Modern Art

A great leap forward ... with funky gibbons and strange squirrels

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 February, 2007, 12:00am

Like the Europeans who embraced chinoiserie styles in the 19th century and the Beautiful Indies in the 20th century, Chinese artists absorbed and adapted foreign ideas and influences. Chen Wen Hsi is a case in point.

A pioneer of Singapore's modern art, Chen played an important role in the foundation of the Nanyang style, which fused eastern philosophy and subjects with western aesthetic style and composition.

He also transformed Chinese ink painting, says Anita Chung, associate curator of Chinese Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. 'His modernity of style, as reflected in his daring use of form, surface, colour and brushwork to give an overall abstract composition, was novel,' she writes in an essay accompanying a major retrospective of the artist's work at the Singapore Art Museum.

Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition features 123 pieces, many displayed in public for the first time.

Born in Guangdong in 1906, Chen enrolled in the Shanghai College of Art in the late 1920s and subsequently the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts, where he trained in Chinese and western techniques, before going on to teach.

In 1949, he moved to Singapore, where his interest in and knowledge of international art styles and concepts took a major leap forward. He started exploring Fauvism, cubism and abstract, moving between styles, techniques and media. In Malayan Scenery, dating from the 1950s, Chen makes full use of the dramatic power of the Chinese brush to depict a local setting. Although he adopts a western, fixed-point perspective in this work, the more traditional, vertical format gives full play to the fishing nets hung out to dry, says the show's curator, Low Sze Wee.

In Rocky Hill, dating from the 1970s, the artist combines the monumental landscapes found in Chinese paintings with the fractured planes of cubism, the brushwork of the xieyi tradition as well as the colour fields of abstract expressionism. 'Chen's art is reflective of the meeting of different aesthetic traditions in the 20th century,' says Low. 'Although he embraced many different western art forms and concepts throughout his life, Chinese painting always remained at the core of his practice.'

A keen observer of nature and a strong believer in life-drawing studies, Chen was impressed by a 13th-century painting by Muxi that led to a life-long fascination for gibbons. But his depictions of the creatures changed over time. In his early period, his gibbons' faces were rounded and they adopted passive poses. But as Chen developed his craft, his gibbons became more playful and active, their legs and arms becoming elongated.

His portrayals of squirrels, another favourite subject, also show a clear evolution, being painted in all their furry detail in the earlier work before he moved towards a more abbreviated style in later years, with much drier, shorter brushwork.

'Chen's focus moved away from the squirrel and the details towards the overall composition of the painting,' says Low.

'He was trying to express his subjective self through the composition rather than depicting the objective world.'

In the last decade of his life, Chen concentrated almost exclusively on Chinese ink as a medium, seeking different and original ways to incorporate his understanding of western modern art. He also put his creative soul into expression rather than representation. Although his paintings were still based on reality, he freely distorted, reconfigured and transformed the subjects, creating powerful abstract compositions.

He also used the vibrant and bold colours more often found in western paintings than in Chinese inks. 'He was always interested in colour relationship,' says Low. 'He felt that the colour palette for Chinese traditional painting was too limited and he felt that the west had much more to offer in terms of a wider range of colours to work on.'

In Herons, completed shortly before he died in 1991, the artist again breaks from tradition by creating an almost-abstract work, resulting in a flat patterning of the painting surface. This is achieved by incorporating cubist elements to produce interlocking planes, suggesting a dense flock of birds. In addition, the voids left by the white, unpainted paper create a dynamic tension - in places, depicting the water surface, and in others, cunningly delineating the form of herons in the negative.

'Chen's contribution towards the modernisation and development of Chinese ink painting was most apparent in his later period, where he used cubist and semi-abstract renditions of flower and bird themes in ink,' says museum director Kwok Kian Chow. 'In a sense, Chen came full circle with these works. Although initially inspired by western principles such as cubism and abstraction, he also reached deep into his own cultural heritage.'

Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition, Singapore Art Museum. Ends Apr 8