CHEN CHENG MEI (1927-2020)
CHEN CHENG MEI (1927-2020)
CHEN CHENG MEI (1927-2020)
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CHEN CHENG MEI (1927-2020)

Poet's Villa

CHEN CHENG MEI (1927-2020)
Poet's Villa
signed with artist’s monogram and dated in Chinese ‘1981’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
99 x 123 cm. (39 x 48 3⁄8 in.)
Painted in 1981
Private Collection, Singapore
Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Lim Hak Tai Gallery, Joie de Vivre: Chen Cheng Mei,, Singapore, 2014 (illustrated, p. 49).
Singapore, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Lim Hak Tai Gallery, Joie de Vivre: Chen Cheng Mei, February – March 2014.

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Lot Essay

Poet’s Villa, China is the largest work by Chen Cheng Mei to appear at auction. Tracing back to her roots by travelling all over China in the 1970s, this work is a testament to the pioneer artist’s wanderlust and joie de vivre.

Also known as Tan Seah Boey, Chen Cheng Mei was an artist with an inimitable style that has come to define a period from the Nanyang style of painting that emerged out of the Southeast Asian region. She is fondly remembered as the woman behind the Ten Men Art Group – a loose collective of Singapore artists who journeyed across Asia in the 1960s and 70s, capturing the distinct cultures, while simultaneously exploring affinities shared across diverse cultures and geographies, led initially by Chen and later by another contemporary, Yeh Chi Wei.

Early in her career, Chen became highly influenced by her senior tutor at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Cheong Soo Pieng, who as a pioneer in the Nanyang style of painting, had himself undertaken a seminal trip to Bali in 1952 with his contemporaries. Having been a western painting major, Chen was enthralled by the lack of predisposition that Cheong had to a particular style, punctuated with his unique sense of innovation. These interactions with him were formative in developing Chen's impulse-driven, emotionally charged works, full of charisma.

In 1960, possibly influenced by Cheong, and spurred by a desire to search for new and exciting subjects to inspire her, Chen looked toward the nearby peninsula of Malaysia as an artistic destination. She took leave from her job at a bank, and embarked on an excursion in a Ford Zephyr together with three others, including artists Lim Tze Peng and Choo Keng Kwang. The works that Chen and these artists had produced on this trip fascinated other Singaporean artists, sparking the trip that began the Ten Men Art Group's first sojourn in a series of jaunts to Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Borneo, then China and India, often returning to Singapore to exhibit the fruits of their travels. Chen's role in the Ten Men Art Group has often been marginalized in comparison to her compatriots, partly due to her reluctance to exhibit during much of her career. Her disinterest in fame and fortune kept her grounded in her artistic journey as she focused on staying true to her subjects. Her works display no less eloquence and artistic innovation, her paintings reflecting her intrepid spirit and desire to use her art to find her place in the world; for her, they are attempts to "reveal the myriad colours and lives in those countries visited."

As progressive artist of her time, Chen was a rare female Southeast Asian artist to travel extensively in search for artistic subjects. Going beyond the superficial lens of a foreigner, Chen devoted time in understanding the meaning behind her subjects in making works of art. This liberal perspective contributes greatly to Chen’s works in the respect and dignity she presents. An introspective artist by nature, Chen kept true to her focus as an artist, creating works of art that spoke for themselves.

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