A pivotal figure in the bourgeoning art scene of the 50s and 60s in Singapore, Chen Wen Hsi was part of the group of pioneer artists who set out to discover and depict a uniquely 'Southeast Asian' form of artistic expression. Chen was also in attendance at the XinHua Academy of Fine Art in Shanghai in 1930, where he was contemporaries with the likes of Liu Kang and Chen Chong Swee - with whom he would continue to produce art alongside following their migration to Singapore. The trademarks of Chen's style fall into two broad categories - Chinese ink painting focused on the flora and fauna of the region, and abstract works executed on paper and canvas. While Chen also undertook the study of nudes through his ink and oil paintings, it is for his figurative animal works, as well as abstract compositions that he has become most recognizable.
Herons (Lot 534) is an exceptional work of its genre. Painted in the 80s, this is a superlative example of his heron paintings where Chen draws emphasis on the elongated bodily form of the herons. This variation utilises the classical Chinese brush and ink on paper, but with a western, abstract twist; as the interlocking brushstrokes fill the spatial plane of the work with sudden directional changes, drawing the eye upwards and downwards. Although appearing in semi-abstract form, the gracefulness and charm of the herons is emphasized via the long slender forms and overall composition of the work.
Gourds with Sparrow (Lot 535) is an exceptional work of its genre as well. Executed in the 70s,this is a painting that demonstrates the height of Chen's ink technique, as well as nostalgia for the Chinese aesthetic. The sparrow which is one of the most common subjects in his paintings sits peacefully on the vines of the bottlegourd, showcasing Chen's unrestrained and bold strokes, creating a simplicity and sense of peace and harmony. In Mandarin, the bottle gourd is called hulu, and hulu has other auspicious associations as well. Its pronunciation is very similar to fulu, which means 'happiness' (or good fortune). Additionally, the shape of the gourd is associated to Heaven and Earth, with the top part of gourd being Heaven and the bottom Earth and represents unity, completeness and harmony.
Chen's prolific animal paintings have come to be iconic to the region - referencing the unique quality of tropical life through the traditional medium of ink on paper. Gibbons at Pla (Lot 536) showcases the lively, iconic gibbons (another common subject of Chen) are represented frolicking playfully amongst cherry blossoms upon a gentle cliff, in a scene that conveys an overall feeling of joy, as well as an appreciation for the beauty and delicacy of nature. There is a sense of the vigour and movement captured in the expressive ink strokes. Chen Wen Hsi's inspiration to paint gibbons arose from an encounter with a reproduction of a gibbon painting that is a detail from the Chinese art masterpiece, White Robed Guanyin, Crane and Gibbon by the Southern Song painter Mu Xi. Chen Wen Hsi appreciated the lifelike quality of Mu Xi's gibbons and began a lifelong pursuit of excellence in Chinese ink through the perfection of his depiction of gibbons.
Some further examples of paintings of the most definitive animal subjects favoured by the artist in his ink works are displayed in A Pair of Squirrels; A Pair of Gibbons, A Pair of Herons; Four Sparrows (Lot 537) which showcases the variety and depth of the animal subjects commonly painted. They are all familiar subjects to the artist from his living environment then which was an important factor and influence in his work.His quick, gestural application of ink and colour stemmed from a surety and innate understanding of the movement and essence of these animals. The anatomical accuracy and liveliness of the animals illustrates further as well Chen's lifelong observation and love for his animal subjects.
These are also replicated in Ducks (Lot 538) and Shrimp (Lot 539). The latter two, are rarer in comparison and the rustic charm of the broader brushstrokes is synonymous with earlier works from the 60s and 70s. The strokes capture the same soul of Chinese calligraphy cursive script and the calligraphy accompanying one of the ducks paintings as well was another trademark of Chen treating the entire painting as a pictorial plane and space to fill in and give a free rein to artistic expression. These works were acquired by the present owner who was once a student of the esteemed master painter himself.