AAH-194 Visual Culture in Communist China

A Union College Art History Course, Spring 2023

Tag: Abstract

Masks and Metaphors: The Dual Artistry of Zeng Fanzhi

Zeng Fanzhi is a component of Chinas dynamic history, crea­­ting artwork serving as a lens into understanding the complex social and economic factors of China’s development. Over the course of his career, Fanzhi expresses realism (depicting the world how it actually is without sugarcoating), expressionism (a focus on emotions and personal perspectives), and lately abstract works (creative and unique settings very different from our physical world). Fanzhi is best known for his rejection of Socialist Realism, something which had been very popular during the Cultural Revolution. Socialist Realism was a method of promoting socialism and communism by creating works that were uplifting and inspiring. Zeng has clarified that his theme is the agony of being human.

The range of works that I am interested in exploring are his mask series, and his abstract works series tied together into one exposition. Key themes that I want to explore are identity and symbolism. The reason why I really enjoy Zeng Fanzhi’s works and why I was initially drawn to him is his unique talent mixed with rich symbolism. In the past I have explored body language and symbolism, and also smartphones with their impact on modern society. The symbolism of the masks and the changing societal mindsets parallel with topics I am interested in which make me very excited to create this exposition.







Others will gain important value as they learn about Chinese art in 20th and 21st century through the works of Zeng Fanzhi. His technical expertise using color, line, and form are great ways to springboard into symbolism. The Mask series paintings that I will include are Mask Series #13 (1994), #8 (1997), #6 (1998), and The Last Supper (2001). For example, #8 displays a group of men with exaggerated masks that depict them weeping and laughing at the same time, which is an interesting dynamic between emotions and identity. I think that the monochrome masks probe the tendency of Chinese citizens to hide feelings and emotions, leading to a sense of isolation. Fanzhi himself had feelings of isolation in 1994 when he entered Beijing, knowing no one. The others touch upon the same superficiality, as well as the intersectionality between the economy and sociology/relationships. I think that viewers will have a lasting impression and have a better idea of China after seeing this artwork because our minds are hardwired to respond to emotions and contextual cues, which the masks are a goldmine for.

The abstract work I chose is “Bodhidharma, Still There” 2015. It uses vivid greens, blues, yellows, pinks, and purples. I sense a feeling of movement, and is eerily similar to a dark scary forest. We are situated in the dense tangles of overgrown bushes and thorns, and we are essentially at the edge between Western abstraction and Classical Chinese Landscape Art. Zeng Fanzhi has put a new twist on ancient traditions. You could say Zeng Fanzhi went back to our roots, while at the same time going beyond them.

Works cited:



“Work of the Week: Zeng Fanzhi, ‘mask: Rainbow’ (1997).” ArtReview, artreview.com/work-of-the-week-zeng-fanzhi-mask-rainbow-1997/. Accessed 13 May 2023.

“Zeng Fanzhi – Evening & Day Editions New York Tuesday, April 23, 2019.” Phillips, www.phillips.com/detail/zeng-fanzhi/NY030119/325. Accessed 13 May 2023.

Zeng, Fanzhi. “Fanzhi Zeng: Bodhidharma, Still There, 2015.” Art Basel, 1 Jan. 1970, www.artbasel.com/catalog/artwork/33449/Fanzhi-Zeng-Bodhidharma-Still-There.


Zeng, Fanzhi, Gladys Chung, Crystal Ming, Tiantian Feng, Fabrice Hergott, David Anfam, and Gustav Mahler. Zeng Fanzhi. Zürich: Hauser et Wirth Publishers, 2018.

Zeng Fanzhi : Catalogue Raisonn Volume I. Place of publication not identified: Skira, 2017.

Zao Wou Ki exhibition theme – Abstract Art


Zao Wou Ki (1920-2013) was a Chinese-French painter. After studying at CHina Academy of Arts in Hangzhou, he moved to Paris to pursue his career in arts. He is known for his abstract paintings, although he occasionally drew landscapes and even created some potteries. What really stood out to me about Zao was his “obsession” with abstract art. I have decided to focus on this form of art, because I thought comparing this to socialist realist paintings will really capture the transition from an oppressive period in the art world (in China) to a more free period.


Background information and Significance of Abstract Art

After the end of the Cultural Revolution marked by Mao’s death, artists in China were now able to paint whatever they wanted, instead of being forced to paint socialist realist paintings. Although there were still some restrictions on the type of artwork that could be posted publicly, this transition led to many artists to try different forms of art, some shown in China Avant-Garde Exhibition: No U-Turn In Beijing (1989).

