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Visual Arts

Lee Hock Moh

Second-generation Nanyang artist, recognised for his orchid paintings

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Foundations are very important. Get your foundations right and go out into nature… Look out of your window: every tree is different, every leaf is different, there is so much you can take in and so much to portray… But first you must get your foundations right. It’s a very long and hard process and you may find it a struggle to achieve, but once you do, everything becomes clear.

Lee Hock Moh, born in 1947 in Singapore, is a second-generation Nanyang style artist best known for his exquisite paintings of orchids. Trained in traditional Chinese ink and Western oil painting at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, he co-founded the Siaw-Tao Chinese Seal Carving, Calligraphy and Painting Society in 1971. Today, he continues an over four decades long art practice, painting flora and fauna on rice paper in the ancient gongbi style which features fine brushwork, abundant colour and meticulous detail, as well as evocative landscape paintings which delicately integrate Western art elements in a traditional Chinese painting format. In 1981, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Lee Hock Moh studied Western oil painting and traditional Chinese ink painting at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), and specialised in painting flora and fauna in the gongbi style of traditional Chinese painting, a style of painting with superfine and controlled brushwork. While studying in the academy, his initial paintings were of traditional Chinese ink subjects such as the peony flower, something that he had never seen in real life. His art teacher Shi Xiang Tuo commented that Lee’s ink studies lacked life, and advised Lee to instead depict the things around him, such as the orchids in his family home compound.

This proved to be a revelation. From then on, Lee started creating art that drew inspiration from his everyday life. He specifically started painting orchids regularly as these were his favourite flowers—they were the flowers he grew up with and knew best. Meticulously painted in the precisely detailed, refined, highly coloured and realist gongbi style of traditional Chinese painting, Lee’s paintings of these local, tropical flowers—along with other Southeast Asian plants and fruits and the occasional bird and domestic animal—referenced and yet departed from traditional Chinese ink paintings.

A young Lee showed his paintings at group exhibitions and was encouraged by judges and established visitors including the renowned pioneering artist Liu Kang to further develop his paintings of this genre as they had a unique Nanyang flavour. Subsequently, he was also greatly encouraged to continue making art in this vein when one of his orchid paintings was bought by a distinguished guest, Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, as a gift for a visiting foreign diplomat.

After graduating from NAFA, Lee co-founded the Siaw-Tao Chinese Seal-Carving, Calligraphy and Painting Society with his peers, including Tan Kian Por, in 1971 and worked full-time at Lianhe Zaobao while practising his art. In more than four decades of art practice, he participated in many art exhibitions and won several awards including the 1975, 1976 and 1983 Special Award awarded by the Ministry of Culture and the 1980 Special Award from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Alumni Association. In 1981, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts.

In the ’90s, he retired from his job at Lianhe Zaobao and turned his attention fully to his art. Today, Lee remains an active member of the society he helped to found. He has since continued exhibiting in Singapore and overseas, including at a 2000 exhibition of paintings by New York and Singaporean artists held in New York, USA, in addition to visiting many galleries and exhibitions himself.

He has also devoted his time to travelling and has painted many landscapes overseas in addition to the many flowers, birds and fish he keeps at home. In the past decade, he has drawn much inspiration from his travels to scenic locations in places such as Yunnan and Kunming in China. These have since resulted in a growing collection of landscape paintings imbued with the artist’s palpable sense of wonder and deep appreciation of nature.

Different from his highly coloured and meticulously detailed flora and fauna paintings, Lee’s landscape paintings are subtly coloured, evocative, painterly tableaux. Some vibrantly depict rushing waters, gathering mists, quiet villages and dipping valleys in the quiet colours of traditional Chinese ink, while several sensitively portray the four seasons and delicately integrate Western painting techniques in a mainly traditional Chinese gongbi ink format. His landscape paintings’ unique and graceful Nanyang-influenced integration of Western painting elements with traditional Chinese painting have received much attention and praise.

Yet it is specifically his orchid paintings, vibrant in colour, exquisitely detailed and bursting with lush vitality, for which Lee is best known. Today, orchids are still always in bloom outside his home, offering him continued insight into life with their cycle of life and providing countless opportunities for joyful appreciation and detailed ink studies with their many incarnations.

Timeline

1947

Born in Singapore.

1964 to 1967

Attended Holy Innocents' High School.

1968 to 1970

Graduated from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

1971

Co-founded the Siaw-Tao Chinese Seal-Carving, Calligraphy and Painting Society.

1975

Featured in the National Day Art Exhibition Award.

Received Special Award from the Ministry of Culture.

1976

Received Special Award from the Ministry of Culture.

1980

Received Special Award from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Alumni Association.

1981

Received Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts.

1983

Received Special Award from the Ministry of Culture.

1998

Received Singapore Art Society Award.


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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