(CHANG LI YING, Singaporean, 1906-1993)
Durian and Rambutans
signed 'Chen' (upper right); exhibition label affixed (on the reverse) oil on canvas
60 x 50 cm (23 1/2 x 19 5/8 in.)
Painted circa 1963
Suncraft Gallery, Singapore
Private Museum Collection, Japan
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, National Art Gallery, Sixth National Art Exhibition, August 1963.

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Lot Essay

Georgette Chen is considered an exceptional figure in Asian art, being simultaneously a highly accomplished painter of tre-mendous ability; but also a strong-willed independent female who steadfastly carved a unique identity amidst the male-dominated arena of 20th century art. While frequently identified as being part of the 'Nanyang School'- the style of art synonymous with the first-generation Chinese émigré artists to Singapore, who flocked to the artistic hotbed of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) - Chen is also indisputably a Sino-Parisian artist, having spent much of her early life in France. By comparison to other artists of her generation who began their training in the Orient while looking to the West for modernist inspiration; Chen's artistic foundations originated in Paris and she spent much time looking East-wards for her iconic subject matters of beautifully rendered plein-airs or Cézanne-esque still lifes of localized subjects.
Based on available biographical information, Chen was born in Paris in 1907. Her father was Zhang Jinjiang, an affluent businessman and advocate for Chinese nationalism. Highly privileged, her early childhood was spent between France, China and the United States. Georgette Chen enjoyed an early measure of recognition when she was invited to exhibit in 1930 at the Salon d'Automne, the foremost modernist salon in Paris - no mean feat for a young female painter of Asian origin. In the same year she met and married Eugene Chen Youren, a Trinidad-born diplomat twenty-two years her senior, who had served as Sun Yat-Sen's first foreign minister. The marriage was a happy one and lasted until Eugene Chen's death in 1944 under the Japanese occupation. Although she briefly remarried, Georgette Chen continued using her first marital name for both personal and artistic purposes until the end of her life.
Having arrived in Singapore in 1954 after a first-hand experience of the political turmoil in China, such as being placed under house arrest by the Japanese, Chen was only too happy to settle down in a peaceful migrant colony where she could paint, teach, and support herself through her art. Her works became renowned in Nanyang art circles for their delicate sensitivity, employment of exceedingly refined brushwork, and a certain economy of technique - never is there a stroke misplaced, nor a motif overexpressed. Every gesture within Chen's painting is painted and positioned only through strict artistic necessity - this imbued her usually small-scale works with a fleeting nostalgia and almost dreamlike quality.
Durian and Rambutans (Lot 28) is a marvelously executed and an elegant example of Chen's still life paintings. It is at once restrained and expressive, through the juxtaposition of the scarlet rambutans and vivid green leaves against the muted beige backdrop; the use of void space for most of the pictorial plane balances out the full and robust composition of the fruit basket. Although a still life, there is a sense of movement and power present in the painting. This is seen through the dynamic post-Impressionist brushwork in the background, creating waves or ripples of energy across the scene; the undulation of the crisp green leaves growing in disparate angles from the parent stem, the thorny burrs of the rambutans, and the spiked durian husk which has been split open to reveal a glimpse of slick flesh within. The overall sparseness highlights these minute details to great effect. The employment of Southeast Asian motifs by Chen reflects her artistic flexibility regarding subject matter, as well as her deep fondness of the tropics. Chen goes to great lengths to depict the vibrancy of Southeast Asian culture within her works, opting to highlight local fruits, cakes, and other daily accoutrements commonly seen within the Straits region rather than more generic objects which were also easily available for her use. Durian and Rambutans captures the tranquility and contentment which Chen found within her life in Singapore; her joy in small things, and a profound sense of belonging.

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