When Zeng Fanzhi was growing up in Wuhan, Central China, painting kept him off the streets – the streets leading to the local hospital and past the butcher, depictions of which would later launch him, and Chinese Contemporary art – into the international spotlight. It led him to the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts, where he became interested in German Expressionism. After, on to Beijing and its changing population and social ambivalence toward the new Chinese identity, which he observed so brilliantly in his Mask Series – one of which recently scooped nearly $4 million US dollars at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong. Ultimately, he was among the pioneers – today’s new blue chip painters – who led Chinese contemporary art over the Great Wall and into the West.
Contemporary Chinese is among the fastest growing fields of art today. Last autumn, market leader Christie’s Hong Kong announced its best auction results ever. Approaching half a billion US dollars – a 41% increase over Spring 2010 and rising nearly 100 per cent on the previous year – its Asian Contemporary and 20th Century Chinese Art Day and Evening Sales achieved extraordinary prices for native painters who at once convey brilliant technique and unmistakable authorship while riding the great energy of change. Among the top ten lots, four were contemporary, of which Zeng Fanzhi’s numbered three. At Sotheby’s Hong Kong last year, another of his Mask Series sold for over $2 million US dollars, as did Yue Minjun’s ‘On The Lake’ – though, each was trumped by world record-breaking Zhang Xiaogang’s 1992 masterpiece, ‘Chapter of a New Century – Birth of the People’s Republic of China II,’ which fetched just under $7 million dollars.
Contemporary Chinese art was born at the end of the Maoist regime. With sudden exposure, after decades of Communist-era censorship to the art emanating from the rest of the world, a wave of highly-disciplined and talented artists (with the kind of energy and hunger missing from the protegés of the bloated west) began to emerge. Sotheby’s launched the first contemporary auction in 2004, with the highest lot then reaching $80,000. Prices have risen steadily since. According to Evelyn Lin, who spearheaded the Contemporary department, younger audiences – in response to keen prices and capacious properties - are now turning to installation works, which featured among the pieces art impresario Charles Saatchi launched his new London gallery with in ‘The Revolution Continues’, an agenda-setting survey of Chinese art.
New York has shown similar levels of interest and demand, and on both sides of the Atlantic, Chinese Contemporary continues to enjoy its place among the international post-war lots. Phillips de Pury further revolutionised the field in April 2010, when it held what is thought to be the world’s first exclusively BRIC sale – to be repeated in April 2011 in London.
It seems inevitable that the auctions this season – Christies will hold their Asian Contemporary and 20th Century Chinese Art Day and Evening Sales from late May, while highlights from Sotheby’s auctions, held from 1-7 April, had been previewed in travelling exhibitions around Southern Asia in the preceding months – will continue to thrive. For if these emerging blue chip artists are indeed, as few would dispute, founding fathers of China’s great, new energy, then, like Donatello and Botticelli were to Renaissance Europe, their vision and posterity – not to mention prices – seem guaranteed to only increase with time.