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A Self-reflexive Manifesto in Art

On Zeng Fanzhi’s From 1830 till Now Author: Gladys Chung 2014

From 1830 till Now (2014) highlights Zeng Fanzhi’s (B. 1964) grandeur artistic intent to elucidate his true understanding of artistic creation. By repainting Eugène Delacroix’s (1798-1863) July 28: LibertyLeading the People, a work which had profound influences on his artistic evolution, Zeng reveals the earliest spiritual enlightenment underpinning his oeuvre. Zeng first saw the coloured illustration of Liberty Leading the People in a textbook in the mid-1980s. He remained deeply fascinated with the piece throughout his school days and, when visiting the Louvre for the first time some 10 years later, in 1995, he found the original Liberté the most moving artwork in the museum, drawing more emotion within him than even masterpieces such as Monna Lisa. Throughout the years, Zeng’s affection to Liberté has stayed true. The artist was fascinated by the complex composition and the intense emotional charge in the colours and brush strokes, but it was the striking image of the nude Liberty in the piece that affected him most. The free use of the body to express her impassioned feelings, the most consummate apotheosis of “liberty”, resonated deeply with Zeng’s conscious pursuit for “creative freedom” in his youth. As a youngster, deeply rooted in the broad milieu of Chinese art in the 1980s, Zeng’s critical eye had glimpsed many kinds of prevailing institutional restrictions dominating local artistic creation: native themes executed in a provincial manner, accompanied with a doctrinal and didactic tone and too often featuring rigid realistic brushworks. Zeng endeavoured to stay true to himself, constructing his art world based on personal sentiments. Therefore he turned to German Expressionist works, drawing inspiration from the free-style brushstrokes. But Delacroix’s expression of “liberty” by artistic means was spur in the young Zeng’s mind at that time, inspiring within him a spirit of courage to go beyond the academician artistic restrictions and address his truthful account of life and heralding the advent of the famous Hospital Series in the early 1990s. Both the theme and expressiveness of Hospital Series were controversial at the time, but eventually bore testament to Zeng’s courage, proudly becoming monumental masterpieces in the pantheon of Chinese Contemporary art history.
Zeng’s contemplation on La Liberté guidant le people continues to exert impact on his own artistic creation. From 1830 till Now can be viewed as a self-reflexive manifesto, a speech rarely found in his oeuvre, recollecting retrospectively how he struggled for artistic freedom in the past and how that struggle evolved the artist within him now. This piece of work can provide a new perspective and thinking points for art historians. Zeng’s influence by modern German Expressionism has already been a verdict in many research studies, but the inspiring effect of European classicism art has been less touched upon until now. The work here reveals how Liberté can be seen shaping the young artist’s creative spirit at its roots, reinforcing his loyalty towards himself in creative concepts and going beyond his era, becoming free from the shackles of Socialism. This is the foundation of Zeng today. From 1830 till Now could be regarded as a blank page in the Zeng’s history book, offering a fresh direction for interpreting his works.

From 1830 till Now is a set of four individual pieces, from No. 1 to No. 4, all based on Liberté guidant le people, but each different in editing and each with variations representing the different ways of thinking and interactive relationships Zeng confronts in art history as a contemporary artist. His works fall into a commonplace genre of art history, “Appropriation Art”, a creative mode adopted by many artists overtly conscious of reproducing and borrowing previous works in their own works and establishing a dialogue relationship between “the past and the present” – for example: Edouard Manet of the 19th century who rewrote Giorgione and Titian of the 16th century; Marcel Duchamp of the 20th century appropriating Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci; Pablo Picasso appropriating Diego Velazquez’s works; etc. In much the same way as allusions in poetry and fiction enrich the textual meaning, a contrast between the past and the present enriches the artist’s commentary. In art history, archaic traditions are not in written form, but are forged in images and rules of composition. In the Appropriation genre, artists appropriate predecessors’ images and relocate them to contemporary settings. On the one hand, traditions are reinterpreted in contemporary point of view; on the other, textual meanings are enriched with ancient traditions. This is a common mode of creation in Western art; meanwhile in Oriental aesthetic theories, this tradition prevails in terms of “imitating the brushstrokes of predecessors”, appropriating the style of the predecessor’s strokes but using those same brushstrokes to express
new themes. In Oriental aesthetics, we can also enjoy “watering the pines of the heart with wines of ancient glasses”, which literally means telling the present story with method from the past: pursuing ancient aesthetics with new perspectives, but with those new perspectives nevertheless by nature originating from the classic traditions of story-telling. Zeng’s work is a remake of Delacroix’s original work, touching upon the several ideologies of “Appropriation Art” and revealing a new perspective on Zeng’s courage to defy convention.

