(CHANG LI YING, Singaporean, 1906-1993)
Still Life with Durians, Mangosteens and Rambutans
signed 'Chen' (lower left)
oil on canvas
46 x 55 cm. (18 1/16 x 21 5/8 in.)
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner
Private Collection, Australia

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Lot Essay


The works of Georgette Chen are considered to be among the finest examples of mid-20th century art in Southeast Asia. Strongly influenced by the European post-impressionists through her time spent living in Paris, Chen's mastery of the painterly technique by the late 1960s placed her on par with the European masters. Rather than mere imitation, Chen developed a personal style that enabled her to express the nuances and poignancy of her scenes with a delicate precision.

Still Life with Durian, Mangosteens and Rambutans (Lot 34) is an important and excellent example of one of the many still life paintings that form the bulk of Georgette Chen's impressive oeuvre. The painting evokes a calm detachment that is equally matched with delight and appreciation of the artist's keen attention to detail, and the ability to capture the true essence of her subject. The warmth of the artist's palette, and the exotic tropical fruits she has chosen to depict immediately suggest a strong sense of place rooted in the island of Singapore which Chen called home in the last four decades of her life. In the composition and brushwork however, one instantly finds resonance with the work of Cezanne or Van Gogh. An artist who has succeeded in seamlessly integrating various painterly styles, Chen's art speaks of a life as colourful and vibrant as her paintings.

Born in Paris in 1907, Chen's early childhood was spent between France, China, and the United States. Her father, Tsang Kin Chiang, was a successful businessman with progressive political ideas, and greatly encouraged Chen's interest in and pursuit of art. Attending the Art Students' League in New York in 1926, and later the Academie Colarossi and the Academie Biloul in Paris, Chen's strong artistic foundation and natural ability led to her prestigious inclusion in the foremost modernist salon in Paris, Le Salon d'Automne in 1930. Indeed, as a young female painter of Asian origin, Chen's artistic abilities had already allowed her to push beyond the social limitations of the time. In the same year, Chen married the Trinidad-born diplomat Eugene Chen and began another stage of her life that was spent travelling and growing artistically rather than becoming trapped in the conventional role of wife and mother. After two decades of living alternately in Europe, Shanghai and Hong Kong, including a period of political exile and internment by the Japanese between 1942 and 1944, Chen eventually moved to Southeast Asia. She first resided in Penang, Malaysia before settling in Singapore in 1954 until the end of her life. Following a nomadic existence, this period of long-term stability marked the period where Chen's art was able reach its full maturity.

Taking up a part-time teaching position at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore, Georgette Chen found herself in the heart of the development of the Nanyang style of art that was focused on the integration of eastern and western artistic sensibilities. Unlike most of these pioneering artists who had been born, and artistically trained in China before migrating to Singapore, Chen's artistic influences were mainly established during her years in France. As such, Chen takes a unique place in the development of Southeast Asian art history, and visually, her work is representative of a different current of artistic expression that made up the active artistic milieu in post-war Singapore.


In Still Life with Durian, Mangosteens and Rambutans, Chen has chosen to paint fruits that are native to Southeast Asia, and that would be immediately recognisable to local inhabitants, but strange and exotic to foreign eyes. Reflecting her fascination and fondness for the vibrancy of life that was to be found in the tropics, Chen elevates the otherwise humble fruits to a level of elegance as they are meticulously depicted in line and form. It is Chen's use of colour, however, that truly captures a sense of comforting familiarity in the warm tones of the fruit - reds and yellows contrasting subtly against Chen's characteristically cobalt background. Chen deploys a palette and formal consideration of the painting's composition that aligns her with the work of Cezanne. Elements in the picture are distorted in order to achieve a greater pictorial harmony as the crumpled white napkin cloths connects the displayed fruit, the table, and the background with a flatness of plane that is indicative of Chen's modernist sensibilities. Despite the carefully studied nature of the scene that is evident in the detailed rendering of the fruit, there is a suggestion in the work of that in-between moment of freshly picked fruit off the tree that is in the process of being prepared to be eaten. Thus Chen marries the feeling of immediacy characteristic of the post-impressionists such as Monet and Van Gogh with her own brand of steadfastness and stability in her application of paint to canvas.

A work that is testament to the technical mastery of the artist, as well as the intuitive ability to capture and convey the oft inexpressible moments of contentment and comfort, Still Life with Durian, Mangosteens and Rambutans is an exceptional piece. Expressing an appreciation for the minutiae of everyday life in the geometric weave of the basket, the plump flesh of the open fruit, and the softly resting leaves of the bunch of rambutans, Chen deploys her command and understanding of the medium to a quintessentially local subject.

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