. In this work, the entire composition of figures appears almost organic, the color of the room returning to Zeng's familiar shade of flesh—as if the dynamics at this high court of politics were not really that far removed from the vignettes of suffering played out in the Xiehe Hospital waiting room.
    After Zeng's move to Beijing in 1993, his paintings took on a distinctly more introspective tone, focusing on portraiture and technical experimentation. While the artist occasionally revisited Mao as a subject, the Maos of his later work serve more as ciphers for his stylistic development; in no subsequent painting has he ever offered up a politically colored statement like this one. The masterpiece that is the present lot remains an extremely rare study in political critique from this celebrated artist's early oeuvre.

245

Chairman Mao II

1993
Oil on canvas.
200 x 181 cm. (78 3/4 x 71 1/4 in).
Signed and dated ‘Zeng Fanzhi [in Chinese] 1993' lower right. This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity.

Estimate
£2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for £2,169,250

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

29 June 2008, 5pm
London