When Zeng Fanzhi was at school (1987-91), he particularly liked the work of the German Expressionist painters. In the third year of his studies, he put Soviet Realism aside and began to explore expressionistic approaches to painting. His works of this period have further echoes of another of his favorite artists, Beckman, but when it came to creating work for his degree show, the Xiehe series, Zeng Fanzhi had already established his own style and the impact of the work had won him a strong reputation in Chinese art circles.
As the series of works on the theme of hospital interiors, the image of the figures is basically true to life, but within the structure of the composition, Zeng Fanzhi pays particular attention to the psychological mood of the figures and the power of expression derived from various brush strokes. In describing the relationship between doctor and patient, he makes allusion to the masochism and sado-masochism that exists in pockets of life. The faces of the doctors make a disturbing impression, while the patients lie nervously on their bed, silently staring. The coolness of the pale pigments, the bloody tone of the flesh and the expressionistic brush strokes suggest a hidden danger and the aura of death. The message arising from this triptych reflects the artist's pessimistic vision on life. This pessimism is found not only in the implied masochistic and sado-masochistic relation between doctor and patients, but in the violence of the expressionistic brush strokes and the cold, deathly mood of the colour. This triptych laid the foundation for the bloodied sense of colour in Zeng Fanzhi's painting, which became increasingly market, the brush strokes ever more searing. The form of the figures became more and more disturbing, especially the expression concentrated in the eyes. The hands are marked by a size that is distinctly disproportionate to the body, each individual joint emphasized to excess. There is a pervading sense that these figures are caught up in a fit of hysteria. Aside from all this, the allusion to fresh meat suggests a venting of frustration and anger: the act of venting, of itself, removes - kills off - the frustration.
From 1994 onwards, Zeng Fanzhi began to work on the Mask series. His style had changes dramatically so we can refer to this as the second period of his work. It differs from the earlier works where the ruddy violence of hospital works gives way to a cool apathy. The mood is one of distance. The mask is the predominant symbol of this series. The number of figures peopling the paintings has been reduced to a small clique, or a solitary soul. We are left in no doubt that what concerns the artists here in the relationship between people, and the false nature of many of these relations. Zeng Fanzhi feels that people are unable to confide in each other. The lonely masked figure in the paintings is one of any number the artist has observed in reality. Although some of these figures are depicted as touching each other, the presence of the mask created a sense of deceit, of an invisible barrier between them. Of course, this symbol is a simple, easy to understand device, but the remaining parts of the works are richly complex. First, the dynamic motion and texture of the brush strokes in the earlier works has been replaced by a new approach to applying the paint, that of using a palette knife. The once marked strokes have been smoothed away as if the act of painting had also become masked. By using the palette knife to carve out the figures, they appear slightly blurred like a flower in a mist. Second, the background has been flattened, made vague. The shadows are curiously shaped, with no indication of where the light springs. The figures appear to have been thrown into strange environment with no relation to reality. Third, the approach to painting figures here, compared to earlier works, is flatter. The creases in fabric on the garments the figures ware appear as they might in traditional 'xieyi guohua'. The palette of colour is increasingly reduced, the background moves towards gray. The figures themselves have developed a dark outline. Suddenly the paintings have lost all of the unsettling nature of the early work, being cooler and calmer by comparison. Fourth, by comparison with the tense calm of the greater part of the painting, the hands become markedly obvious.
The result of the juxtaposition of mask and garments serves to emphasize the exaggerated hands and thereby creates a style completely distinct from the early work. Because of these hands, the figures appear as models of self-control, the level of their frustration embodied in the tension of their fists. In comparison with his earlier work, the sense of venting frustration has been reined in. On the picture plane, only the hands seem out of place, revealing inner nerves, however, this series of 'Mask' paintings is filled with a new sense of injury.
Beginning in 1997, the appearance of Zeng Fanzhi's work took another step forward to become more style conscious (Ed: - in the sense of stylish appearance). This sense of style is brought out by a new series of backdrops which contain specific elements such as the sea. Moreover, the range of colour has come to include more refined shades of soft blues, pale cadmium yellow and light rose pinks. The knife mark is smoother too, with one colour blending into another. The background becomes as a blurred distance in a photograph. These elements combine to a new, comfortable sense of emotion. The activity of the figures has become calm and refined. The hands have lost their sense of anxiety and appear almost normal, at times they are even hidden in the pockets of garments. Zeng Fanzhi's figures have learned to relax. The works of this period reflect the mood of the artist. The mood is of one who has come to understand life. In Zeng Fanzhi's personal experience, life with a mask is a reality. We should not fear this reality, but for our own sake, keep ourselves held at a distance from all people. In this way it is possible to keep a calm demeanor in the face of adversity. This kind of inner withdrawal from potential problems is represented in Zeng Fangzhi's paintings by the expanse of landscape and sea, the brightly lit windows against which the now calm figures can be placed. All the aggression of those earlier brush marks has melted away. All nervous anxiety has been condensed into the disproportionately large heads of the figures. In the present period of his art, all the early elements of expressionism have disappeared and been transformed into a kind of symbolism. Equally, we could say that the elements of expressionism have been glossed over by the palette knife and hidden behind the mask. The viewer can only sense the inner anxiety and pain which the artist contrives to disguise. Perhaps this is merely a reflection of the reality of the present environment.
19 February, 1998