The Tragic and the Transcendent in Landscape Paintings by Zeng Fanzhi
by Robert E. Harrist Jr.
Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964) established himself in the 1990s as a highly successful figure painter, best known for his representations of people wearing masks that both conceal and project the indeterminate identities of young Chinese city dwellers. Since about 2004, however, landscape has been the central focus of his art. His oil paintings in this genre, often several meters wide, now occupy a place among the most distinctive and powerfully expressive works of art of our time.

Although other contemporary Chinese painters have brought new energy and visual excitement to landscape painting, most continue to work in the medium of ink on paper, developing traditional imagery of soaring mountains and expansive lakes or rivers.1 Zeng Fanzhi’s landscapes are radically different. A spectacular and characteristic example is his Untitled 10-03-01 from 2010. Measuring 8 by 2 meters and spread across two panels, the image immediately engages the viewer by virtue of its scale and visual complexity. To grasp the overall design of its densely interwoven forms one must step away from the painting, even as the tactile subtlety of its surface draws the eye close to examine the traces of what clearly was a heroic deployment of physical energy by the painter. Cropped by the top of the canvas, reaching considerably above the eye level of most viewers, dark, gnarly branches or vines highlighted by outlines of white that enhance an illusion of three-dimensional form create an irregular armature pressed close to the viewer’s space. Beyond these plants, scorched by a wildfire or some other catastrophe, is scarred terrain defined by thick strokes of gray and white, from which rise innumerable smaller branches, vines, and grasses inscribed in viscous strokes of black, gray, and white paint. Streaks of white that seem to represent filaments of desiccated plants zigzag across the canvas like flashes of lightning, while a mysterious glow emanates from the middle distance. Above a distinct horizon line, critical to the legibility of the painting as a landscape, the sky-pale gray on the far right, much darker on the left-is painted in broad horizontal strokes that contrast with the tumultuous rhythm of the diagonal and vertical strokes below.

Zeng Fanzhi’s landscapes, in which one critic sees “a renewal of the tragic sublime,” invite comparison with those of certain other contemporary artists, in particular Anselm Kiefer, who creates bleak visions of the natural world as a site of tragic or oppressive historical memory. Among artists from China, Yin Guangzhong has used the imagery of a blighted field of stones, relieved only by a shoot of green emerging from the trunk of a felled tree, to evoke the grim aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.3 Whatever associations with earlier and contemporary depictions of nature, in China or the West, Zeng’s paintings may inspire, their imagery and the processes through which they are made have no real parallels outside Zeng’s own practice as an artist, the development of which can be traced over a period of more than twenty years.

From Figures to Landscape

Zeng Fanzhi’s earliest solo exhibition, in 1990 at the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts in his native city of Wuhan, and exhibitions during the decade that followed demonstrated his unique vision in paintings of human figures, rendered in broad, thick applications of oil paint that create a visual analogy between the substantiality of the pigment and the flesh it represents. An admirer of the German painter Max Beckmann, and by his own account obsessed, like Beckmann, with the bloody similarity of human and animal flesh, Zeng developed techniques of smearing and scraping oil paint that evoke, sometimes uncomfortably, abraded skin on a figure’s elongated hands or the raw scalp of an exaggeratedly large head. 5.Some figures dissolve into nothingness as paint runs down the canvas in dilute rivulets, often blood red, while paint scraped upward creates irregular red halos above their bodies.

Zeng’s technical processes and thematic interests began to converge in surprising new ways in his close-up views of faces in the We series of 2002. In this series, Zeng made each painting increasingly abstract by reducing features to repetitive spirals or circles of oil paint, which inspired Richard Shiff to coin the verb “to mediumize” in describing Zeng’s new technique; although the faces in these sequential works become more and more blurred, gradations of color preserve indistinct but recognizable likenesses.6.Zeng’s Great Man series of 2004 displays a new technique in which the artist began to cover faces with tangles of lines, leaving the likenesses of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and other revolutionary greats recognizable but defaced by graffiti-like doodling. Some of these graphic improvisations seem to grow out of and to echo the contours of the faces, but most have no clear relationship to representational forms and resemble instead the dense masses of lines seen in Zeng’s abstract paintings from 2000 to 2002, suggesting that the artist extended the experimental, calligraphic skeins of brushwork in his nonrepresentational works, some produced by holding two brushes in one hand, to his figure paintings and portraits.

