The Financial Times profiles Zeng Fanzhi ahead of Sotheby’s Hong Kong sales featuring his Last Supper:
Although all he wanted to do was stay home and paint, Zeng was assigned by the government to work at a fledgling advertising agency when he graduated in 1991. It would turn out to be the dawn of the advertising industry in post-revolution China. “When I started there the only advertising that could be displayed was political slogans but that soon changed,” Zeng says. “I managed to get a big ad contract for the agency and so then I didn’t have to go to the office for a year. I did some of my best work in that period.”
Much of his formal schooling was meant to produce social-realist works in the traditional Soviet style but he also developed an appreciation for German expressionists and, in his brief foray into advertising, he even read books by ad guru David Ogilvy on how to sell beer and shirts. He produced his first major works, including the haunting and grotesque “meat” and “hospital” series, in which his subjects already sported the oversized hands that would become a signature feature of his work.
Zeng was able to quit his job altogether and move to culturally rich Beijing at the start of 1993, after selling his first paintings to Johnson Chang, the renowned Hong Kong collector. Partly on the advice of the influential art critic Li Xianting, Chang paid $2,000 each for four large canvases, an enormous sum of money at that time in China.
Zeng says Chang still has the four pieces, which must be worth multiple millions of dollars today. “At that time those two [Chang and Li] were the most important people in the Chinese art world and they really gave me my start,” says Zeng. “It wasn’t just money, they also gave me confidence.”
Zeng Fanzhi, China’s richest artist (Financial Times)