Born in 1938 in Nantong, Jiangsu Province, Fan Zeng is a contemporary master of traditional Chinese painting and is especially skilled in figure painting. His works fuse elements of landscape, flower-and-bird and figure painting, as well as forms of poetry and calligraphy. His paintings of ancient figures are famous for their simple but vivid style and vigorous strokes. Fan has held exhibitions in many places, including Hong Kong and Japan and is the first middle-aged Chinese painter whose works have entered two of the world's largest auction houses, Southeby's and Christie's. Since 1999, when Beijing began to auction paintings and calligraphic works, Fan's art attracted the attention of many Beijing dealers.
Fan has a deep passion for traditional Chinese art. He once wrote a self-appraisal in a piece of calligraphy work and described himself as "crazy for painting, pretty good at calligraphy; occasionally writing poetry and prose to express feelings and loves to read about history."
Fan's family comes from a long line of Song Dynasty descendants with thirteen generations devoted to making poetry, prose, calligraphy and painting. Fan started school at age of four and was a talented and diligent student. Since an early age Fan was greatly influenced by Feng Zikai, a famous Chinese painter and the major practitioner of the blunt, naive style of figure painting.
Young Fan Zeng was fond of scribbling on the ground, walls and doors. The immature four-stroke Buddha figure he learned from his father revealed his talent for painting. Calligraphy was also an important subject for him, since the Fans had a long cherished tradition of calligraphy. Reading a calligraphy copybook (a book containing models of handwriting for learners to imitate) and practicing handwriting was daily homework for Fan. His family environment nurtured Fan's understanding of traditional Chinese culture, which has been deeply impressed into his temper, character and soul.
Fan became a member of the Nantong Artists Association at the age of 13, which was his entry into art circles. Besides painting cartoons and posters required by the political situation at the time, Fan also made his own artistic creations.
Fan's Chinese teacher at middle school was the first to discover his talents. The teacher found Fan could recite many of the classics by Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi and other famous poets. Once when visiting Fan's family, he found Fan was imitating a masterpiece. To his surprise, Fan had a torch tied to his cap, and explained that he was learning from Michelangelo!
After graduating from Nantong Middle School in Jiangsu Province, he was admitted to Nankai University, majoring in history. Two years later he transferred to the Central Academy of Fine Arts to study art history where he later learned Chinese painting. Fan's teachers included famous artists such as Wu Zuoren, Li Keran, Jiang Zhaohe, Li Kuchan, and Liu Lingcang.
Among these masters, Fan had the closest relationship with Jiang Zhaohe, who is not only a famous artist, but also an outstanding art teacher. He demanded a lot of Fan's ability to observe and his eye for details. He also warned Fan not to be obsessed with color and light, but to pay more attention to the structure of the object being painted according to the traditional Chinese painting methods. To express his gratitude, Fan painted a piece of portraiture as a gift for Jiang's 80th birthday.
Jiang Zhaohe, by Fan Zeng
Fan chose the historical figure Cai Wenji for his graduation project. He read a lot of historical documents, as well as Guo Moruo's historical drama Cai Wenji , so as to portray the figure accurately. He made three drafts in all before he finally presented Wenji returning to Han to Guo, who was so impressed by the work that he even wrote inscription (poems or comments by the artist, his friends, or later owners and admirers that have been written directly on the surface of the calligraphy or painting) for it.
Since 1962 Fan has worked at the National Museum of Chinese History compiling records of traditional Chinese clothing. The ten-year Cultural Revolution brought Fan both physical and mental torture, which stalled his artistic creativity for a long time.
Fan's artistic life revived with the creation of the "splashed ink" figure Zhong Kui in 1977. It was the spring festival at the Great Hall of the People and Fan was invited to draw Zhong Kui, the protector against evil spirits and demons, while being broadcasted live on TV. Afterward audiences all over the country remembered Zhong Kui and of course, Fan Zeng. Since then, Zhong Kui has become an important symbol of Fan's artistic creations.
Zhong Kui, by Fan Zeng
Traditional Chinese figure painting in the Ming and Qing Dynasties places an emphasis on fine brushwork with close attention to detail but Fan follows in the footsteps of the great painters of the Song Dynasty in his use of simple and vigorous brush strokes and dynamic delineation of form. He specializes in the "splashed ink" style of figure painting. The "splashed ink" style was first in painting landscape. Artists usually begin by "splashing" the ink washes used to define mountains, hills and other landscape elements, and then added the finer details (temples, boats, trees, and people) in darker ink with quick, highly calligraphic strokes, which requires the artist has an idea in the mind before starting painting.
Fan fell into a severe illness in 1977, which nearly caused him to death. When facing threaten of death, he decided to do something really meaningful. With the encouragement of a good friend, he began to draw illustrations for Lu Xun's (who is known as the father of modern Chinese literature) novels. In order to spare his two hands for drawing, he asked the nurse to use the veins on his feet for injections and intravenous drips, a much more painful method. With two months' efforts, he not only successfully recovered from the illness, but also completed the project with 44 illustrations.
Illustration for Lu Xun's novel, by Fan Zeng
Fan traveled to Japan to hold an exhibition in 1979, and caused an immediate sensation. Sankei News, an influential newspaper in Japan even made a thorough introduction for ten contemporary Chinese painters as background information, including Wu Changshuo, Huang Binhong, Xu Beihong, Qi Baishi, Huang Zhou, Li Keran, Fu Baoshi, Pan Tianshou, Li Kuchan and Fan Zeng. The Fan Zeng Art Gallery was opened to the public in Japan in 1983 a rare case for foreign artists. The only other one to be so honored was the legendary Picasso!
Fan spent several years in France around Paris, during which he visited museums and places of interests in Europe. After returning to China in 1993, he has been working as professor at Nankai University and the dean of the Oriental Art Department.
(chinaculture April 7, 2006)