Among the set, From 1830 till Now No. 1 is the closest to the original work in relationship, tracing back to the subject matter of Western classical drawings. The figures, characterizations and compositions are all preserved as a tribute to the original. The Statue of Liberty, which had touched the young artist’s heart, is enlarged deliberately to dominate the scene, indicating it is an interpretation of the original work through the artist’s eyes.

Delacroix’s original and Zeng’s restructured work, while different in style, are equivalent in value and presentation, making the interpretation rare and precious. The original work has an emotionally charged composition, with the characters faithfully reproduced, whereas in Zeng’s work, the overlaid line and colour highlights the abstract beauty he is reputed for, while the momentum of the unfettered lines also conveys a strong emotional ambience. Delacroix
expresses subjective emotions through the setting, composition, figuration of characters and narration, with symbolic red, white and blue pigments still attaching to the figurative characters and conveying themselves through the attire. In Zeng’s work, pure art forms such as colour, line and space are employed to depict the same emotions. The red colour no longer attached to the characters, but independently manifested with bold, sweeping strokes, revealing the powerful sentiments simmering beneath, always on the verge of explosion. The intricate lines, overlapping one another, in curve or extension, are similar to the rhythmic pulse and flowing aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy brushwork. The modulation and cadences of the lines create the visual effect of discontinuity and abrupt changes in space, guiding and triggering audience’s emotions with constant movement allowing them to freely zip across spaces in the painting. Zeng utilizes pure art elements to envelop the scene with powerful emotions. This represents the discrepancy between the narrative emphasized in classical art and the beauty of form in contemporary art. Through his works, Zeng establishes different drawing forms of aesthetic dialogue, revealing how he understands Western classical art from the point of view of contemporary Eastern art and aesthetic principals, thereby leading us to see through the development of drawing forms in art history. Exceptional artists must as well be outstanding art historians, who interpret art history with images and who express their point of view with drawing, as exemplified by From 1830 till Now No. 1. In certain detail, it can be observed that Zeng replaces the Western classical painting practice of dot-dyeing stroke by stroke, using his coloured lines to construct the scene and revealing overwhelming emotional strength in the resulting foliage of lines. He even goes as far as employing distorted lines to depict the figures’ facial expressions, highlighting their pain. The coloured lines cover the top of the figures from the original work, in a layout of double spaces at the front and at the back, as if there were a rope-work barrier and creating a sense of distance between the figures in the painting and the audience. Zeng therefore reconstructs the visual effects of the original work to a large extent, altering the historical experience of close-up of the original to a new, cool, detached contemplation and observation in his work, engaging the audience in a fresh viewing experience of a well-known painting.

