Chinese contemporary art was sold just like hotcakes in 2008. Looking back over the past, collectors used to buy their artworks and resold them; however, Chinese contemporary art entered a new phase after this 4 years. The days people trade at a high were gone and truly valuable artworks have been demanded. We visited Mr. Zeng Fanzhi, who is well known with his Mask Series that had a strong impact on the world.
A New Expression Over East and West
Ichii: You are going to have an exhibition in Basel in September, and also a solo exhibition in London this autumn.
Zeng: Yes, I participate in Art Basel every year, but I will have only one artwork for this group show. I am looking forward to the one in London because it is going to be a solo show.
Ichii: At Gagosian Gallery?
Zeng: Exactly. I am going to exhibit some new landscapes, instead of portraits. I need some large works too as Gagosian Gallery in London is huge.
Ichii: As I see those landscapes you have here, they are all mysterious that branches and treetops look like they are singing together.
Zeng: Oh yeah? That is a new opinion.
Ichii: You have various artworks such as Balthus here in your studio. This Buddha head was made in around Tang or Sui, right? Do you like this kind of works?
Zeng: Yes, this is from Tang. The Buddhist statue in front of the entrance is made before Tang.
Ichii: I saw your works for the first time at preview of Asian Contemporary Art Auction in Christie’s Hong Kong held at Hermes in Ginza in 2008. “Mask Series No. 6” had a strong impact that I was impressed. I sometimes recalled your masks after that and that is why I wanted to see you.
Ichii: You had Hospital Series that have doctors and patients before Mask Series. When did you start them?
Zeng: Started in 1991, I made them as my graduation work for bachelor degree.
Ichii: It feels like there is a lonely spirit just as Picasso’s Blue Period in your Hospital Series. You express the spirits of patients confronting their terrifying diseases or death, and doctors helping them, not just a portrayal of hospitals. The scene of nurse holding a patient at the middle of the painting reminds me of The Descent of the Cross.
Zeng: I was just expressing what I felt, what I saw and what happened around me at that time.
Ichii: And it seems to be influenced by Steen as well.
Zeng: Indeed, I did get influenced by him. I got to know of him thanks to a Japanese book called “Asahi Weekly Encyclopedia: Arts in the World”. I read that in a library in the university in 1987. It had his artwork of a chunk of meat, which had a great impact that I never forget. I was really impressed when I saw the original in Switzerland later on.
Ichii: You were able to see Japanese publications at that time.
Zeng: There was only one set in the university that we could neither borrow nor read alone. So we gathered to go to the library and read it together. There was no other way to read it due to the strict control in China those days.
Ichii. You were 23 in 1987, weren’t you?
Zeng: Yes. I was young, defiant, and so-called an angry youth! Schools at that time taught socialistic realism, which is totally opposite from my artworks. We had to include a story in socialistic realism.
Ichii: Steen is one of the artists in School of Paris that had lonely artists such as Picasso, Modigliani or Pascin. I assume that you used to be a lonely rebel against socialistic realism.
Zeng: Schoolteachers at that time did not want us to paint this type of works. We could not attend any important exhibitions with them due to the poor demand. Any artworks cannot be accepted as long as you cannot attend an official exhibition. Teachers kept saying that you have to master the fundamentals of art before painting different types of art; however, in the end, we wanted to express ourselves.
Ichii: Works by Steen have an attractive movement and texture of oil paintings. The movement of crooked branches in your landscape looks similar to his.
Zeng: Artists who inspired me were not only Steen but also Francis Bacon, German expressionists and American abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning. I learned various types of art when I was a student in order to find my way to express myself. I painted this one in 1990, when I was a student.
Ichii: Such a great work. 1990 is before you graduate, or before you started painting the Hospital Series. There definitely is the similar spirit to Beckmann, Nolde and Kirchner.
Zeng: I got to be conscious to express my internal spirit with this work as a start.
Took an University Entrance Exam Having a Job
Ichii: You graduated from university when you were 27, which is, generally speaking, a little bit late. What were you before you got into the university?
Zeng: You generally graduate from university when you are 22, but I got into the university when I was 23. I started working when I was 16 without going to high school. I did not even finish middle school!
Ichii: So you liked painting since you were a child?
Zeng: Yes, I liked painting since I was little. There was not such a job as professional painter in China around 1980s. I had to have another job creating artworks. I got into a printing company in the end even though I wanted to have a job somewhat relating to arts or painting.
Ichii: Did the job sort of relate to art?
Zeng: Just a little bit. I sometimes drew a cut inserted within text or designed a book.
Ichii: When did you decide to get into a university while you were working?
Zeng: I did not even know that there was such a thing as art school when I started working. I got to know of it when I was 17 or 18. And I started to take an entrance exam after that; however, the academic exam was too hard to pass. Since I have not studied in high school, it was probably harder for me than others feel. That is why I spent 5 years to finally pass it and it was when I was 23.