Understanding how art styles have changed during the period of change is important, and to understand the transition in art styles it is important to realize different forms of art that emerged, such as in the “New Literati Movement-文人藝術”. This movement was led by Western-influecenced artists and sought to create a new form of art that reflected their contemporary world (Negotiating histories: Traditions in Modern and Contemporary Asia-Pacific Art, 2013). The exhibition will showcase one particular theme of art – Abstraction with respect to Zao Wou Ki, although other abstract artists during this time will be mentioned.


Types of Art to be included in the Exhibition

The plan is to have 2 abstract paintings from Zao, 2 abstract artworks from other abstract artists (Wu GuanZhong-painting and Li Huasheng-sculpture) during that time, and 1 socialist realist painting. Here are the artworks:


In order:

[Zao Wou Ki – 04.01.82, 1982

 [Zao Wou Ki – 18.03.2008, 2008]

[Wu Guanzhong – Water village (1982)]

[Li Huasheng – 0112 (2001)]

[Pan Jiajun – I am Seagull (1971)]



Kikuchi, Yuko. “Recentering Craft in Postmodern and Postcolonial rewriting of Visual Cultural History.” (2013).


Art inspired by the cultural revolution. Phaidon. https://www.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2017/may/16/art-inspired-by-the-cultural-revolution/ accessed May 11, 2023.


Li Huasheng. Artsy. https://www.artsy.net/artwork/li-huasheng-li-hua-sheng-0112 accessed May 11, 2023.


Oils Paintings Thumbs. Zao Wou Ki Foundation. https://www.zaowouki.org/en/the-artist/works/oils-paintings-thumbs/ accessed May 11, 2023.


Wu Guanzhong – Water Village (1982). The China Online Museum. https://www.comuseum.com/product/wu-guanzhong-water-village-1982/ accessed May 11, 2023. 


Zao Wou Ki , Juin Octobre, 1985

    Juin Octobre, 1985 was painted by Zou Wou-Ki in 1985, but it is not clear if the artist had started painting this masterpiece in June, and ended in October. The painting itself does not depict a certain object, group of people, or even a landscape like traditional Chinese paintings do. As a matter of fact, it shows nothing but bodies of colors. To be specific, it only shows a blurb of bright yellow in the center, with bluish darkness and some green filling up the edges and the corners – leading to the conclusion that this is an abstract painting. The colors in this painting are not separated by a definitive border, but there is a sense of depth and sophistication, where the yellow part of the painting is hollow. The colors merge together where they connect, as if blue, black, and green drops of paint have been dropped in a body of bright yellow colored water. This single painting on a single canvas followed Zou Wou Ki’s signature style in painting – oil on canvas. 

[Image of Juin Octobre, 1985. Obtained from https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-largest-ever-work-by-zao-wou-ki-leads-sothebys-hong-kong-autumn-sales]

    Expert opinions lead to the conclusion that Zou was greatly affected by the ideology of Zen Buddhism and Daoism (also known as Taoism) (Shnin, Yang 2021, 129). Zen Buddhism emphasizes present-moment awareness and non-conceptual understanding (Suzuki 1991, 34), and Daoism beliefs generally assume nature is what controls things, not people (Kohn 2009, 20). Zao has also lectured his students to “forget the topic and forget about everything in the world (Shnin, Yang 2021, 129)” and emphasized the importance of “nothingness”, which led to an art-work like Juin Octobre, 1985. The painting is quite massive, measuring about 10 meters in length and 2.8m in height, and from my understanding of the beliefs that Zou had in mind when he was painting, I came to the conclusion that this majestic size of the painting probably represented the vastness of “nothingness”. The fact that nothing, except colors, were shown in the painting without any figures or symbols in such a large painting is what made me think this way. The feeling of depth (yellow part) created by Zao also creates a sense of hollowness, which to me allowed me to focus on the presence of me looking at the painting, as if the void was supposed to be filled with my (the viewer) awareness. 



Kohn, Livia. Introducing daoism. JBE Online Books, 2009.

Shin, Ryan, and Xuhao Yang. “Culturally Responsible Approach to Teaching East              Asian Art in the Classroom.” Journal of Cultural Research in Art Education              38, no. 1 (2021).

Sotheby’s. https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-largest-ever-work-by-zao-wou-ki-leads-sothebys-hong-kong-autumn-sales.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. An introduction to zen buddhism. Grove Press, 1991.


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