In Countryside No. 1, from 2004, tangles of lines little different from those over and around the faces of the Great Men series serve a new representational function. Placed along a slanting dune or embankment, above a broadly painted area that may represent snow or sand, dense accumulations of lines shooting in all directions depict weeds or grasses, while the upper area of the canvas represents sky tinged by rosy clouds, painted with the same color used so often for human flesh in Zeng’s early figure paintings. It is the visual context provided by the diagonal embankment and the luminous sky that transforms the linear marks into elements of a landscape, though many of the lines streaking across the canvas cannot be resolved into representations of anything in nature.

Bleakness and Beauty

Even as views of nature without overt signs of human intervention were heralding a new direction in Zeng’s art and career, the human body remained an important subject for him, and a number of Zeng paintings from 2004 to 2008 depict figures in a landscape. One of these figures is none other than Mao Zedong, whose image was omnipresent in the lives of Chinese people of Zeng’s generation. Some of these paintings derive from iconic images of Mao, such as A Man with a Straw Hat (2004), which is based on a famous 1958 photograph of Mao wearing a straw hat and standing amid what appears to be a bumper crop of grain.7 Instead of stalks of grain, Zeng’s painting shows Mao surrounded by flame-like strokes of paint more suggestive of grasses or weeds, while the chairman’s face is obscured by the same graffiti-like squiggles that cover his portrait in the Great Man series. Other paintings by Zeng Fanzhi depict a more youthful Mao striding through a grassy field under a rose-tinted sky, or sitting in a grassland setting,cigarette in hand.

Zeng Fanzhi has spoken of the impact on artists of his generation coming of age in a socialist society, immersed in a political discourse shaped by the precepts of Mao Zedong and the Communist Party. Beyond the images of Mao that occur in many of Zeng’s paintings, linguistic and thematic traces of Chairman Mao’s presence also permeate his landscapes. In Mao Snow No. 2 (2006), Zeng transcribed Mao’s 1936 lyric poem “Ode to Snow” directly on the painting in a facsimile of the chairman’s cursive script calligraphy.10 Passages from this poem, which describe the scenery of northern China beyond the Great Wall, reappear in several of Zeng’s paintings representing Mao in a landscape, and one line from the poem, “This land so rich in beauty,” serves as the title for a series of paintings dating from around 2006 to the present in which neither Mao nor any other figure appears.

Zeng’s allusions to Mao’s poem conjure up the political symbolism of the early decades of the Communist regime during the period of the chairman’s unchallenged leadership-part of what the artist has called the “collective memory” of his generation.11 Not only is Mao’s poem known by heart by countless millions of Chinese, the phrase “this land so rich in beauty”-which can be translated more literally as “rivers and mountains like this, so much tender beauty”-is the title of one of the iconic works of art of New China, a massive painting, 5 . by 9 meters, produced in 1959 by Fu Baoshi (1904–1965) and Guan Shanyue (1912-2000) for the main stairway of the newly completed Great Hall of the People.12 This panoramic vision of China’s mountains and rivers under the glowing red sun of communism was painted by veteran masters of guohua, or “national painting,” using ink and color on paper, though the painting also incorporates elements of Western perspective and modeling. An unambiguous celebration of the ideological principles that guided the People’s Republic during its first ten years, Fu and Guan’s painting was disseminated throughout China in reproductions on calendars, posters, and souvenirs of every kind.

For viewers who know Mao’s poem and the painting in the Great Hall, Zeng Fanzhi’s interpretations of “this land so rich in beauty” confront them with shockingly different images of nature. In a huge recent painting with this title, Zeng depicts a scene of desolation in which natural or manmade disaster has reduced the landscape’s vegetation to a residue of stark, bare branches. Zeng’s painting, bearing the same title as the landscape by Fu Baoshi and Guan Shanyue, can be read as an indictment of the environmental degradation inflicted on the onceglorious landscape that the older artists had depicted. Although Zeng is reticent about offering interpretations of his own paintings, his images seem to embody a tragic vision of how a land once “so rich in beauty” can become a nightmare realm.

Zeng has used this same troubling imagery often in paintings over the past several years. In some, such as Untitled 08-5-13 (2008), a path into a forest, seen through a screen of gnarled vines, is smeared with patches of red-traces of smoldering fires, perhaps, or the bloody residue of some violent act, like that depicted explicitly in a painting of 2010 showing a hyena devouring its prey.Recent paintings of animals in landscapes—elephants, lions, bears, monkeys, and other creatures that stare at viewers through dark tangled tree trunks and vines-evoke the fragility of the natural environment and the precarious ecological balance on which the continuing survival of these wild creatures depends.

