Record-breaking Chinese artist Zeng lifts the mask

PARIS - His 2001 painting "The Last Supper" has just sold for US$23 million (S$28 million), but growing up in a working class family during China's Cultural Revolution, Zeng Fanzhi could never have anticipated the path his life would take.

"The notion of the artist didn't exist," he said of his art school days in the central Hubei province.

"We were art workers. We didn't know that we could be free and independent," Zeng, in Paris for a retrospective of his works, told AFP.

Based on Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, Zeng's "Last Supper" - part of the Paris show - set a new record for a contemporary Chinese artist when it was sold at auction in Hong Kong on October 5.

The work, which depicts Christ and the disciples wearing masks and communist Young Pioneers uniforms, was purchased by an anonymous private buyer following a 10-minute telephone bidding war.

Born in 1964 in Wuhan in Hubei province, Zeng is currently the subject of a show at Paris' Museum of Modern Art featuring around 40 of his works dating back to 1990.

"It's the first time in my life that so many of my works have been brought together... It's very important to me," he told AFP, speaking through an interpreter.

Currently ranked the fourth highest-selling contemporary artist - in terms of auction turnover - according to art data firm Artprice, his sales in 2012/13 reached US$34.3 million.

Such success is a far cry from his days as a student at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts.

"In the place where I was living, there were no toilets so I had to go to the neighbouring hospital several times a day," he said.

This inspired a series of works based on what he had witnessed on his visits.

For his graduation painting he presented the expressionistic "Hospital Triptych No.1" which attracted the attention of the Chinese art world.

In 1993, Zeng moved to Beijing and began working on his masks series.

"Behind most of these masks, it's me. I had very few friends because I had just arrived in Beijing," he said.

His works have always drawn on his own life and emotions including his childhood, which was indelibly marked by the Cultural Revolution.

From its start in 1966 until Mao's death in 1976, this saw the rejection of traditional forms of Chinese culture.

In "The Last Supper", the disciples' Young Pioneers uniforms feature the red scarves that were a symbol of achievement in Communist China - something Zeng said always eluded him.

And the Judas figure "wears a gold scarf which evokes the power of money and capitalism".

"I never had the red scarf," he said.

"I was excluded from collectivity. It was like a badge of shame for my parents. It was a shadow over my childhood," he added.

Zeng is now collaborating on a museum project that he believes will enable him to express his artistic vision.

His current work uses a technique which he adopted in the middle of the last decade in which blurred lines are employed to depict landscapes.

"Before painting a big canvas, I prepare for several days in order to attain a state of calm and serenity. Then I paint fast, in an intense way," he said.