Van Gogh has new look

In a re-imagining of a 1889 self-portrait of van Gogh, artist Zeng Fanzhi (above) overlaid the work with a dizzying swirl of bold, rich lines.
In a re-imagining of a 1889 self-portrait of van Gogh, artist Zeng Fanzhi (above) overlaid the work with a dizzying swirl of bold, rich lines.PHOTO: NYTIMES, ZENG FANZHI STUDIO

Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi brilliantly reworks the master's paintings to draw new fans

AMSTERDAM • Picture this: Vincent van Gogh's artworks are very familiar to many people, so how do you draw new fans to his craft?

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam had a stroke of brilliance, inviting another artist to re-invent some of the Dutch painter's most iconic self-portraits and paintings.

In an exhibition that opened yesterday in Amsterdam, one of China's best known contemporary artists, Zeng Fanzhi, has done just that. The unique fusion presents a series of striking paintings that lends fresh energy and vibrancy to the original works.

"Many of the works by van Gogh have become so iconic that you always feel you know them and we tend to not really look at them anymore," said Mr Axel Rueger, director of the museum.

"That an artist really dares to enter into that confrontation again and look at Vincent's work afresh, and... do his own thing with it. That is for us, of course, really interesting and inspiring," he added.

For the Zeng Fanzhi/van Gogh exhibition, which runs until Feb 25, the Chinese artist has recreated six masterpieces, adding his own distinctive brushstrokes and even imbuing the new works with Chinese calligraphy and handwriting.

The effect is startling.

In a re-imagining of a 1889 self-portrait of van Gogh, artist Zeng Fanzhi overlaid the work with a dizzying swirl of bold, rich lines (above). PHOTO: NYTIMES, ZENG FANZHI STUDIO

In Zeng's re-imagining of a 1889 self-portrait, van Gogh in a blue furry hat, with his ear bandaged and a pipe in his mouth, still stares from the canvas somewhere into the distance.

But Zeng has overlaid the portrait with a dizzying swirl of bold, rich lines. It is both instantly recognisable and yet completely new.

"Van Gogh and I differ a lot in many ways. There is 100 years of time between us," Zeng said, adding he had long been inspired by the troubled Dutchman. The latter killed himself aged 37 in 1890 after a short-lived but prolific career.

"I'm a contemporary artist and van Gogh is a post-Impressionist artist. So we have different backgrounds and we express also other things, other feelings," he noted.

But while "each artist has his own character", he acknowledged they may have a similarity of spirit.

Zeng's 2001 painting The Last Supper sold for US$23.3 million in 2013, making him one of China's top-selling living artists. He has also re-created a huge canvas depicting van Gogh's famous Wheatfields.

Said the exhibition's curator Maite van Dijk: "You can see how he recreates van Gogh's work and makes it his own. It's an artwork in itself... it's a very, very powerful and very, very striking painting."

She added that she was struck by the emerging "dialogue" between the two men through their artworks which had enabled her to "re-explore van Gogh's own emotions".

"Van Gogh said in his letters that he wanted to put soul in his art, to communicate with his art and what we see here is still the desire to communicate, but with various levels and various meanings," she said.

Born in 1964 in Wuhan in Hubei province, Zeng works in Beijing.

His work has been exhibited in many of the world's top museums.

In this new exhibition, he is the first living Asian artist to hang alongside van Gogh in Amsterdam.

It was a chance visit by Ms van Dijk to Zeng's Beijing studios which led to the collaboration.

Hanging on the wall was a 2009 oil painting by Zeng of his boots, which recalled a similar series of van Gogh's paintings of his own shoes.

"It was a perfect match," said Ms van Dijk.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2017, with the headline 'Van Gogh has new look'. Print Edition | Subscribe