Fan Zeng, Mirror of the Invisible

Less obsessed by avant-garde experiences or disruptive newness than concerned by inheritance and harmony, the art of Fan Zeng is one of the most significant variations on the classical themes of the Chinese civilization.
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The vicissitudes of history have never really interrupted the life of the Chinese art, in the era of a dematerialized cyberspace the "Four Treasures of the Study" ("Wen Fang Si Bao"), the brush, the ink, the paper and the ink stone continue to inspire, and, China's 21st century renaissance is giving a new meaning to the course of the black liquid.

Less obsessed by avant-garde experiences or disruptive newness than concerned by inheritance and harmony, the art of Fan Zeng is one of the most significant variations on the classical themes of the Chinese civilization.

Praised by Li Keran (1907-1989) for his technical mastery, Fan Zeng, born in 1938 and descendant of thirteen generations of scholars, has imposed his mark on poetry, painting and calligraphy, the literati's traditional domains of artistic expression.

His writings are known by a large public, this year, the opera tenor Liao Changyong is on a tour to interpret Fan Zeng's poems arranged for orchestral accompaniment by the country's greatest composers.

Fan Zeng's paintings, his famous Zhong Kui, his representations of Laozi or his depictions of old masters passing knowledge to future generations are collected by the connoisseurs, in the Middle Country, in Asia and beyond.

A symbol of friendship between France and China -- since the end of the 80s, Fan Zeng lives between Paris and Beijing, his portrait of Charles De Gaulle stands by the Seine River in the office of the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius as the two countries commemorate the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic relations.

Poet, painter, Fan Zeng is also a prince in the realm of the Chinese characters, and, approaching his calligraphies as if they were Western sculptures, it could be said that he dominates the logograms as Phidias (480-430BC), Michelangelo (1475-1564) or Rodin (1840-1917) mastered their marble.

In the Master's world of the brush, the purity of the lines is obvious, the most complex climates, moods or emotions are expressed by the simplest forms, but his style is also defined by a rare sprezzatura, or effortless virtuosity and brilliance, a subtle quality which was highly appreciated during the Italian Renaissance. In his greatest realizations, Fan Zeng's sprezzatura echoes the divine refinement of Raphael (1483-1520).

While the ordinary artists only display their artistic talents, Fan Zeng, in a sense, hides his art, in other words, his art is non-art as much as the Tao's most perfect action is non-action, but this supreme sprezzatura should not be mistaken for minimalism in which the effort of subtraction is strikingly visible. Laborious manners and minimalist shows equally differ from the grace of ethereal sprezzatura.

In Fan Zeng's splashed-ink ("Po Mo"), spontaneous execution agitates the brush, all is happening, in the words of the Master, in "the blinking of an eye, swiftly, as the falcon swoops down or the hare starts out."

But such an easiness of movement in a flash does presuppose the most accomplished craftsmanship, it is the crystallized tradition in the Master's mind and body which explodes in lines and curves on paper, the most rigorous practice and discipline culminating into the freedom of improvisation.

In his masterpieces, Fan Zeng's biography, erudition, sense of humor, remarkable physical presence, all have disappeared, the "Four Treasures of the Study" have vanished, only the Qi, the vital energy, circulates between the visible and the invisible.

The Master does not have the ambition to be in a position of a transcendent creator, he only hopes to capture the rhythm of immanent transformations, he does not wish to emulate God and the genesis, he has retracted his ego from the world to better follow preexisting patterns of change and express Heaven's and Earth's music.

Let us contemplate once again Fan Zeng's Zhuangzi and the Butterfly, a powerful composition inspired by a famous story of the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (369-286BC) : "Once Zhuang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He did not know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he did not know if it was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the transformation of things."

In Zhuangzi and the Butterfly, neither the thinker nor his vision dominates the scene, there is no sign of dualism between reality and imagination but only the dynamic presence of their eternal relation. Fashions, categorizations or the latest aesthetic discourses do not alter Fan Zeng's serenity, when, at 76, he handles the brush, he simply re-interprets Chinese classical themes, and by reconnecting with Wang Xizhi (303-361) and Bada Shanren (1626-1705) he lives, stronger than ever, full of the life of the Chinese art.

Would there be more beauty in the re-invention of the tradition than in the modern or post-modern quest for vanguardism? The answer is in the mature simplicity of the Master's forms and the universal emotion it generates.

An old man with the soul of a child, Fan Zeng does not oppose the past and the future, East and West, permanency and change, he projects their eternal harmony.

His visualization of the invisible which reconciles the opposites is the representation of wisdom.

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