Zeng Fanzhi - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Zeng Fanzhi
Zeng Fanzhi was born in 1964 in Wuhan, Hubei, and grew up during the later part of the Cultural Revolution in China. His parents worked at a printing house, and he says that they encouraged him to take up painting "to keep me out of trouble, off the street." He recalls, "When I was young, life was so tough that it was difficult to think about one's future. At the time, the most important thing was whether we could make ends meet and feed ourselves. I think before my 20s the most important thing to me was whether I could feed myself."
He travelled all around China when he was young, often to see art exhibitions. In 1980, at the age of 16, he travelled alone by boat to Shanghai to visit an exhibition titled 250 Years in France, a survey of iconic paintings from every stage of French art history. Zeng says of the exhibition, "Almost every Chinese artist, including myself, thought of this show as required viewing and we rushed to Shanghai in a frenzy to study Western painting in person. I was amazed by what I saw". Then in 1986, he viewed Robert Rauschenberg's exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. He recounts that the exhibition "sent shockwaves through the avant-garde artist community in China. This moment woke virtually every young Chinese artist out of their slumber. We were shocked, we were inspired, but above all, we were instantly aware of how far behind we were. The Rauschenberg exhibition made manifest those impulses in my work which previously had been obscure and charted a course for my future."
Education and Early Training
Zeng dropped out of high school when he was 16 to work in a printing factory like his parents. In his spare time he took formal painting lessons, and decided he wanted to attend university for painting. He failed the university entrance exams five years in a row before finally succeeding. He says, "I was lucky that my parents did not pressure me or discourage me; they were very supportive and each year my exam marks got a little better until finally I got in."
Zeng attended the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts from 1987 to 1991, where he studied oil painting and developed a strong interest in German Expressionism. He says of his time at the Academy, "The biggest received experience was in using line, color and form to express my response to a topic, form or emotion. I learned to utilize my emotion to produce a deep reflection upon a subject rather than making a painting that merely illustrated something." However, he notes that it took him some time to find what worked for him, saying "I was very unhappy during my first two years of college. I felt that I learned nothing, but I was able to unlearn all the technical skills of my Socialist Realist training. We'd be asked to draw nude models, and I'd make some abstract drawing instead. I wanted to renounce all that I knew about art making and become someone who didn't know at all how to paint, which is why I started making abstract art. Around 1989, I began to feel emotionally connected to the abstract paintings, and looking back at figure drawing and portraiture, I suddenly found a direction."
While studying at the Academy, many of his teachers immediately recognized and applauded his rebellion against the prescribed genre of Communist-approved Socialist Realism. He recalls, "The head of the library at my school said if I wanted to see better art books, I should go to the library in Zhejiang Province. I took a leave and traveled three days and nights by train to Shanghai, and then another three hours to Hangzhou." It was there that he discovered the German Max Beckmann and the American Willem de Kooning.
By his third year of art school, Zeng had completed 45 works, all of which rejected Socialist Realism. His teacher, Pi Daojian, encouraged him to mount a solo show. Pi later recalled that Zeng "painted what he saw. He found his own way to express emotion." However, local propaganda officials took note of the dark, sullen attitude of the work and called Zeng down to the exhibition space where he was interrogated with questions such as: "What is the meaning of your paintings? Are you trying to make a political statement? Is this blood on his face?" He responded, "Yes, it's blood, but it doesn't mean anything." The authorities closed the show to the public, only allowing art students to attend.
Zeng didn't allow himself to be deterred by this, and continued to paint raw, bold images of hospitals and butcher shops, in his series Hospital and Meat. He says, "I went on trips to paint exotic landscapes with my classmates, but I wasn't inspired. I then decided to paint what's happening around me. Both series captured the lifestyle back then in Wuhan." These works impressed an influential art critic, Li Xianting, who encouraged Zeng to move to Beijing in 1993. Zeng says, "In Wuhan, people who see my work kept silent and some would smile. I could tell from looking at their faces that they thought I was mad painting subject matters like these. I knew I had to move to Beijing, I had been told contemporary art was more progressive there." Rather than settling into the artists' colony on the outskirts of the city, Zeng opted to live in a tiny, dilapidated apartment in the upscale embassy district.
