Artist Zeng Fanzhi is returning to his Chinese roots


Zeng Fanzhi is one of China’s most celebrated artists with his tribute to Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper selling for $23.3 million in 2013. Zeng’s works are famous for combining western and oriental influences, yet in an interview with the New York Times the artist spoke of returning to his roots and embracing Chinese culture. He stated that, “over time, I began to realize that traditional things have their own beauty.”

This change of perception comes as he is having a major retrospective exhibition in China, according to ABC News. Speaking to the news site Zeng spoke how he incorporates Chinese culture into his painting technique by using two brushes like the “Chinese master chopsticks”. He goes on to say how he uses one brush to paint and the other to destroy.  His latest work is titled This Land so Rich in Beauty, a line of poetry from former Chinese leader Chairman Mao. His latest work is a statement on China’s propaganda art and a move away from the western styles that influenced his earlier work.


Fanzhi is now commenting on old propaganda art of the Mao era

Zeng Fanzhi’s combination of western and eastern styles is nothing new in culture. Combining two different philosophies has inspired many genres including literature, film, and games. Hollywood in particular has started catering its films more to Chinese audiences. One famous example of this was the hit film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon directed by Oscar winning director Ang Lee. The film was made in collaboration between American and Chinese productions companies. Speaking to Variety, one of the screenwriters on the film James Schamus spoke how he would write several drafts and pass them to his Chinese counterparts, and that this level of collaboration continued throughout the film. The resulting film was a huge success.

This incorporation of different styles is also used in more unusual mediums such as in videogames and comics. In a recent interview, character designer and artist Tyler Davis stated that he borrows from “an amalgamation of styles I’ve been exposed to over the years” when designing new games. Just like Zeng Fanzhi found, combining different styles has a positive effect on audiences and can takes art to another level of interest regardless of what industry or movement artists find themselves in.

Zeng Fanzhi was born in Wuhan in 1964 and grew up through the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong, an event that inspired many of his future works. Zeng has lived and worked in Beijing since 1993 and became one of the China’s most well known and respected artists. During his time at art school, the work of German expressionist painters inspired Zeng and he became famous for his paintings with large heads and hands.

Zeng’s move back to Chinese influences can be seen as a reflection of how the world views Chinese art and artists. The South China Morning Post reports that China and its art scene is maturing. Zeng’s retrospective is being held in Beijing’s Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) this October.


Zhang Xiaogang world record $12.1m. at Sotheby’s in HK

The record-breaking sale of Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 at Sotheby's Hong Kong on April 5. (Sotheby's)

The record-breaking sale of Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on April 5. (Photo courtesy Sotheby’s)

This week in Hong Kong there has been no sign of the ardour for top Chinese contemporary artists cooling. It is clear that the most popular and well recognised artists will continue to see escalating prices, as we predicted last week. Sotheby’s are particularly pleased  with the record-setting sale of a piece by Zhang Xiaogang and many other high end of estimate prices.

After active competition from five bidders, Zhang’s Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 sold for US$12.1 million at the Sotheby’s Hong Kong Modern And Contemporary Asian Art Evening Sale on April 5, surpassing its high estimate of $10.3 million. This amount is significantly higher than the artist’s previous record, which was set in 2011 with the sale of Forever Lasting Love (Triptych) for $10.1 million. Inspired by family photos from the Cultural Revolution and European surrealism, the painting was one of the artist’s rarer, early works, and had established a previous world record for Zhang when it was auctioned in 2008 for about half its current value.

Zhang Xiaogang's Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 is estimated to sell for US$ to $10.3 million at Sotheby's in Hong Kong on April 5. The work is considered to be one of Zhang's more politically charged pieces, making it especially rare. (Sotheby's)

The painting by Zhang Xiagang is regarded as highly charged politically which is partly responsible for the record price (Photo courtesy Sotheby’s)

A major factor in the uplift in prices of Chinese contemporary works is attributable to the rising presence of Chinese collectors in the market. With growing incomes and a pragmatic, investment-minded approach to buying, Chinese bidders are more active every season as their numbers swell. “While bidding on the selection of highly desirable works was truly global, Asian collectors walked away with most of the top pieces,” said a Sotheby’s representative. The rising presence of wealthy Chinese collectors at global auctions may well help Chinese auction prices to catch up on those of Western prices in the coming years.

Zeng Fanzhi's This Land So Rich In Beauty No. 6 (Diptych) surpassed its high estimate with a sale of $2.8 million at Sotheby's Hong Kong evening sale. (Sotheby's)

Zeng Fanzhi’s This Land So Rich In Beauty No. 6 (Diptych) surpassed its high estimate with a sale of $2.8 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong evening sale. (Sotheby’s)

Chinese contemporary art dominated the top 10 lots of the sale, with many pieces surpassing their high estimates. Two pieces by Zeng Fanzhi, the artist with the current world record for the most expensive piece of Chinese contemporary art, topped their high estimates—his This Land So Rich In Beauty No. 6 (Diptych) and Mask Series No. 5 both sold for $2.8 million. Chinese-French painters were highly prominent at the sale: Sanyu’s Potted Chrysanthemums sold for $10.3 million, while three of Zao Wou-Ki’s paintings were among the top 10.

