GEORGETTE CHEN (1906-1993)
GEORGETTE CHEN (1906-1993)
GEORGETTE CHEN (1906-1993)
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GEORGETTE CHEN (1906-1993)

Still Life with Big Durian

GEORGETTE CHEN (1906-1993)
Still Life with Big Durian
signed ‘CHEN’ (upper left)
oil on canvas
46 x 55 cm. (18 1/8 x 21 5/8 in.)
Painted circa 1965
Collection of the artist
Private collection (acquired directly from the artist)
Sotheby’s Singapore, 16 May 1998, lot 62
Private collection (acquired at the above sale by the previous owner)
Private collection, Asia (acquired from the above by the present owner)
Ministry of Community Development & National Museum, Pioneer Artists of Singapore Georgette Chen Retrospective 1985, exh. cat., Singapore, 1985 (illustrated, plate XVII, no. 124).
J. Chia, Georgette Chen, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 1997 (p. 75).
Singapore, National Museum Art Gallery, Georgette Chen Retrospective 1985, November 1985.

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Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

In a letter enamouring fruits of Southeast Asia, Georgette Chen wrote, ‘I have been introduced to the Durian fruit and consider that my life has been enriched by it (S. Siew (ed.), The Artist Speaks: Georgette Chen, Singapore 2018, p. 70).’ Indeed, the durian — otherwise known as ‘the king of all fruits’ — is significant to the artist and her oeuvre, which makes this masterpiece exceptionally noteworthy. The artist’s still-life paintings, like the present work, testify to her attention to detail, masterful employment of compositional models and penchant for rendering subjects in the most vibrant colours.

A Cultural Medallion award winner and a pioneer of the ‘Nanyang Style’, alongside Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Liu Kang, Georgette Chen is a seminal artist in Singapore’s modern art scene. Between 1927-1950, Chen intensively trained in classical academicism at Académie Colarossi and Académie Biloul in Paris, and painted numerous works selected for major Parisian exhibitions, such as the Salon d’Automne and Salon des Tuileries. Those decades of experience and deliberate refinement led Chen to create Still Life with Big Durian in the 1960s, arguably one of the finest paintings in her oeuvre. The astounding quality of the works in this period reflects highly in the market. Last year, Still Life with Rambutans, Mangosteens and Pineapple, created in the 1960s, charted the artist’s world auction record. Many similar still-life paintings by Chen are now housed in public collections, making works like Still Life with Big Durian a rare gem.

Light rakes from the right side of Still Life with Big Durian, illuminating the textured fruits that dominate the plane of a modestly-sized table. To Georgette Chen, the fruits of Southeast Asia embodied the most unique and unexpected shapes that allowed her to render a work with contrasts of colour and textures. Here, the artist used impasto to capture the thorn-like appearance of the durian, contrasting the rambutans’ pliable rinds with short, gestural and wispy strokes. As proven by the meticulous details in this oil painting, she firmly believed that an exceptional work must be done with astute observation. In a letter to her art students in 1976, Chen wrote, ‘No two trees stand erect in a straight line, no two branches bend identically, no wave has the same ripple. That goes for strawberries, cucumbers, or durians and this makes all the difference between hand-made and machine embroidery (G. Chen, ‘From “To Class 1976”, in Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts 36th Graduation Magazine 1976’, in Pioneer Artists of Singapore Georgette Chen Retrospective 1985, exh. cat. National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore 1985, n.p.).’ While it is no surprise that the artist is adept in rendering the tactility of different fruits, this present work demonstrates how Chen also captured the distinct and individual qualities of each fruit propped on the table. For instance, mangosteens in the rattan basket — denoted with different shades of purple and crimson — reflect varying stages of ripeness, some of which appear ready to be enjoyed as a delectable mid-day snack. The viewer is further tempted by an alluring sight of the rambutan’s cross-section, disclosing the delightful pearly flesh enclosed within its sturdy peel. Still Life with Big Durian reflects how the artist imbued vibrancy and life to the simplest of everyday motifs.

Georgette Chen also conceived an ingenious compositional arrangement in Still Life with Big Durian. She eschewed a single-point perspective and employed multiple viewpoints within the painting. Here, the durian perched in the corner is presented from a side view, and the sliced mangosteens in the front from a higher perspective. Her composition alludes to Paul Cézanne’s Still Life with Apples and Peaches (c. 1905), which also features the distortion of views in creating visual harmony. Chen’s mastery of European Western artistic techniques transformed this painting into an inviting visual experience for any viewer.

1950s and 1960s were two decades that defined Georgette Chen’s legacy as an established artist in Singapore. She became a Council Member of the Singapore Art Society, a teacher at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and a Singapore citizen. Throughout, depicting subjects of Southeast Asia around Chen not only provided her with a haven to develop her artistic practice but, more importantly, to express her admiration for the region and all it encompassed. Still Life with Big Durian is one such homage.

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