Remaking Van Gogh
A Chinese artist recreates the Dutch master's self-portraits
10 November, 2017
Zeng Fanzhi is perhaps one of China's best-known painters. He is also one of its savvy interlocutors and most knowledgeable connoisseurs. Now, Zeng is offering a unique twist on one of the art world's most recognisable figures by recreating Van Gogh's self-portraits in a series of striking new paintings that can be viewed in Amsterdam until 25 February 2018.
The collection of six canvases - three of which are going on display for the first time at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum - see Zeng adding his own signature swirls and expressionist brushstrokes to the Dutch painter's familiar face.
The exhibition Zeng Fanzhi / Van Gogh, pays a special tribute to the revolutionary artist whose museum it now inhabits. Van Gogh's square format remains, though Zeng updates it with ready-for-Instagram videos showing the paintings taking shape.
It is widely known that Van Gogh drew inspiration from the Japanese art of his time (he used the term "Japonaiserie" in his letters). Now, more than a century later, Zeng returns the favour as the first living Asian artist to show alongside the Van Gogh Museum's holdings.
In recent years, Zeng has surrounded himself with some of China's most innovative and influential entrepreneurs. He offers them a sense of transcendence and inspires people to connect the day-to-day bustle of China's economic growth with the larger truths of history, beauty and thought. His paintings are at once grounded and frenetic, classical and subversive, monumental and ethereal, much like Van Gogh's work.
Zeng belongs to a generation that sits on a cusp in Chinese history. Born in 1964, he remembers the Cultural Revolution and the feeling of social control from his childhood. But he was too young to participate fully in the artistic awakening of China's rollicking 1980s.
Zeng spent that decade at home in the capital of Hubei province, Wuhan, where the city's art academy accepted eight students to its oil painting department every four years. Having missed his chance the first time around, Zeng spent his early twenties working in a printing press and waiting for another turn.
His diligence, when he did finally enter the Hubei Fine Arts Academy, became legendary - when not painting late into the night, Zeng would absorb what information he could from the school's limited library. He remembers an encyclopaedia of western art history, published by the Japanese newspaper company Asahi Shimbun, from which he first learnt about figures such as Van Gogh, Ernst and Schiele.
Within months, Zeng had sold his first painting. He was then included in the January 1993 exhibition China's New Art: Post-1989, organised in Hong Kong. Zeng then moved to Beijing, entering the capital's vibrant art scene and quickly realising the affectations and pretences that underlay success within it (his best-known works - the Mask Series - date back to this moment of jaded discovery).