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Visual Arts

Georgette Chen Liying

First-generation female artist and one of the pioneers of the Nanyang style

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


Time taken : >15mins

An artist, I tell you, has to be prepared to starve. But somehow the artist loves his work so much that he struggles on and succeeds.

Interview conducted by Constance Sheares, 1989

Georgette Chen Liying was a first-generation Singapore artist and one of the pioneers of the Nanyang style of art. Spending her formative years in Paris, New York and Shanghai where she found success as an artist, she eventually found herself in Singapore as a rare female in a male-dominated visual arts field, influencing a generation of artists as a respected teacher at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. In 1982, Chen received the Cultural Medallion for her contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Born in Zhejiang, China in October 1906, Georgette Chen Liying (born Chang Liying) was the fourth of 12 children. Her father, Zhang Jingjiang, was a diplomat who was a close friend of the revolutionary Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen, and a financier of Sun’s Kuomintang political party. He was also an antiques dealer with businesses in Paris, New York and London. As a result, Chen had a privileged upbringing, spending her childhood shuttling between Paris and China with her family and attending high school in the US.

She grew up in an artistically rich environment encouraged by her art-loving father, but only began her formal art education in 1926 when she attended a year of art classes at the Art Students’ League in New York, US. This was followed by art studies in Paris, France in the following year at the Académie Colarossi and Académie Biloul where she was influenced by the work of Post-Impressionists such as Paul Cezanne. Her parents, although not convinced of the viability of a professional artistic career, supported her financially.

In 1930, two of Chen's works were selected for inclusion in the Salon d'Automne exhibition in Paris. The same year, the 24-year-old also married Eugene Chen Youren, a political revolutionary and the Foreign Minister of Sun's Kuomintang in the 1920s. She had been introduced to Eugene by Sun's wife Soong Qingling.

The following year, Eugene accepted the job of Foreign Minister in China's Nationalist Government and the couple relocated from Paris to Shanghai. In 1933, he became the Foreign Minister of the Fujian People's Government, newly formed in rebellion to the ruling Kuomintang now led by Chiang Kai-Shek. However, the collapse of the Fujian People’s Government in 1934 meant that Eugene was exiled again and the couple left China for Europe.

By this time, Chen, with full support from her art-loving husband, had become a full-time artist. She exhibited in New York, Shanghai and Paris, where she held two major exhibitions at the Palace of Painting as part of the Paris World Fair, and at the Women Painters Exhibition. Eugene became the frequent subject of her nuanced and sensitive renderings in oil, showing the influence of Van Gogh.

In 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War began, and the couple moved back to Hong Kong, where Eugene became involved with anti-Japanese activities. In 1944, the couple was arrested by the Japanese in a Hong Kong hotel. Eugene was interrogated and the couple was then placed under house arrest. Not long after, Eugene succumbed to sickness and passed away in May 1944 at the age of 66, widowing a 38-year-old Chen.

In 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War began, and the couple moved back to Hong Kong, where Eugene became involved with anti-Japanese activities. In 1944, the couple was arrested by the Japanese in a Hong Kong hotel. Eugene was interrogated and the couple was then placed under house arrest. Not long after, Eugene succumbed to sickness and passed away in May 1944 at the age of 66, widowing a 38-year-old Chen.

Chen is believed to have spent the next few years travelling around Asia while living in Shanghai, until she married Ho Yung Chi, a close friend and former aide of Eugene’s, in 1947. Ho worked as a journalist in New York and Chen moved there to be with him. Two years later in 1949, she had a major exhibition at the Asia Institute in New York. The same year, the couple moved to Paris, where Chen exhibited at the Salon d’Automne and the Galerie La Licorne.

Chen longed to return to Asia, and so in 1951, the couple moved to Penang, Malaysia, where she worked as an art teacher in a Chinese high school. During this period of time, Chen would make many trips to Singapore, where she had several artist friends. At one of her exhibitions in Singapore in 1952, she was invited by then Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) president Lin Xueda to teach at the academy; Chen did not take up the offer then. But her marriage with Ho gradually fell apart, resulting in a divorce in 1953. She then moved to Singapore, where she would spend her most artistically significant years of her life.

Throughout the decades, whether painting still lifes, landscapes or portraits, she drew from her surroundings and her subjects came from her various countries of residence. Until this point, her art could be classified into two phases—an Impressionist French Period (1920s–1930s) and a Post-Impressionist and Fauvist China–Hong Kong Period (1930s–1940s). Her emigration to Southeast Asia immersed her in a completely new environment, and she continued her practice of depicting local subjects through her Western art style.

Chen's works from this period showed a new maturity. Her marriage of Asian themes with her Western art training displayed a fresh delicacy in her brushstrokes and a new lightness and tranquility, all held together with a pleasing sense of harmony. She, a rare female in a then male-dominated art community, came to be regarded, together with Liu Kang, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng, as one of the pioneers of the Nanyang style.