And yet, many of Zeng’s landscapes are hauntingly beautiful, and they resist interpretation solely as expressions of despair in the face of the damage inflicted by man on the natural world. Considered in relation to the history of Chinese art, Zeng’s stark trees, vines, and brambles recall the imagery of “wintry forests and old trees” in paintings of the Song dynasty (960-1279), especially depictions of ancient trees in barren landscapes that symbolize human endurance and transcendence under harsh conditions and that embody, in their massive roots and knotty trunks, hope for the continuity of life.15 The groves of leafless trees and dry grasses under dark winter skies in Zeng’s This Land So Rich in Beauty No. 4 (2006) bring to mind snow scenes in earlier Chinese paintings that show nature in a state of winter dormancy, awaiting regeneration in the spring.

Zeng Fanzhi insists that his landscapes are not representations of real scenes but are about “an experience of miao wu (marvelous revelation).”16 What a viewer finds marvelous in Zeng’s paintings, amid the stricken plants and mutilated terrain, are hints of renewal and rebirth, and paintings that may at first appear to be tragic scenes of natural disaster can sustain very different interpretations. Zeng Fanzhi himself acknowledged a fluidity of meaning in his paintings when he changed the title of one canvas showing a foreground embankment topped by matted grasses beneath a dawn sky: first known as Earthquake, the painting was renamed Hope by the artist before he donated it to an auction benefiting victims of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. Even landscapes that seem to represent unrelieved desolation contain elements that may be read in other ways. Consider the eerie glow in the middle distance of many of Zeng’s large landscapes. This has been interpreted as representing a consuming, white-hot fire, and it is true that some of Zeng’s paintings depict rising flames.17 But the glowing light in the midst of dark fields or at the ends of forest paths may hint also at a numinous presence, perhaps not a supernatural force but a source of renewal glowing ineradicably in nature itself. Most recently, in Zeng’s massive landscape for the current exhibition, Pure Land (2012), renewal in the natural world is suggested by frothy banks of bright green paint applied over darker vines and branches, seeming to represent the growth of springtime leaves.

The Calligraphic Landscape

Zeng Fanzhi represents himself in a self-portrait of 2009, dressed in a red robe-a combination painting smock, nightgown, and ritual garment-and seated on a wooden stool. In his left hand, which he began to use occasionally for painting after an injury to his right hand in 2002, he holds a pointed Chinese brush, a tool used also for calligraphy. The sinuous, imaginary line it emits, however, is not one of Chinese ink but of oil paint, and the self-portrait can be read as emblematic of Zeng’s practice, which he has often described, of combining elements of Western and Chinese painting.18 Although the nature of the two traditions cannot be reduced solely to contrasting technical means, Western oil painting is fundamentally an art of building up forms through gradations of pigment applied to canvas in thin glazes or in thick impasto, using stiff flat or fan-shaped brushes. Traditional Chinese painting is based on fluctuating lines or broad washes of ink, made from pine soot and glue mixed with water, applied with flexible animal-hair brushes to absorbent surfaces of paper or silk.

Beginning with the appearance of freely brushed lines over and around faces in his portraits, as well as in his abstract paintings, and continuing in his landscapes, Zeng Fanzhi has synthesized the expressive materiality of oil paint and the gestural freedom of Chinese brushwork, which graphically registers the energy of the artist’s hand and arm. Far more than his figure paintings, Zeng’s landscapes, dominated by the linear forms of trees, vines, or grasses, open possibilities for calligraphic invention on a scale that engages the kinetic force not only of the hand and arm but of the entire body of the artist as well. As studio photographs show, to paint his landscapes Zeng uses a large flat brush to lay in broad strokes, mainly horizontal and diagonal, that define ground and sky. Over this, working with a finer brush in body-extending gestures, like a calligrapher writing cursive script, Zeng creates layer after layer of interlacing and overlapping strokes.

It is Zeng Fanzhi’s process of painting that makes his landscapes different from those of any other artist. Although the density and unfathomable complexity of his layers of brushstrokes-one stroke cutting through another while the paint is still wet-might call to mind the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, Zeng’s paintings, unlike Pollock’s, remain tied to the spaces and forms of the real world: the horizons of his landscapes orient the upright body of the viewer in relation to the scenes, and the plant forms, however erratic their course, grow upward and away from, or bend in submission to, the implacable gravity of the earth.