Despite the initial difficulties that Zeng had in moving to Beijing, he said, "I love the cultural atmosphere here in Beijing. For instance, my life is not different to that of ordinary people. I go every day to the studio to 'work'; I try to find a balance between rationality and sensitivity, also between reality and the ideal." He continues, "In general today, the art community in Beijing is very active although the level still needs to be improved. Artists currently in China are living with the most fabulous historical background and social environment, it offers the artists the most diverse and powerful life experiences and stories".
In 1993, the same year he moved to Beijing, he had held his first solo show in Hong Kong. In 1998, an art curator in Beijing named Karen Smith introduced Zeng to Lorenz Helbling, a Swiss citizen who would go on to become the most influential Western dealer in China. Helbling has represented Zeng ever since. Eventually, Helbling introduced Zeng to François Pinault, chairman of PPR, the third largest firm in the global luxury sector, which controls brands such as Gucci, Yves Saint-Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Sergio Rossi, Boucheron, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, and Balenciaga. Zeng recalls, "Pinault had been saying he wanted to come and see my works. I drove myself, and on the way there was a car accident. I kept Pinault waiting for three hours. People were calling me and yelling: 'Where are you?' I nearly screwed the whole thing up." When he finally arrived at the meeting, Zeng said to Pinault, "I was only going to sell you one. But since I am late I will sell you two." In fact, the meeting was a success, with Pinault purchasing two of Zeng's pieces and expressed interest in acquiring more. One of the pieces that Pinault purchased from Zeng is a portrait of artist Lucian Freud, which Pinault displays prominently in his Belgravia home in London, in a $100,000 18th-century frame. In 2005, Pinault acquired the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, where he presented a portion of his collection, including works by Zeng. The two have become good friends, spending time together whenever Zeng is in Europe.
In 2004, Zeng caught his right thumb in a door. He had to go to a hospital in Beijing for six stitches, and was unable to paint for two months. When he picked up a brush again, he learned how to use his left hand, and now he alternates between the two. Painting with his left hand gives his work an emotionally charged sense of imperfection.
In 2009, Zeng represented China in the Venice Biennale. A major retrospective of his work was held at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2013-2014. Zeng attributes his success to his selectiveness when it comes to which collectors he sells to. He says, "You might say I am very cunning. I only sell my paintings to those who really like them. Then those people will help me promote my works." Philip Tinari, the director of the Ullens Center, says of Zeng, "China needs a great artist, and the way he has gone about it is very intelligent. He understands the milieu his works circulate in, the actual collectors' homes, cultural institutions and galleries. He invites these key people to be part of his success, and as he achieves higher degrees of validation it's something everyone feels good about." Fabien Bryn, a friend and avid collector of Zeng's work, describes the artist as having an "affable and serene personality, a professional work ethic, impeccable taste in everything from art to fashion to wine, a broad knowledge of art history, and kindness and generosity in friendship."
Zeng currently lives with his wife, He Lijun, a former student whom he married in 1995, and their daughter, How Ker. He can usually be found wearing understated jeans and sneakers, with a Cuban cigar not far from his fingers. He works in an enormous two-story studio in Caochangdi, a neighborhood in Beijing's northeastern outskirts, which looks onto a manicured garden full of trees, two Harry Bertoia steel sculptures, and a goldfish pond. This lush green garden is Zeng's personal oasis from the brown grass typical of Beijing. The studio itself contains a Hermès leather-topped desk, and is decorated with Zeng's own eclectic art collection. He says, "My studio is the most important place, it is where I create. I build it such that not only is it big it must be able to allow me to view it from far as I paint huge canvases. For instance, I can go up to a height to look down at a painting for a bird's eye-view if I want to."
The Legacy of Zeng Fanzhi
In addition to being one of Asia's most financially successful artists, Zeng Fanzhi has seen international success, through his use of Expressionist representational techniques to depict the tense, tumultuous, alienating reality of Contemporary Chinese life. Unlike many contemporary Chinese artists, Zeng has chosen to remain in his home country, thus opening up possibilities for critical art practices amongst his Chinese contemporaries and successors. As Marcello Kwan, head of Christie's Asian Contemporary Art Sale asserts, Zeng's works "explore universal humanity through his personal experience." Along with other Contemporary Chinese artists such as Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng, Fanzhi has been working to clear a path for Chinese art that takes forms other than the standard fare of Socialist Realism, offering a frank critique of Contemporary Chinese life, and creating an art historical dialogue between East and West.