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Inside Zeng Fanzhi’s Beijing Studio

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Zeng Fanzhi in the garden of his Beijing studio, 2018. All photography by Oliver Helbig

Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi investigates the possibilities of painting in the contemporary era. Working across diverse modes of representation and styles that range from abstract landscape to figurative portraiture, Zeng Fanzhi’s practice draws on both Western and Eastern artistic traditions.

Ahead of a single exhibition in 2018 of Zeng’s work presented across Zurich, London, and Hong Kong, curator and art historian Fabrice Hergott visited Zeng at his studio in Beijing. Hergott wrote an essay for the exhibition’s concurrent publication, featuring a series of impressionistic fragments on the artist and his work. These are excerpted below alongside a group of portraits of Zeng Fanzhi in the studio, taken by photographer Oliver Helbig. Together, these reflections construct a meditative view into the artist’s creative world and his inspirations.

The studio is first a place of study, contemplation, dialogue, and meditation, before being simply the place where he paints. That is why each painting, each series of paintings, appears to be the end result of a process. But the studio is a place of great concentration. It has the proportions of a great cage, with paintings sprawled on the floor like menacing beasts. The artist looks at them, approaches them warily, touches them respectfully. He is all restraint, conscious of the enormity of the challenge he is setting for himself. His ambition is to be a painter to rival the greatest artists of the past and present.

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Zeng Fanzhi captured in his studio by Oliver Helbig
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For the artist, ‘light is essential data’

Ideas come from technical execution, from diligent practice…. His iconographic domain is made of what he sees around him, of his friends, himself, his immediate universe, the history of art.

For figurative subjects, whether they are portraits or museum paintings, Zeng uses photography. His choices don’t appear to follow an intention. The subjects impose themselves as he works. His technique opens avenues. But here, we are under the mind’s control. Surrealism and the vagaries of dreams are not part of his register. Ideas come from technical execution, from diligent practice. Imagination is not the projection of his mind. His iconographic domain is made of what he sees around him, of his friends, himself, his immediate universe, the history of art.

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The artist uses a diverse palette to render his subjects
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Zeng’s techniques open avenues to his subjects

For Zeng, Lucian Freud is a cornerstone artist. He loves observing eyes and hands. Since his student years, he has collected all the catalogs he could find. Freud’s paintings echo Zeng’s preoccupations and are full of insight for him. In Zeng’s great portrait of a reclining Freud, there’s something that is both benevolent and ironic. Freud seems to be amused to be there, laughing with sincere ferocity at the fact that he’s been inserted onto an unpainted background of raw canvas. The brushstrokes fade out to produce a blurred effect. Viewed closely, they appear abstract to the point that you forget the figure is even there. But Freud’s silhouette dominates. He is rendered with nonchalance and seems to watch the viewer out of the corner of his eye with an ironic half-smile, amused to see himself transformed this way, in thick brushstrokes, almost as if the artist had become a palette.

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Francis Bacon’s work carries a physical sensation for Zeng, and a self portrait by Bacon hangs on the artist’s studio wall
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Zeng uses photography for his figurative works, with prints and postcards littered across the artist’s studio

In the studio, a still life by Giorgio Morandi has pride of place. A beautiful, subtle painting: he shows me its rhythms, the repetition of greens, reds, and blues in the shadows, like delicate consonants in a poem.

Francis Bacon’s work, through his very liberal use of brushstrokes, carries a physical sensation for Zeng. He prefers Bacon because of his creativity; his truly unique use of contortion; his brushstroke, heavy despite the simplicity of his structure. In the studio, a still life by Giorgio Morandi has pride of place. A beautiful, subtle painting: he shows me its rhythms, the repetition of greens, reds, and blues in the shadows, like delicate consonants in a poem.

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The subtle hues in Giorgio Morani’s paintings are a significant presence in Zeng’s studio and work
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Zeng with a work-in-progress

The philosophy of humanity says little of the suffering humanity endures. Approaching it from a different angle is ultimately more affecting. Saying things through the metaphor of animal suffering is more explicit than showing martyred men. Showing masks says more than showing faces. Painting lines of color in a curious, unexpected arrangement of space brings him closer to the painting. What painting is to him comes from his experience of painting. Light is essential data; he seeks it out in his brushstroke, in the gleaming quality of the surface. The experimental side of his approach is surprising. The painting says something other than what it is. Even when it speaks of itself, of the way in which it was made. The greatest paintings are not merely paintings.