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Visual Arts

Liu Kang

Prolific first-generation artist and pioneer of the Nanyang style

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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I had no time to hone my skills as an artist but [teaching and promoting art] was something we had to do at that time. The most precious times of my youth I had to teach, to live, and I did a lot of voluntary work for art.

The Straits Times, 21 July 1989

Liu Kang was an influential pioneering Singapore first-generation artist, art educator and critic who, together with Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee and Chen Wen Hsi, birthed the Nanyang style. He taught art at various schools, was president of the far-reaching Society of Chinese Artists and the Singapore Art Society, and wrote many critical essays on art. Together with his fellow Nanyang style painters, Liu developed a large body of work expressing a unique Southeast Asian consciousness as experienced by the Chinese diaspora. Liu received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) in 1970 and the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) in 1996 for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Born in 1911 in Yongchun, China, a six-year-old Liu Kang moved with his family to Muar, Malaya where his father purchased a rubber plantation. Liu attended Chung Hwa School and then Chinese High School in Singapore, and was sent to China to continue his secondary school education in Jinan University Middle School in Shanghai.

During the school holidays, Liu attended a two-month long art course at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts. Recognising his talent for art, Liu was allowed to enrol in the academy, starting his formal art education in the second year of the art programme. At the academy, he learnt much under the mentorship of his principal Liu Haisu. During this time, he would also come to know the sister of his fellow artist Chen Jen Hao, Chen Jen Ping, who would become his wife ten years later.

Graduating from the academy in 1928 together with Chen Jen Hao, Liu travelled to Paris, France to further his art education at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière from 1929 to 1933. In this new artistically rich environment, he found great inspiration in the works of Gauguin, van Gogh, Matisse and Cézanne.

Completing his course at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Liu returned to Shanghai and joined the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts as its youngest professor, teaching Western Painting. In 1937, shortly after marrying Chen Jen Ping, Shanghai fell to the Japanese Invasion and the couple moved to Malaya. For five years, Liu taught at the Nan Chiau Teachers’ Training College and Chung Cheng High School in Singapore. When the Japanese army eventually reached Singapore in 1942, Liu, his wife and Chen Jen Hao immediately moved to Muar where he opened a coffeeshop with his brother-in-law. In their haste to avoid the war, Liu left behind many of his paintings in Singapore. To escape Japanese prosecution of the intelligentsia in Muar, he moved alone to Singapore soon after to work as a commercial sign painter.

During his time in Malaya, Liu witnessed war atrocities committed by the Japanese army against Chinese men, women and children. The memories of what he had seen haunted him and in 1946, when he moved with his family to Singapore after the Japanese Occupation was over, he published Chop Suey, a multi-volume book of illustrations depicting in sometimes graphic detail the horrors that the Japanese army had inflicted on people in Malaya.

Back in Singapore, Liu began serving as the president of the Society of Chinese Artists, which had a far-reaching membership and influence in Southeast Asia. He reconnected with old Shanghai Academy schoolmates and fellow artists from the society such as Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng and Cheng Chong Swee. In 1952, the four of them went on their historic excursion to Bali where they stayed for a few months and were greatly rejuvenated and inspired by the sights, sounds, rhythms and colours of Bali, resulting in the birth of the Nanyang style of art.

In 1957, Liu held his first solo exhibition at the Victoria Theatre Hall. The works showed the artist in a new phase of maturity, which saw him seeking to represent the experience of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. The depiction of local people laboring or engrossed in ordinary activity was the dominant theme of his paintings in the ’50s such as Building Site/Samsui Women (1951), Offerings (1957) and Durian Vendors (1957). His earlier paintings had shown influences of Post-Impressionism and Fauvism in their expressiveness, intense colours and form, as well as possible influences of Chinese painting with their composition and brush strokes. Now, they exhibited indigenous Southeast Asian influences with their brighter hues, flatter forms and bold outlines of white.

