Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, in memory of La Ferne Hatfield Ellsworth, 1986
Not on view
After graduating from college with a degree in history, Fan Zeng studied art history and painting at Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts. He went on to work at the National Museum of Chinese History before becoming chairman of the Oriental Culture Department of Nankai University in Tianjin. As a painter Fan specializes in figural subjects, particularly historical personages, rendered in a dashing style that combines sketchy brushwork with acutely observed naturalistic detail.
Zhong Kui, the legendary demon queller, was often portrayed in humorous situations, but Fan Zeng chose to depict him as a heroic figure wearing a sword. Painted about the time that posters advocating greater personal freedom began to appear on "Democracy Wall" in Beijing, Fan's bold image may refer to the fall of the Gang of Four and the expunging of other "demons" responsible for the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
The political sensitivity of Fan's painting is underscored by Huang Miaozi's powerfully brushed but circumspect inscription, which reads, in part:
"Earlier artists loved to paint Zhong Kui because the old boy was good for a laugh. . . . After Fan [Zeng] did this painting [of Zhong Kui] holding a sword he asked me what I would inscribe [on it]. I said, 'Only [Zhong Kui] in his gut knows.'"
Inscription: By Huang Miaozi: In the past, artists like to paint Zhong Gui because the old man appears in many humorous situations. For instance, Li Fangyin [1695–1754] wrote a poem for his "Zhong Gui in the Storm" that said: There was a big storm at the time of the Dragon Boat Festival [May 5th]. The harvested wheat was spoiled by mud on the threshing ground. Zhong Gui still had extra money to spend. After all, only the people are poor; ghosts are not.
Another outlandish fellow of the Qing dynasty, Shitao [1630–?] inscribed his "Drunken Zhong Gui Returning" saying: Muddy feet, broken umbrella and a single light; Selling Taoist characters everywhere, He then returns late because he is drunk. Trembling with fear, he is afraid of being seduced by ghosts.
These two poems are good for a laugh. Jiangdong Fan San did his "Zhong Gui Holding a Sword". People asked me what I would write. I said "Only he knows."
Calligrapher's seals: 1. Miaozi (square, white characters) 2. Leifu (square, white characters) 3. Gefeng Studio (rectangular, red characters)
Marking: Collectors' seals: Robert Hatfield Ellsworth Collection
Robert H. Ellsworth , New York (until 1986; donated to MMA)
Fort Worth. Kimbell Art Museum. "Style and Expressionism: Modern Chinese Painting," November 4, 1989–January 14, 1990.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Between Two Cultures: A Selection of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Chinese Paintings from the Robert H. Ellsworth Collection," January 30, 2001–August 19, 2001.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Secular and Sacred: Scholars, Deities, and Immortals in Chinese Art," September 10, 2005–January 8, 2006.