Landscape and the History of Art

While landscape now dominates Zeng Fanzhi’s painting, he continues to explore other genres and artistic concerns that have occupied him for many years, among them the contemplation and appropriation of images from varied sources in the history of world art. In particular, like many Chinese artists of his generation, Zeng has adapted iconic masterpieces of Western painting, preserving their underlying composition and imagery but reenvisioning them within a Chinese historical and visual context. Zeng’s The Last Supper (2001), based on Leonardo da Vinci’s mural, depicts not Christ and his disciples but a group of Chinese young people, their faces covered by Zeng’s signature masks. They are dressed in white T-shirts and wear the emblematic red scarves of the Young Pioneers, an organization run by the Communist Youth League. Instead of bread and wine on the long table, before the masked figures are slices of watermelon-a ubiquitous dessert at Chinese banquets; behind the figures, panels of cursive script calligraphy decorate the walls. Though mocking and sardonic, deflating both the aura of sanctity in Leonardo’s famous painting and the earnest vigor of the Communist youths, Zeng’s painting has a strangely touching grandeur consistent with the self-expressed fascination and resentment inspired in him when he was young by the political symbolism of the red scarf.19 Other adaptations from earlier in Zeng’s career include Death of Marat (2001), in which a bloodied Chinese man holding a letter written in cursive script takes the place of the murdered French revolutionary in Jacques-Louis David’s canvas of 1793.

In several works in the current exhibition less charged with political overtones, Zeng turns to a very different source of art-historical imagery: brush drawings by Albrecht Durer, which he has transformed into monumental oil paintings. Although the drawings adapted from Durer have little in common with the works of the Expressionist painters who inspired Zeng early in his career, the shared national origins of these artists reflect his abiding fascination with German or Germanic art. At the same time, there is a subtle affinity between the graphic beauty of Durer’s drawings in ink on paper and the brush-drawn linearity of traditional Chinese painting. In reenvisioning the German artist’s drawings, Zeng reinterprets the marks of Durer’s animal-hair brush as thick strokes of oil pigment. As studio photographs document, in painting Hare (2012) Zeng carefully studied a reproduction of the original work, sometimes holding it in his left hand while painting with his right. Although he recreates in oil paint, on a greatly expanded scale, the light, delicate strokes of watercolor and ink that define the fluffy hairs of Durer’s hare, it is the calligraphic screen of Zeng’s thin, twisting vegetal forms, placing the hare in a totally new visual context, that most closely approaches the German master’s linear touch. The unexpected scale of Zeng’s painting may produce an initial shock for the viewer, but the giant hare, as if hidden in a briar patch, retains the air of a timid, easily frightened creature.

Durer’s drawing of a ninety-three-year-old man, asleep or musing with closed eyes, on which Zeng based another huge oil painting, is as charged with graphic energy as any work of European pictorial art, its brushwork rivaling that of flowing Chinese calligraphy: in particular, the magnificent beard of the old man is a veritable symphony of twisting, swirling lines created with subtle changes of pressure of Durer’s brush. Zeng paints the beard in long, creamy passages of paint overlaid with thinner strokes of black and white and streaks of rosy red. Like the fur of the hare, the beard of the old man seems to fuse with the enveloping landscape, separating him from our presence and isolating the venerable figure in the unknowable world of his own thoughts.

A third Durer drawing transformed by Zeng Fanzhi into a monumental painting, Praying Hands, has, like Leonardo’s Last Supper, been reproduced and parodied in countless forms, from tattoos, medallions, and knitted washcloths to salt and pepper shakers, coffin ornaments, and sculptures in glass, stone, and bronze.21 Zeng’s painting, a completely original reinterpretation, compels us to consider anew the power of Durer’s image, which has comforted and inspired millions of people. Many times larger than life-size in Zeng’s paintings, the veined hands and slightly misshapen fingers folded in prayer acquire an overwhelming, fleshy presence through the medium of his vigorously applied oil paint. Set against a background that can be read as a dawn sky streaked by rosy light, the hands seem both to generate and to be entangled in the painting’s irregular network of vines, twigs, and grasses. Zeng has also added a source of artificial illumination, rare or even unique in his paintings-three glowing candles (inspired, perhaps, by the candle paintings of Gerhard Richter, another Germanic source)-toward which the hands are inclined. The candles intensify the aura of religious devotion always associated with the praying hands; in the visual logic of Zeng’s painting, they make explicit the source of light implied by the white highlighting in Durer’s original drawing.

From enigmatic masked figures to impassioned depictions of scarred landscapes, Zeng Fanzhi’s work has developed along a trajectory of constant innovation, even as he has continued to think deeply about the art of the past. When asked several years ago in what art-historical milieu he would like to work, Zeng replied that he would like to paint still lifes with Paul Cezanne. In fact, Zeng has from time to time turned to this genre, painting studies of slices of watermelon-blood-red flesh and deep-green rind. Working alongside the master of Aix-en-Provence is not possible, but should Zeng pursue this artistic comradeship in his imagination, perhaps we will see solemnly monumental apples and pears take on new life, enmeshed in a tracery of branches and vines that grew first in landscapes from the mind of Zeng Fanzhi.