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

Orchid (Vanda)

GEORGETTE CHEN (1906-1993)
Orchid (Vanda)
signed ‘CHEN’ (lower left)
oil on canvas
65 x 54 cm. (25 5/8 x 21 1/4 in.)
Painted circa 1963
Private Collection, Asia
Marco Hsü, NUS Museum, A Brief History of Malayan Art, Singapore, 1963 (illustrated).
National Museum Art Gallery, Pioneer Artists of Singapore: Georgette Chen Retrospective 1985, exh. cat., Singapore, 1985 (illustrated, plate 115).
Marco Hsü, Millennium Books, A Brief History of Malayan Art, Singapore, 1999 (illustrated, p. 77).
Singapore, National Museum Art Gallery, Pioneer Artists of Singapore: Georgette Chen Retrospective 1985, November 1985.

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

Lot Essay

The late Georgette Chen (1906-1993) is a well-known first-generation female Singaporean painter who made significant contributions to the development of modern art in Asia. She received her art education at prestigious schools in Paris, New York and Shanghai; and in the art realm of those same countries gained exposure and exhibited her works. Chen moved to Southeast Asia in her late 40s, settling in Singapore in 1953 where she taught at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) for over 20 years until her retirement in 1980. Her enduring legacy is also seen in the current retrospective that opened in November 2020 at the National Gallery Singapore; titled Georgette Chen: At Home in the World with works from various institutional and private collections.

Encountering any work by Chen is fascinating as much as it is a profound and rare, as most of her works are in museum collections. Living through four wars – two Chinese Revolutions of 1911 and 1949, World War I and World War II, coupled with living in different countries throughout her life truly fuelled her dedication as an artist. Additionally, her many travels in both the East and West shaped her practice, leading her to create exceptional works that were meaningful facets of her life. The artistic approach of classic French impressionist painters like Paul Cézanne and Claude Monet most definitely paved the foundational finesse of her works. Cézanne’s works such as his Still Life with Flowers and Fruit brings to light the semblance of Chen’s works in terms of composition, brushwork technique and choice of subject matter such as flowers and fruits.

The early 1950s brought Chen to Malaya; a tropical paradise. A marked shift in her colour palette and style become apparent; especially in her series of still life paintings. Her discoveries of local fruit like rambutans, coconuts, durians and pineapples; and flowers like orchids and lilies inspired her to explore new forms and perspectives in her work. She took her time to observe and arrange these subjects, the results were dynamic compositions that accentuated symbolism and encapsulated the culture of Malaya.

Chen’s favourite flowers to paint were orchids, and this present lot titled Orchid (Vanda) painted c.1963-1965 from a private collection in Asia is one of the larger format works of this subject produced. This species is known to be an important genus that identifies with some of the most magnificent flowers from the orchid family. The work was featured in her retrospective solo exhibition held at the National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore in 1985 which then travelled to National Gallery, Kuala Lumpur in 1986. Illustrations of the work are found in A Brief History of Malayan Art , a book written in Mandarin by Marco Hsü in 1963, then translated to English and published in 1999; and the exhibition catalogue of Chen’s retrospective show at the National Museum Art Gallery in 1985.

Orchid (Vanda) bears the image of a perpetual summer where beautiful flowers are in full bloom. Orchids are known to be resilient and adaptable, traits that aptly distinguishes Chen. In this important work, her choice of warm peach tones for the flowers and basil green tones for the leaves; juxtaposed with the shades of subtle earthy tones layered with gentle grey hues in the background glorifies the plant in its slatted wooden basket. She enlivens the intimacy between viewers and the work by creating a composition that is a close-up of the subject, slightly above eye level, and at a 45-degree angle. She cleverly draws focus on the rawness in form of the multilayers of long leaves slumping downwards, and overhanging long roots protruding out of the wooden pot in a myriad of directions; as if to remind viewers that there is beauty too in other parts of the plant aside from the actual flowers.

Experimenting with the view of her subjects was pertinent in reflecting her genuine interest in understanding what she was depicting. The pictorial format was important in creating an optical experience – cropped view, full view, frontal view and/or side view. More importantly the colour palette she chose harmoniously imbued authenticity that attracted quiet contemplation. Her penchant for sensitively refined yet expressive brushwork often manifested a sense of nostalgia, leaving viewers enchanted.

An elegant storyteller with an aesthetic prowess, Chen developed her own delicate mastery of artistic technique and style modestly. This is recognised in the numerous important solo and group exhibitions her works were a part of. These included Salon d'Automne and Galerie La Licorne in Pairs; the Metropole Hotel in Shanghai; The Asia Institute in New York; the Singapore Art Society, Singapore Art Museum, National Museum Art Gallery and National Gallery in Singapore. She was also awarded the honorary Singapore Cultural Medallion in 1982.

A glistening jewel in a male-dominated art community, Chen pioneered the Nanyang style alongside Liu Kang, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng. Chen’s works embodies the sophistication of the modern era; her knowledge, passion and ethics transcends generations of aesthetes. Her legacy lives on.

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