CHEN WEN HSI (1906-1991)
CHEN WEN HSI (1906-1991)
CHEN WEN HSI (1906-1991)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more PROPERTY FROM AN EXCEPTIONAL ASIAN COLLECTION
CHEN WEN HSI (1906-1991)


CHEN WEN HSI (1906-1991)
signed ‘CHEN WEN HSI’ (lower right)
oil on canvas laid on board
153.5 x 121.5 cm. (60 3/8 x 47 7/8 in.)
Painted circa 1960s
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 5 April 2014, lot 133
Private collection, Asia (acquired at the above sale by the present owner)
W. H. Chen, CHEN WEN HSI PAINTINGS, Old & New Gallery, Singapore, 1991 (illustrated, plate 5).
Singapore, National Museum Art Gallery, Chen Wen Hsi Retrospective 1982, November 1982.
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Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

'If the work bears no likeness to the object, then why consider it a painting of the object? However, if it resembles the object, where are my own characteristics in the painting? The personality of the object is more important than likeness, it is the soul of the work.' —Chen Wen Hsi

Chen Wen Hsi’s Puppets bears witness to the artist’s new innovations that took place during the 1960s, as he explored his most important series of art in the modern style. Here, Chen grabbed colour with a newfound maturity and boldness that was largely progressive for his time. As one of his most vibrant and sizeable works, Puppets is a masterpiece from the most sought-after period within the artist’s collection. By the time he painted Puppets, Chen had already built upon two decades’ worth of success, and was acclaimed as one of the pioneers of the Nanyang style, alongside Cheong Soo Pieng, Liu Kang, Chen Chong Swee and Georgette Chen. His works were widely exhibited in cities like London, Kuala Lumpur, Melbourne and Germany. He was also awarded the Public Service Star of Singapore and taught at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts regularly.

In the 1960s, Chen Wen Hsi demonstrated a profound interest in Western European art, specifically in Abstract Expressionism and began to create semi-abstract to purely abstract works. Through abstract art–which eschewed the depiction of realist forms–Chen achieved a new way of rendering beauty. 'We mustn’t think of Abstract Art as an uncontrolled form of spontaneous expression,' he claimed, 'in fact it is highly calculated and controlled. The saying in Chinese art is to paint the formless without form' (T. Z. Chang, ‘The Art of Chen Wen Hsi’, in Grand Art Co. Ltd., Paintings by Chen Wen Hsi, Singapore, 1987, n.p).

Puppets is a perfect example of Chen Wen Hsi’s approach to abstract art, founded on fundamental principles of planes, dots and lines. In the present work, towering shapes occupy the centre of the canvas, bringing structure to the piece. Surrounding these forms are angular lines that cut across the canvas in an almost curve-like manner; the artist believed that such parabolic curves create a sense of rhythm in a painting. In this grand marriage of monumental shapes and volatile brushstrokes with unpredictable twists, we see the pinnacle of Chen’s painterly development. In Puppets, Chen Wen Hsi proudly displayed emphatic colours of cobalt blue and carmine red – two pigments that grew popular among artists due to the rise of colour development in the 1960s. These colours were specifically important to the artist and his creative language. Chen often cited how red and blue brought a sense of depth and volume to his work. Colours in this painting are not applied carelessly, but were employed based on careful and deliberate choices made by the artist, 'If there is a lot of red on the top, how much red is there in the bottom? This is mutual compatibility. There’s always variability in this, you alone know what a painting needs' (W. H. Chen, ‘Transcript of Oral History with Artist', in Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition, vol. 2, exh. cat. Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2014, p. 42).

The palette in Puppets—harmonised and balanced—was a product of Chen’s meticulous and logical process of artmaking. This fixation on colours would ultimately sustain the artist for decades to come, as he continued to create powerful ink paintings in red and blue, as visually articulated in his work from the 1980s, Blue and Red. All the elements required in the making of this fascinating piece–colours, shapes, lines–stemmed from Chen's perpetual curiosity about the world around him. He once associated the rise of abstract art with changing technological advancements. Inventions such as the microscope and professional cameras brought new ways of seeing beyond what was capable of the human eye. By extension, Chen created Puppets to show the world that beauty could exist beyond a realistic manner. As summarised by Frank Sullivan in Chen’s retrospective exhibition catalogue, “Chen Wen Hsi retains the basic quality of the true artist, to him the most important of all aspects, that his function is to observe and, having seen, depict' (F. Sullivan, ‘The Art of Chen Wen Hsi’, in Chen Wen Hsi exhibition of Paintings May 1956, exh. cat. British Council Gallery, Singapore, 1956, n.p).

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