A key member of the four pioneer artists who would travel to Bali in 1952, the distinguishing feature of Chen Chong Swee’s artistic career was his lifelong commitment and preference for the medium of ink on paper. While Chen did experiment to great success in the medium of oil, it was his continued desire to work within his traditional medium, while incorporating new techniques, styles, and subjects, that made Chen one of the foremost proponents of a truly ‘Nanyang’ style of painting.
While painters such as Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi are celebrated for their daring innovations in style and form, Chen Chong Swee’s legacy lies in his steadfast dedication to teaching and a refinement of skill.
The present work is one that reveals the ease at which Chen was able to integrate both Western and Eastern concepts of colour and space. The style of colour application in this work is clearly influenced by Western traditions of watercolour painting, but executed here with the surety of a Chinese painter’s knowledge of ink wash, pressure, and the varying intensity of colour. While the mountains and features in the foreground are loosely outlined with black ink, the receding cliffs in the background show themselves to be completely composed with fluid strokes of the brush – which is a hallmark of traditional Chinese painting. The idyllic lake that occupies the centre of the composition is rendered using the white space of the paper, with the subtle use of colour and line to demarcate its boundaries. This use of white space to suggest form is also firmly situated in the tradition of Chinese ink.
The scene itself is an amalgamation of Southeast Asian as well as Chinese elements – the vast landscape and geographic elements bringing to mind the rural landscapes of China. The inclusion of two figures in traditional Malay dress walking by the lakeside however, roots the painting firmly in Southeast Asia. Perhaps Chen sought to bring together his traditional and his new home through the rendering of this ideal scene.
The inscription running across the top left of the painting, done by fellow painter and pioneer artist Liu Kang, adds an additional dimension to the painting as a memento of friendship between the two artists. Liu Kang writes a dedication to Chen Chong Swee’s mastery of Chinese ink in this artwork that presents the rare and exotic beauty of the Nanyang region. Liu Kang’s admiration for his friend was not misplaced, and this work is one of the finest examples of Chen’s distinctive renderings of Nanyang landscapes.