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A Dialogue with Zeng Fanzhi

Zeng Fanzhi, Jane Jin, Gladys Chung 2014-09-15

1. How did this exhibition project come about?
ZFZ: In 2011, I met Mr Henri Loyrette, who was then the curator of the Louvre, in a Hong Kong event. We started talking about art. The Louvre represents the top echelon of the classical essence, and Mr Henri Loyrette certainly is an expert in this area. However, during the conversation I found that he is similarly interested a lot in contemporary art. Thought I base myself in contemporary art, I have been exploring the relationship between classical and contemporary art. Besides, I could recall that during my creative process I have got much spiritual inspiration from classical work. Our conversation went well right away, so an idea of a collaborative exhibition came up, aiming to motivate more discussions related to “the classical and the contemporary” through an exhibition. That was just a tentative idea at the moment; having worked for almost one year of preparation, plus a lot of advice and support from my friends, the exhibition has finally been realized. I feel excited and thankful.

2. Among the many works of the Louvre, why was Eugene Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le people selected for reinterpretation? What has impressed you?
ZFZ: The first time that I saw this painting was in 1985; it was printed on a history textbook, small like a stamp but fascinated me for a long time. Occupying the painting’s central part is the half-naked Liberty. To the conservative Chinese in the 1980s, the goddess’s image is daunting. To me, she is the second artistic female nude image I have ever encountered since Venus.
Later, I studied it again in detail, asking why this painting is so appealing. I found that the scale of Liberty in the painting is explicitly bigger than other figures. While other figures are very realistic, only she reflects Delacroix’s imagination, and hence dynamic and outstanding.  Seemingly she does not belong to the “ordinary space” where the rest are being, but to the artist’s subjective viewpoint. The virtual reality and the reality therefore converge.  This dramatic scene is highly emotive.
In 1995, for the first time I saw the original in the Louvre and was again deeply touched. I believe that among the entire Louvre’s classical oil paintings, its visual impact is the strongest. Its size is huge; the skill of modelling the figures is exceptionally exquisite.  The scene is frozen; however, the painter’s subjective view is exceptionally clear.  There is a particularly strong legacy of Romanticism.

3. As told, would the work be most influential to you? Does it relate to your artistic career?
ZFZ: In 1990, I finished the graduation project; at that time China was influenced by Russian Peredvizhniki painting school, and realistic genre painting was popular. But I defied academician artisitic instructions, instead choosing the neighboring hospital as the subject to create the Hospital Triptych No. 3. All I expressed in this set of works is the mass, which apparently are objective descriptions of daily lives but the method of portraying the figures is completely subjective. This method of bringing the thinking and the reality together let me break the restraints in creative style. This achievement should be accredited to the inspiration brought about by La Liberté guidant le people. Besides, I was then influenced by German Expressionism, so in the group painting Hospital Triptych No. 3 the figurative images are classical yet the subject and brushstrokes contain a strong sense of randomness.  

4. How would you see your own creation this time? How to read its relationship with the original?
ZFZ: I began conceiving this new work in early this year; before starting panting, I felt that this would not be easy and it was not actually.  For this I created four different editions respectively and the time span had been long too.
In the first edition, I tried not to destroy the original’s figurative images and the composition, since these are what appealing to me. Regarding the composition, 70% to 80% of this edition follows the original. I hope that it has a kind of classical gracefulness. During the course of creation, I had been carefully delineating the images of each figure, reminding me of my earlier painting approach, the feeling of which was intriguing. However, I implicitly increased the proportion of Liberty - This has probably fulfilled my youthful wish - I wish the viewer could discover this after seeing it closely.  Beyond the formal elements, I wanted to express some modern thinking. While the colors applied on the original’s figures are rather dark, mine brightened the figures. In the background, I used pure colors. I hoped that the large areas of red and green would create a “destruction” to the deep red display walls. Moreover, whereas the original’s classical painting technique is to apply layer by layer delicately, mine used direct and quick brushstrokes to pursue a “self-expression” instead of “accuracy”.  
On the last day of the creation, staring at my work, I suddenly discovered that I was imprisoned by the vivid pictures in front of me. I have fulfilled a “tale of freedom” but immediately wanted to destroy it; hence, subsequently, I created three editions (From 1830 till now: No.1, No.2, No.4), which could be seen as a group painting or individual works.

5. Please comment the three works.  How are their differences demonstrated?
ZFZ: There are comparatively bigger changes in the composition of the three editions. Though maintaining the image of “Liberty” (certainly also because earlier on she was the one who inspired me), these images have not been made extraordinary. I used simple methods to portray her, and then let her be concealed repetitively and at the end discovered that she has transformed from the flesh into a sculpture. In the last edition, I involuntarily painted some ruins and relics next to her.  Without humans, without lives, I feel that this might be an ultimate state of freedom. Regarding the differences among the three editions, the key remains the color handling. The pureness of the hue of From 1830 till now is maximum among the three.  I wanted to use such intense colors to embody the contemporaneity.
In my previous creation the “Scribble series”, the proportion of greyish black in the painting was often larger, whereas the way the other colors appeared always resembles the lit spots of tree branches and twigs.  However, in the last edition, plenty of colorful lines independently exist in the painting; they have no specific meaning. When painting them, I recalled the electric light; I don’t know what the viewer would think.

6.You have mentioned several times about the image of Liberty; what does she mean to you?

ZFZ: I think she symbolizes primarily artistic freedom and physical freedom as well. Once there is physical existence, humans have desires and confrontations, and have the other, the self, the mass and the individual. This seems to be a permanently irresolvable false discourse.  Once there is cognition, humans are permanently unable to have absolute sense of freedom. Therefore, in our Eastern philosophy, the real transcendence always begins with “nirvana”, i.e., the demise of physical existence, where the lingered desired could no longer exist with the decease of the body, thereby forming no more restrains…But this would be another huge topic.

7. How do you think that your own works are to be displayed in such exhibition landmarks as the Louvre?
ZFZ: My feelings are complex.  The Louvre is full of masterpieces; I still could not imagine how it would like when my works are shown there. I believe, generation after generation, that young people participate in art because of having seen the ascendants’ masterpieces. Human lifespan is short, but beauty is eternal. This is precisely the charm of art.
8. Who would you like to see as your viewer?
ZFZ: It would be the artistic masters who created the great works. In my imagination, after the museum is closed and where the light is off, their spirits would emerge from the paintings; maybe they would express their opinions on all the artworks. I want to know how they comment my works.

9. In your opinion, what is freedom?
ZFZ: To me, freedom implies a creation coming absolutely from the heart, regardless of any influences from people and the mundane.

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