During this time, Liu Kang also took up teaching positions at various schools including Nanyang Girls’ High, Chinese High School and Dunman High School, of which the principal was his brother-in-law and old friend Chen Jen Hao. Together with Chen, he designed the Dunman High School school crest.

He also travelled for inspiration, visiting Nepal and India. He also wrote many critical essays on art, expressing his thoughts on art education in Singapore, art criticism and development. In 1968, he became a founding member of the Singapore Art Society, and served as its president for 11 years until 1979.

Liu became a respected individual known for his efforts in promoting art in the community. He contributed his services as chairman of both the National Day Art Exhibition Committee and the Visual Arts Advisory Committee for the Ministry of Culture.

An instrumental figure in the development of the Singapore art scene, Liu Kang was recognised for his many contributions to art in Singapore. He received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) in 1970 and the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) in 1996 for his contributions to art in Singapore.

In 2003, Liu Kang donated what remained of his life’s work, comprising over 1,000 paintings and sketches, to the Singapore Art Museum. The following year, he passed away at the age of 93 in Singapore.

In 2011, his artistic achievements were celebrated with a retrospective exhibition Liu Kang: A Centennial Celebration, organised by the National Art Gallery, Singapore, supported by the National Heritage Board, and held at the Singapore Art Museum. The 100 works, sketches, essays and artefacts on display took audiences through Liu Kang’s artistic journey from young migrant artist to venerated artist-educator and national treasure.

Timeline

1 Apr 1911

Born in Yongchun County, Fujian Province, China.

1917

Moved to Muar, Malaya with family.

1917 to 1923

Attended Chung Hwa School, Muar, Malaya.

1924 to 1926

Attended Chinese High School, Singapore.

1926

Moved to Shanghai, China.

Attended Jinan University Middle School, China for secondary school education.

1926 to 1928

Attended Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, China.

1928 to 1933

Moved to Paris, France.

Attended Academie de Grande Chaumiere, France.

1933 to 1937

Moved to Shanghai, China.

Professor, Western Painting, Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts.

Aug 1937

Moved to Malaya.

Art teacher, Chong Hwa High School, Malaya.

1937 to 1942

Art teacher, Nan Chiau Teachers’ Training College, Singapore.

Art teacher, Chung Cheng High School, Singapore.

1942

Moved to Muar, Malaya.

1945

Moved to Singapore.

Launched Morrow Studio at Dhoby Ghaut, taking on advertising work and cinema billboards.

1946

Published Chop Suey, a multi-volume illustration work.

1946 to 1958

President, Society of Chinese Artists, Singapore.

1952

Went on an artistic field trip to Bali, Indonesia with fellow visual arts pioneers Chen Chong Swee, Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi, resulting in the birth of the Nanyang style.

1953

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

1957

Solo exhibition, Victoria Theatre Hall.

1968

Founding member, Singapore Art Society.

1968 to 1979

President, Singapore Art Society.

1969 to 1977

Chairman, National Day Art Exhibition Committee.

1970

Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).

1978 to 1981

Chairman, Advisory Committee on Visual Arts, Ministry of Culture.

1981

Solo exhibition Liu Kang’s Retrospective Exhibition, National Museum of Singapore.

1983

Solo exhibition Liu Kang Exhibition Tour, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

1985

Received Service Award, Singapore Art Society.

Received Service Award, Society of Chinese Artists, Singapore.

1989

Solo exhibition Paintings by Liu Kang, National Museum Art Gallery.

1993

Received ASEAN Creative Award, Brunei.

1996

Received Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).

1997

Solo exhibition Liu Kang at 87, Singapore Art Museum.

1998

Solo exhibition Liu Kang at 88, Singapore Soka Association.

1999

Received Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Government of France.

Nov 2000

Solo exhibition in Beijing, China.

May 2003

Donates his life’s work to the Singapore Art Museum.

18 Feb 2004

Work featured on Singapore Art Series stamps, Singapore Post.

1 Jun 2004

Passed away at age 94 in 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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