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Multicolored Portrait (2014), by George Condo, one of a number of works by the American visual artist, together with those by Francis Bacon, Zeng Fanzhi, Adrian Ghenie and Yukimasa Ida, on show at Hong Kong’s Villepin art gallery. Photo: Villepin

Hong Kong art exhibition of Francis Bacon, George Condo and other artists’ portraits asks: what does it mean when one’s face ceases to be recognisable?

  • Villepin gallery’s exhibition in Hong Kong presents works by painter Francis Bacon alongside those by Zeng Fanzhi, George Condo, Adrian Ghenie and Yukimasa Ida
  • Together they show how the contorting and metamorphosing of the human face on canvas can lead to a layered exploration of humanity and identity

One’s face is inextricably tied to one’s identity, whether from the perspective of others or viewed in the mirror. In Chinese culture in particular, the concept of “face” has additional meaning – the phrase “saving face” means not humiliating others in public and allowing them to maintain their dignity, a basic demonstration of respect considered paramount in social relationships.

So what does it mean when one’s face changes or ceases to be recognisable?

A new exhibition at Hong Kong art gallery Villepin, titled “The Loss of a Human Face?”, tries to address that question.

Shown across three floors at the gallery’s location on Hollywood Road in Central, the exhibition presents works by the late British painter Francis Bacon alongside four contemporary artists: Zeng Fanzhi, George Condo, Adrian Ghenie and Yukimasa Ida.

Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards (1984), by Francis Bacon. Photo: Villepin

Upon entering the building, viewers are first shown a short video about the history of portraiture while being momentarily immersed in a recreation of Bacon’s London studio, strewn with paint tubes, brushes and other materials.

Once past the hallway, the first gallery is anchored by three of Bacon’s portraits. Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards (1984) depicts Bacon’s long-time companion with his face contorted, pointing to the complexities and tensions within human psychology. The square frames behind Edwards’ face in the paintings also suggest a sense of entrapment and enclosure.

On the Road to Tarascon 2 (2013), by Adrian Ghenie. Photo: Villepin

Also on the ground floor is Ghenie’s On the Road to Tarascon 2 (2013), an homage to Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait The Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1888). The gestural brushstrokes of Ghenie’s painting communicate a sense of motion and time, thus visually examining the way in which we recollect memories and history.

A mirror and a quote by Zeng – “The figures I paint function as a mirror that reflects my inner self” – greet visitors as they make their way to the first floor, where there are four paintings by the Beijing-based artist. In each painting, subjects with distinctly raw skin are seen with masks donned, which together provide an unsettling impression that overtly addresses the masquerading of identity.

Providing commentary on the economic and societal changes in China in the 1990s, Zeng’s paintings question the significance and prevalence of wearing different psychological and behavioural masks during specific times and in specific environments. Mask Series No. 26 (1995) in particular captures two subjects in the midst of a collective scream, one that is paused and rendered silent due to the medium of the artwork.

Mask Series No. 26 (1995), by Zeng Fanzhi.

On the top floor of the gallery, Japanese artist Ida depicts the human face of Bob (2022) through an abstract portrait.

Meanwhile, Condo’s Multicolored Portrait (2014), which was created with acrylic, charcoal and pastel on linen, renders a sense of flatness in the style of psychological cubism. The whimsical piece, which bears an immediate resemblance to the work of Pablo Picasso, further delves into the human psych and subconscious mind.

The main star of the exhibition is undoubtedly Bacon, the subject of an extensive exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London recently and a colossal figure in art history.

Bob (2022), by Yukimasa Ida.

But the paintings by younger artists are worthy company and, together, show how the contorting and metamorphosing of the human face on canvas can lead to a layered exploration of humanity and identity.

There is a poignancy in the timing of the exhibition, says Arthur de Villepin, co-founder of the gallery with his father, Dominique. In Hong Kong, continuing coronavirus measures mean that visitors entering the gallery must still keep their face masks on.

Our collective “loss of face” makes this study of the art of portraiture all the more immediate.

“The Loss of a Human Face?” is showing at Villepin, 53-55 Hollywood Road, Central, open Tue-Sat from 11am-7pm and Sun from 11am-6pm. Until November. (By appointment only through the gallery’s website.)