From 1830 till Now No. 4 manifests another of Zeng’s interactions with classical works. The themes upon which the artist reflects and extends, including “history” and “liberty”, help us rediscover new implications in original works, and also establish Zeng’s own point of view as the contrast
between past and present. Delacroix’s original work has a sense of “being there” in time and view, as if it were an immediate record of the historical scene. His skill of drawing viewers close to historic incidents allows the audience to have a live experience in that temporal realm. The scene captured in a frozen snapshot is filled with moving power on the brink of an outburst; a form of how history reveals itself. Zeng, however, deliberately draws our attention to the other form of history, with substantial editing of the original work to make a renewed scene where the
figures and the elements of life are all eliminated. Even the nude that once touched his heart is transformed into a lifeless plaster statue. This touch of divine providence reminds us of another artistic point of view, the impact and inspiration of Greek and Roman sculpture on Delacroix, and increases the layers of appreciation of the original work. Zeng, on one hand, reinvestigates
Delacroix’s time from a nowadays perspective, standing at the point 200 years along the timeline, and conveying an ambience of detachment, nonchalance and contemplation. Of those who had avidly engaged in life at that time their tangible flesh and blood is now bereft; the once rock-solid city also withered as the arrow of time flew mercilessly into the infinite future. But at the same glance, the Statue of Liberty is portrayed as a sculpture of ancient Greece and Rome, reverting to an ancient era where beings in pursuit of liberty and life were drowned in the silence of time. From 1830 till Now No. 4 is a masterpiece where many dots of history are connected, the time span of a snapshot widened to a scroll of history, for one to observe from a macro view the endless pursuits of man’s history, not only restricted to a single incident at a single place, but connected in a vast, infinite sense of time and space, infused with an ambience of melancholy often found in Zeng’s works. Delacroix expresses the romantic spirit of “liberty” through a historic
incident, while Zeng shifts the focus of thinking to “history”, its cruelty and the ever-present solitude and transience of “individual life” in infinite time and space. He achieves this by varying and editing the same subject matter, and finally leading to his prevailing contemplation of life and death, the thread connecting all his works, where Western Classicism and Eastern Contemporary find a way to have dialogue and experience reinterpretations mutually generated by their interactions.

From 1830 till Now No. 4 highlights Zeng’s aesthetics of line, aesthetics full of personal style with an original artistic vocabulary that keeps on inspiring and shocking audience. Dating back to Zeng’s university days, the artist has been consciously exploring different styles of brushstroke and line momentum. Even when facing the works of classic masters, the focus of observation was on the lines. Let’s hear what he says on Raoul Dufy: “His lines are exceptional, like when he draws an object, hecan draw the lines out and draw them in; when he draws a person, the lines can even
hook the colours inside.” Zeng believes the American Abstract artist De Kooning’s “brushstrokes are particularly powerful”. From the hands and faces in his early “Hospital Series”, “Meat Series” to “Mask Series”, Zeng has been, with no exception, hiding various forms of lines in the images created. He mentioned that “Finally, when I was drawing the hands and head figures in Hospital Triptych, I found the feeling I want, and it came out in the last piece I did.” The artist employs the direction of stroke and the tension between weight and lightness to illustrate the emotional pathos of individuals. Expression in line remains the golden thread in Zeng’s work, dominating
the direction and form of thoughts in his later works. The form of line in From 1830 till Now directly comes from his “Landscape Series” featuring crisscrossing lines. The form of the lines are often depicted as curvy, rich in modulation and tempo, reminding us of the four aesthetic momentum of lines in Chinese calligraphy: namely “dotting”; “rising”; “pressing down”; and “throwing away”. Meanwhile, the black lines attached to interrupted patches of yellow and white associate us to the imagery of plum blossoms that proudly stand in the snow, awaiting appreciation from visitors who care to make the effort, and making itself a unique symbol in Chinese traditional art. The line here symbolizes the solitude that has to be experienced in artistic creation, and also hints at the sublime state of being revered by the Chinese. It is the unyielding
spirit of an individual who can stand against the anvil of a harsh, cold environment. He extracts the lines from calligraphy and painting traditions in the past, turning them into independent, abstract forms and conveying his personal sentiments through the dcadences, as well as denoting space and creating the sense of aesthetics. In a modern breakthrough, his lines even combine the expressive power of colours by outlining axes with black lines, and pulling another line class of pure red, yellow and blue pigments along these black axes, lending a three-dimensional volume to the lines, while creating a complex sense of visual appeal through the patchwork of overlapping
colours. In this work, red, yellow, blue and green pigments are applied to outline various single-coloured flowing lines, pointing towards a new direction in Zeng’s creation: unleashing emotional power by the movement of lines. In other words, it is an exploration of the relationship between line and colour. Zeng’s unique aesthetics of line is along the same mindset as the American Jackson Pollock, De Kooning and Franz Kline, the Chinese Zao Wouki or Chu Teh-chun, all echoing each other, enhancing the lines to create a new lexicon of expression in Western Expressionism
and Abstract art. What we find even richer amongst Zeng’s lines is their deep roots in the traditions of Chinese art, subtly manifesting the sentiments of individuals, and defining a contemporary style of art full of traditional Chinese spirit.

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