Sanyu's Potted Chrysanthemums was the second-highest lot of the evening after the Zhang Xiaogang piece, selling for $7.4 million. (Sotheby's)

Sanyu’s Potted Chrysanthemums was the second-highest lot of the evening after the Zhang Xiaogang piece, selling for $10.3 million. (Photo courtesy Sotheby’s)

Here are the top 10 lots with exact prices in USD:

1. Zhang Xiaogang, Bloodline: Big Family No. 3, 1995: $12,076,923

2. Sanyu, Potted Chrysanthemums, 1950s: $10,353,846

3. S. Sudjojono, Pasukan Kita Yang Dipimppin Pangeran Diponegoro (Our Soldiers Led Under Prince Diponegoro), 1979: $7,482,051

4. Chen Yifei, Morning Prayer, 1996: $3,461,538

5. Zeng Fanzhi, This Land So Rich In Beauty No. 6 (Diptych), 2006: $2,887,179

6. Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series No. 5, 1994: $2,887,179

7. Zao Wou-Ki, 06.01.64, 1964: $2,743,590

8. Zao Wou-Ki, 18.08.67, 1967: $2,671,795

9. Zao Wou-Ki, 20.01.64, 1964: $2,456,410

10. Kazuo Shiraga, Chitaisei Honkoshin, 1960: $2,312,821

The strength of blue-chip works went far beyond the top 10. Many Chinese contemporary works in the seven-figure range met or exceeded their estimates, such as Yue Minjun’s Garbage Hill, which fetched $1.5 million, and Liu Wei’s Dad In Front of TV Set, which sold for about $1.4 million. The auction achieved a sale of 92.7 percent of all works by lot and 96.3 percent by value, showing that interest remains strong among blue-chip buyers at all price levels.

With thanks to Sotheby’s Hong Kong


Anxious minds focused on Hong Kong spring sales

With the Spring sale season about to start in Hong Kong, investors will be casting anxious eyes on the Chinese contemporary art sales. Works by Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi, Liu Ye and Yue Minjun are the highlights of Sotheby’s April 5 auction. The question is as to whether the market will power on, or simply plateau.

Zhang Xiaogang’s rare early work Bloodline: Big Family No. 3 is estimated at US$8.4m. to $10.3m. (equivalent converted from HK$). Zeng Fanzhi’s work is estimated between $1.4m. and $3m. Yue Minjun’s Garbage Hill is estimated at between $1.2m. and $2m.

garbage hill yue minjun

Garbage Hill by Yue Munjun  Sotheby’s

These figures are, in fact, not so large as they might appear at first sight. China’s most expensive piece of contemporary art was Zeng Fanzhi’s The Last Supper. It got US$23.3 last year. Neither are these works expensive when set against the cost of Western contemporary art. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud scooped $145m. Other Western artists have also seen records in the last year: Andy Warhol $105m.; and Jeff Coons $54m.

Wait for some more records out of Hong Kong in a few days time . . . the band of collectors in China grows ever larger and this will, before too long, mean there is a scarcity of top level contemporary art. Eventually, the Chinese market will command prices on a par with those of top Western artists. Recent successful exhibitions of contemporary Chinese artists at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the focus on China at the New York Armory event this year, and the retrospective of the work of Zeng Fanzhi at the Paris Musee d’Art Moderne, all add fuel to the fire.

Forbes: Chinese Contemporary Art is going Global

Just a few days ago, we reported The Wall Street Journal’s distinctly downbeat assessment of the Chinese art scene, drawn from the records of Chinese auctioneers and Artnet.

Much of this ‘evidence’ is discounted by an article just published by the influential US Forbes Magazine. We quote, ‘Be it auction records, international museums initiatives, prominent collectors’ efforts, or bienniale and art fairs’ focus, 2013 was a tremendous year for Chinese contemporary art. And 2014 will be equally so, if not more.’

Significantly, the Forbes evidence is drawn not from 2012 (as The Wall Street Journal’s article was) but from the rather more recent year, 2013. It pointed, as an example, to the price of US$23.3m. paid for a painting by 49-year old Zeng Fanzhi. The painting, The Last Supper, was, interestingly, bought by a non-Chinese collector. Fanzhi was shown in 2014 by the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris which mounted a major retrospective of the relatively young artist’s work..


The Last Supper by Zeng Fanzhi (2001) sold for US$23.3m. by Sothebys

The article also points to the involvement in mainland China in 2013 of both Sothebys and Christies. Also, The Guggenheim announced in April that it will partner with the Robert H N Ho Family Foundation to acquire Chinese contemporary art for the museum’s permanent collection.

Forbes also says that ‘influential’ US collectors Don and Mera Rubell have used their entire museum space in Miami to showcase 28 Chinese Contemporary Artists. Meantime, the 2013 Venice Bienniale featured nearly 350 Chinese artists.

In 2014, the Armoury’s Show (March 6-9) will have its focus on China in a selection made by Philip Tinari, Director of the UCCA.

Never before have so many influential players in the art world had their eyes focused hard on China . . . watch this space.