Ichii: I heard there were only 8 students per a grade in oil painting department of Hubei Art School.
Zeng: Yes. Oil painting department was the most crucial one that teachers made the students painters. There were more teachers than students. We were proud of ourselves to get into the department then.
Ichii: The elect few, you all were the elites.
Zeng: All the teachers and students were always excited about freshmen in that department every year. Actually, we had to have an athlete ability as well to get into Hubei Art School.
Ichii: What do your parents do?
Zeng: They both used to work at a printing company.
Ichii: How old are they?
Zeng: My mother is 68 and father is 73.
Ichii: So are you the oldest child?
Zeng: Yes. I have a younger sister and brother.
Ichii: I have read an article saying your mother influenced you, but how?
Zeng: My parents were typical employees in 1970s and 80s, and both liked literature. My father was a young lover of literature who loved “Paintings of the Four Elegant Pastimes”. My mother also has more knowledge on literature and arts compared with others. I think it was rare for people to read all those famous novels like my parents did. So I guess they partially have influenced me. I still remember that they used to sing a song together because they also liked a Beijing opera.
Ichii: I can tell that people used to be able to enjoy various genres of arts in China before the Cultural Revolution.
Debuted in the World with Mask Series
Ichii: Cultural Revolution started 2 years later you were born in 1964. 10 more years later, in 1976, it ends due to the death of Mao Zedong. You were 12 years old then. And there are Junior Red Guards in “MASK SERIES NO. 6”. Is this because of your experience on Cultural Revolution?
Zeng: I surely did paint what my memory had in the Mask Series: for instance, red scarf, an old memory and some important incidents that I remember. In fact, Cultural Revolution is what I was told by adults rather than what I experienced directly on my own. The faces, behavior and actions of people scared me. For example, when I said something that went too far, my parents got confused and told me not to say such a thing in front of others. I think tension that was running through everyday influenced me.
Ichii: It feels that you simply painted your spirit itself in your Hospital Series that you started creating as the graduation work. On the other hand, you viewed yourself objectively in the Mask Series. Therefore, the Hospital Series is your portrait in a way, while the Mask Series has an objective view.
Zeng: Exactly, right.
Ichii: You changed your theme after debuted with the Mask Series.
Zeng: Next stage comes naturally after you finish up what you wanted to express in one series. I don’t want to stay at the same place. I always want to go forward to move on. I don’t think it is cool to express the same thing on and on tied up with old memories because I am still young. I want to express something new that nobody has done before. All the works including the Mask Series are the past for me.
Keep Everything in Nature Inside Himself
Ichii: A large number of landscapes have been painted in China since the Northern Song Dynasty, though there is not an old tradition of landscape paintings in Europe.
Zeng: Landscapes of nature were the most popular in the Northern Song Dynasty in China. I would say that all my works and contexts were more westernized; however, what I have been working on is rather Chinese traditional arts. I have been looking for an original technique that I can mix both western oil expression and eastern artistry.
Ichii: Guo Xi or Fan Kuan tried to have a dialogue to express what landscapes were, not copy the landscapes they see like a photo. So I think the way you think what the Earth is or how to have a dialogue with nature seems to be similar to theirs.
Zeng: Artists back in the Northern Song Dynasty lived in nature to produce artworks. My works could be recognized as both landscapes and abstract paintings. These landscapes I paint are the ones what my soul saw, not the reality. They are invisible landscapes.
Ichii: I have got an impression on your landscapes that the world exists inside your heart, not outside of you. They seem that you hold everything in nature inside of you even though you used to express what you had in your mind to emit them outside.
Ichii: You have used a word “miao wu” in the interview on Michael Findlay for Acquavella Galleries in the states. What does that mean?
Zeng: I have been thinking about how to mix western techniques and eastern grounds since I read a Chinese traditional book. That word means to realize it.
Ichii: What is this song you are playing here, by the way?
Zeng: This is an opera called “None shall sleep” by Turandot.
Ichii: This music makes these branches look like they are dancing in your painting.
Zeng: I like to paint listening to music. Sounds influence my works. Good sounds help me to come up with a clear image. I look for my inspiration picturing a figure with sounds when I am drawing. Listen to this sound, for example. Let me just tap it. *Tapping something like a drum or cymbals*
Ichii: What a beautiful sound.
Zeng: Right? This sound reminds me of a religious sound from a temple in Tibet, or a ritual sound. Even a statue in the yard can make a sound that seems to be what you hear in an old western church.
Want to Paint with a Simple State of Mind
Ichii: When you had an interview and were asked when and where you wanted to be born if you could have chosen, you answered that you wanted to work with Cézanne.
Zeng: Hahah, yes. What I wanted to say in that interview was how a genuine state of mind is important. It is important to have a genuine condition that you are painting apples and cans as if you were a teenager. I guess Cézanne was painting like that. I want to do it in that way too, back in those good old times instead of in this complex society these days.