As one of the first generation artists in Singapore, Chen Wen Hsi’s importance in the history of Singapore art cannot be understated. His versatility and mastery in both traditional Chinese ink and Western techniques paved the way for subsequent generations of younger artists who were taught and inspired by him. His invaluable contributions to the field of art make him a key figure in the discussion of Singapore art as a teacher, trailblazer and pioneer.
Before his arrival in Southeast Asia, Chen studied at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts as well as the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1920s. It was during this time that Chen honed his skills in Chinese ink and brush techniques, and became acquainted with the painter Pan Tianshou who came to greatly influence Chen’s artistic worldview and philosophy. Pan championed the integrity of traditional Chinese ink aesthetics, and it was Pan who first exposed Chen to the art of finger painting – a style for which Chen is today most widely known for. After a one man exhibition in Nanjing in 1937, he was acclaimed by the Gallery Magazine in London in a selection of the ten most important artists in China, alongside such renowned luminaries such as Qi Baishi and Xu Beihong.
Chen differed from his mentor Pan though, who was against the assimilation of Eastern and Western art forms and did not find his deep respect for traditional mediums and styles to be incongruous with his desire to formulate his own distinct artistic identity. His foray into oil painting is a mark of his boldness as an artist. Despite having been exposed to Western theories of painting during his education in China, it was only after coming to Singapore in 1946 that Chen began to experiment freely in his art.
"I had both Chinese and Western paintings. Even till now, my Chinese and Western paintings... I used to have an idea. I resolved to fuse Western and Chinese painting together. I wanted to integrate their characteristics. I was constantly moving towards this goal. I had rich opportunities to do that by the time I was in Shanghai. How come? Because I was studying both Western and Chinese painting. I was studying both, and fusion came naturally. My Chinese paintings were influencing my Western paintings and vice versa."
Chen Wen Hsi, Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition, Transcript of Oral History Interview with Artist, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2006
Exposed early on to European and Western art, Chen used this to great effect and inculcated extra dimensions to his art. He incorporated liberally combinations of Expressionist, Post-Impressionist, Cubist and Fauvist aesthetics that were then converted to his own unique style of Southeast Asian narratives. While his use of semi-abstraction and cubism to rethink themes of nature and existence were in seeming opposition to his early training in traditional Chinese ink painting, Chen’s unyielding spirit of innovation and desire to express the essence of life through art is one that endures across the mediums and stylistic shifts within his body of work. His indisputable mastery of painting techniques allowed him the freedom to navigate disparate artistic means of expression with great agility.
Part of the pioneering generation of artists in Singapore who were also involved in teaching at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art (NAFA), Chen was a key figure in developing the distinct 'Nanyang' school of art. This initially emerged through an application of traditional Chinese styles and mediums to depict the essence of Southeast Asian life and culture. Working alongside contemporaries that included friend and colleague Cheong Soo Pieng, this 'Nanyang' identity soon came to encompass the seamless blending of artistic styles – regardless of whether they were Eastern or Western.
The current lot, Sea Palace is without a doubt one of the most memorable and compositionally advanced abstract paintings of the artist to appear in recent times. It is a rare composition by Chen Wen Hsi, a modernist abstract work alluding to the sea. Filling an entirely ebony background which is arguably never been seen in any other of his oil paintings, the painting presents a complex labyrinth of colourful trellis forms, overlapping and criss-crossing the canvas. From our understanding of Chen's other oil on canvas works, the artist usually begins with tangible object forms before dissolving their concrete shapes into an amorphous melee. This particular painting therefore brilliantly stands out in terms of its exceptional compositional style and balance. On an opaque onyx background, the bold swathes of colour and lines are executed confidently in a lively composition, striking for their play in colour and contrasts, highlighting Chen's powerful and distinctive style of painting.
Chen's Sea Palace metaphorically surmises the miracle story of Singapore’s economic achievements, purveying and marking Chen to be a visionary of the times. In a span of half a century, the island nation-state has built on its strategic maritime location and entrepôt origins to become one of the world’s most developed economies. Chen was known to also link the rise of abstraction in art to modern advances and technology, which symbolically parallels the path and growth of Singapore as a modern city-state. The painting is reminiscent of works by the Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro , which display a direct correlation between city and abstraction, rich in layers and textures to demonstrate a city's landscape. Some influence can also be seen in the abstract gouaches découpées works of Henri Matisse, who created large works using gouache on paper in the later stages of his career.
Amidst the flourishing art scene of the early 50s and 60s in Singapore, and the establishment of a 'Nanyang' style of art, the oil paintings of Chen Wen Hsi stand out as some of the most innovative works produced during this period in Southeast Asian art history.
"We mustn't think of Abstract Art as an uncontrolled form of spontaneous expression. In fact it is highly calculated and controlled. The saying in Chinese art is to 'paint the formless with form.' The same goes for Western art. Abstract art goes even further in playing with form, to the extent of doing away with subject matter and spatial perspective entirely. It is purely concerned with formal elements such as colour tones, texture and structure.... beauty in art is not dependent solely on feelings and sentiments. It has to be regulated by reason and structure. In this sense, Abstract Art is one of the most pure and absolute form of painting."(Chen Wen Hsi, Chang Tsong-Zung, Paintings by Chen Wen Hsi, The Old and New Gallery, Singapore, 1987.)