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Visual Arts

Chen Wen Hsi

First-generation artist and seminal pioneer of the Nanyang style.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Chen Wen Hsi was a first generation Singapore artist and a seminal pioneer of the Nanyang style. A graduate of the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai, Chen migrated to Singapore after World War II. Here, he embarked on a career as an art teacher that saw him teaching at The Chinese High School and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and established an art practice that merged Western and Chinese art traditions in a distinctive aesthetic expression that went on to be hugely influential in Singapore art.

Born in Baigong village in Guangdong, China in 1906, Chen Wen Hsi enrolled in the Shanghai College of Art in 1928. Two years later, he transferred to the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai where he met Chen Chong Swee and Liu Kang, who would later become—together with him, Cheong Soo Pieng and Georgette Chen—influential pioneers of the Nanyang style when they moved to Singapore.

After graduation, he established an art practice, holding four solo exhibitions in Shanghai and Guangzhou to much acclaim. In 1946, after the end of World War II, Chen took on a job as a lecturer at the South China College in Shantou, China. A year later, he left China, travelling through much of Southeast Asia before settling in Singapore in 1948, fascinated by the tropical foliage and environs of the Straits Settlements region.

In Singapore, Chen became an art teacher at The Chinese High School and taught there from 1949 to 1968, concurrently teaching art at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts from 1951 to 1959. His teachings as an art educator greatly influenced many of Singapore’s early Chinese artists.

At the same time, he continued practicing art, travelling around the region for inspiration and painting landscapes, human figures and animals as well as making abstract compositions in oils and Chinese inks. His earlier works show the influence of the Post-Impressionist movement, and also show his love for nature, cultivated from his childhood years growing up in a rural village in Guangdong surrounded by animals whose habits he loved to observe.

In Singapore, he sought to replicate that experience, rearing animals such as chickens and gibbons at his home, making them—in addition to other animals encountered on field trips such as cows, ducks, squirrels and carp—the subjects of many of his Chinese ink paintings. He was also fascinated by the diverse ethnic communities in Singapore and created many artworks depicting subjects such as ferry workers, labourers, and Indian and Malay children.

In 1952, he made a historic trip to Bali, Indonesia, together with peers Chen Chong Swee, Liu Kang and Cheong Soo Pieng that resulted in fresh inspiration, a wealth of visual sources and a shift in style. Post-Bali, Chen began working more in oil and ink, and his paintings showed the influences of analytical Cubism and Fauvism, featuring the former’s flat, patterned renderings based on life and Fauvism’s non-naturalistic, exuberant colours which vividly expressed the colourful vibrance and exoticism of Southeast Asia. His Western and traditional Chinese influences also began to merge seamlessly, resulting in artworks with a more distinctive voice.

An example is 1990’s famous Herons which depicts a flock of herons feeding on fishes in a pond. Playing with light and form, space and structure, and combining the re-assembled abstraction of Western Cubism with the balance, symbolism, white space and light touch of Chinese ink painting, Chen created in Herons an unusual sense of logical clutter and peaceful chaos.

Over the decades, Chen painted tirelessly, especially after retiring from teaching in 1968 to concentrate on his art. Through his life, Chen participated in numerous group exhibitions and held numerous solo exhibitions in Singapore and around the world.

For his contributions to Singapore art, Chen received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) in 1964. He also became first Singapore artist to receive an honorary doctorate from the National University of Singapore; the first Singapore artist to receive a Gold Medal by the National Museum of History, Taiwan in 1980; as well as the first recipient of the ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award for outstanding artists in 1987.

In 1991, Chen passed away. The following year, he was awarded a posthumous Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal). His artistic legacy lives on in the practice of Singapore artists, and on the back on the Singapore $50 note, where a portion of his work Two Gibbons Amidst Vines is printed.

Timeline

9 Sep 1906

Born in Baigong Village, Guangdong, China.

1917 to 1918

Attended Zhen Li Primary School (真理小学).

1920 to 1924

Attended St. Joseph’s Secondary School (若瑟中学), Shantou, China.

1923

First solo exhibition, Shantou, China.

1926

Moved to Shanghai.

Attended Shanghai Academy (上海专科美术学院).

1929

Art teacher, Shantou Second Primary School and various secondary schools in Jinshan, Hanshan, and Chao’an counties in China.

Set up the Chunyang Painting Society in Shantou, China to teach young people interested in pursuing art.

1931

Solo exhibition, Shanghai, China.

1932

Solo exhibition, Guangzhou, China.

1933

Solo exhibition, Shanghai, China.

1936

Solo exhibition, Guangzhou, China.

1946 to 1947

Fine arts lecturer, South China College, Shantou, China.

1948

Moved to Singapore.

Solo exhibition, Saigon, Vietnam.

1949

Solo exhibition, Hong Kong.

Solo exhibition, Bangkok, Thailand.

Solo exhibition, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

1949 to 1968

Art teacher, The Chinese High School.

1950

Solo exhibition, Bangkok, Thailand.

Solo exhibition, Singapore.

1951 to 1959

Art teacher, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

1952

Went for artistic field trip to Bali with fellow visual arts pioneers Liu Kang, Chen Chong Swee and Cheong Soo Pieng, resulting in the birth of the Nanyang style.

1953

Participated in group exhibition Bali: Liu Kang, Chen Wen His, Chen Chong Swee, Cheong Soo Pieng, British Council, Singapore.

1955

Participated in a seven artist group exhibition organised by the Singapore Art Society.

1956

Solo exhibition, British Council, sponsored by the Singapore Art Society.

1960

Solo exhibition at the Victorian Artists’ Society Galleries, Melbourne, Australia.

1964

Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).

Solo exhibition, Victoria Memorial Hall, Singapore.

1965

Solo exhibition, Art Gallery of Cologne, West Germany.

1968

Retired from teaching.

1972

Participated in group exhibition, Mandarin Galleries, Mandarin Hotel, Singapore.

1975

Received Doctor of Letters honorary degree, University of Singapore.

1980

Received Gold Medal, The National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan.

Participated in group exhibition, National Museum of Singapore Art Gallery.

1982

Work featured in Chen Wen Hsi Retrospective, National Museum of Singapore Art Gallery. Presented by Ministry of Culture.

1987

Received inaugural ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award.

17 Dec 1991

Passed away at age 85 in Singapore.

1992

Received posthumous Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).

1993

Cranes featured on postage stamp as part of the Singapore Art Series, Singapore Post.

Eight Playful Gibbons featured on commemorative gold and silver ingots issued by The Singapore Mint.

Cat featured on commemorative gold and silver ingots for the Reminiscence of Singapore’s Pioneer Art Masters exhibition, presented by The Singapore Mint.

1995

Gibbons featured on postage stamp as part of the Singapore Art Series, Singapore Post.

Art featured together with four other Singapore artists’ in Singapore Telecom’s Pioneer Artists range of telephone cards.

1999

Two Gibbons Amidst Vines featured on the reverse side of Singapore $50 note.

2005

Work featured in group exhibition Cubism in Asia: Unbounded Dialogues, held in National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, and Singapore Art Museum.

2006

Work featured in Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition, Singapore Art Museum.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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