She was so fond of Singapore as her new home that she was motivated to learn how to speak Malay. She even adopted a Malay name for herself—"Chendana". Later in life, Chen developed a fondness for painting tropical fruits such as the rambutan, and the Singapore River. She also loved to capture the vibrant, multicultural people of Singapore. She was especially partial to painting Sikh guards and Buddhist monks as she was drawn to the brilliant colours of their turbans and robes.

Like her peers, she also had a significant impact on art education in Singapore. From 1954 to 1980, Chen worked as a part-time art teacher at NAFA. During this time, she lived a modest life, devoting her time to teaching and painting. She gained a reputation amongst students and staff as an excellent but strict tutor who cut a fine figure with her elegance and poise, always rational and methodical in her instruction. Fellow art teacher and Singapore art pioneer Liu Kang would come to describe her as such:

During her long years of teaching at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, she transmitted to her students not only fundamental knowledge and techniques, but also the ethics of artistic creation, and her hope that they would not be confined by what they learnt from the past, but would be able to break new ground and create their own expressions.
The Chang Liying I Know, a Georgette Chen retrospective, National Museum of Singapore, 1985.)

For her contributions to visual art in Singapore, Chen received the Cultural Medallion in 1982. She went on to hold a solo exhibition consisting of 172 of her works at the National Museum Art Gallery in Singapore in 1985, and another solo exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1986, which was attended by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first prime minister of Malaysia.

Unfortunately, 1982 also brought on the beginning of a long illness that eventually resulted in her death on 15 March 1993 from complications due to rheumatoid arthritis.

On her passing, 53 of her works were donated to the Singapore Art Museum, and the proceeds from the sale of her Siglap Plain house in 1994 were donated to the National Arts Council, which established the Georgette Chen Arts Scholarship the following year. The proceeds of the sale of her personal investments went towards the construction of a new building for the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations and community welfare projects for the Malay community in Singapore, and to the Practice Theatre Ensemble (now The Theatre Practice) in support of Singapore Chinese theatre.

In 1997, the Singapore Art Museum organised Painting and Drawings by Georgette Chen, a retrospective exhibition and published an accompanying biography Georgette Chen. Ten years later in 2007, her intriguing life was captured on the theatrical stage in Georgette: The Musical by Singapore playwright Ng Yi-Sheng. In 2015, her life was commemorated in the television docudrama The Worlds of Georgette Chen, commissioned by National Gallery Singapore.

Timeline

Oct 1906

Born in Zhejiang, China.

1926 to 1927

Studied art at the Art Students League, New York, US.

1927 to 1928

Studied art at the Academie Colarossi and Academie Biloul, Paris, France.

1930

Married Eugene Chen Youren.

Exhibited at Salon d’Automne exhibition, Paris, France.

1931

Moved with Eugene Chen to Shanghai, China.

1934

Moved with Eugene Chen to Europe.

Exhibited at the Palace of Painting as part of the Paris World Fair, and at the Women Painters Exhibition, Paris, France.

1937

Moved with Eugene Chen to Hong Kong.

May 1944

Eugene Chen passed away.

1947

Married Ho Yung Chi.

Moved to New York, US.

1949

Exhibited at Asia Institute, New York, US.

Moved with Ho Yung Chi to Paris, France.

Exhibited at Salon d’Automne exhibition and Galerie La Licorne, Paris, France.

1951

Moved with Ho Yung Chi to Penang, Malaysia.

1951 to 1952

Chinese high school art teacher, Penang, Malaysia.

1953

Moved to Singapore.

Exhibited at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Singapore.

1954

Exhibited at the Singapore Art Society.

1954 to 1980

Part-time Lecturer, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore.

1982

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

1985

Solo exhibition of 172 works at National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.

1986

Solo exhibition at National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

15 Mar 1993

Passed away at Mount Alvernia Hospital, Singapore from complications due to rheumatoid arthritis.

Apr 1994

Funds raised from the sale of Chen's Siglap Plain house donated to National Arts Council for a planned arts scholarship fund.

Jun 1994

The executor of the Georgette Chen Estate discovered and donated 53 paintings to the Singapore Art Museum.

1994

Proceeds from sales of Chen's personal investments went towards a new building for Singapore Council of Women's Organisations, community welfare projects for the Singapore Malay community, and the Practice Theatre Ensemble (now The Theatre Practice) in support of Singapore Chinese theatre.

1995

Georgette Chen Arts Scholarship established by National Arts Council, for diploma courses at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Lasalle College of the Arts.

1997

Paintings and Drawings by Georgette Chen retrospective exhibition and accompanying biography Georgette Chen published by Singapore Art Museum.

2007

Georgette: The Musical, on the life of Chen, created and presented by Singapore playwright Ng Yi-Sheng.

2015

The Worlds of Georgette Chen, television docudrama, commissioned by National Gallery Singapore.


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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