Catching up to the wave of modernism that had moved across Europe, and being faced with the challenge of creating a new artistic legacy where none significant had come before, Chen Wen Hsi works during the 1960s are marked by a remarkable departure from his traditional ink works towards abstraction and cubism. Fishing Village is a work that captures the vibrancy and spirit of the artistic climate at the time, and reimagines an iconic scene in a totally original fashion.
Fishing Village is also part of a quite extraordinary find in 1999 of more than twenty paintings, which were found in an attic of the old house the artist resided in at Kingsmead Road. The discovery of these paintings was especially significant as they helped further the understanding of the development of art movements in the advent of the 1950s and 60s. Part of this find was also exhibited at the Singapore Art Museum in 2000, at an exhibition titled Newly Discovered Paintings by Chen Wen Hsi and also served to help chart and highlight the artist’s formative and conceptual approaches to known works of that era.
In his early efforts to consolidate his skills in Western painting techniques, Chen attempted realist depictions of the Singapore landscape and river scenes. His eventual turn towards the semi-abstract style seen in Fishing Village is indicative not only of his confidence in the medium by this time, but also his assimilation into Singapore. Marking a shift towards expressionism and abstraction, Chen set out to capture the character of scenes of Singapore in the early 50s to 60s.
By reducing the painting to the key features of their construction lines and an expert mixing of colours, Chen effectively blurs the structural distinction between the houses, the boats, the river, and the surrounding landscape. The result is a composition which is full and commanding – suggesting a lively chaos congruent with the scene. The simplified lines of the village buildings also recall the silhouette of kelongs (traditional fishing villages) that were at the time still commonly found around more rural parts of Southeast Asia and have become a historical recapturing of the times. Bringing together both old and new forms would later come to be trademarks of Chen’s artistic talent when he returned to working in ink and paper – painting traditional subjects of animals and landscapes, but experimenting with shapes, line, form, and colour.