Ringing in the year of the monkey, Sotheby’s is proud to grant collectors with the rare opportunity to acquire a remarkable masterpiece by Chen Wen Hsi consisting of his most iconic subject: gibbons. The present lot, undoubtedly the largest Chen Wen Hsi ink painting of this subject to ever appear at auction, is a splendid horizontal composition depicting eight stately gibbons frolicking along the branches of towering treetops. This Nanyang School artist particularly cherished this late-period work during the last few years of his life, as it truly encapsulates his penchant for detail, a precision he learned from mastering traditional Chinese ink brushwork prior to moving to Singapore in 1948.
Chen Wen Hsi was born in Guandong, China, and developed his traditional ink painting techniques at the Shanghai College of Art and the Xinhua College of Art. Upon arriving in Singapore, the visionary taught at The Chinese High School and then the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, eventually making an immense contribution to the Singaporean aesthetic. Renowned for his avant-garde Chinese ink works, he continued to engage with ancient Chinese painting history throughout his life. Also experimenting with oil painting and a diversity of Western styles, Chen Wen Hsi is recognized alongside Cheong Soo Pieng, Liu Kang and Chen Chong Swee as one of the pioneers of the Nanyang art movement, a movement where “scroll met easel”[ii]. Merging east and west, the artist ultimately produced an oeuvre that was relatable to local audiences. Until today, his art remains inseparable from contemporary dialogue on the art history of Southeast Asia.
Though working across myriad mediums, it was in Chinese ink that some of the most exceptional works by him are found. When working with this medium, Chen Wen Hsi experimented with a repertoire of natural subjects such as chickens, herons, carps, squirrels, as well as gibbons, his most favored subject. Early Chinese writers deemed gibbons the “gentlemen” (jūnzǐ, 君子) of the forests. Due to their tendency to glide through the branches of towering canopies, wild gibbons are elusive beings that are difficult to catch a glimpse of. The present lot, however, portrays an ephemeral moment of these dignified creatures frozen in time.
Across a wide picture plane, he captures a vast viewpoint of forest canopies in which the sanguine creatures play. As they blithely interact with one another, their long limbs mimic the extended forms of the twigs above them. This salient work was undoubtedly inspired by the gibbons featured in a striking painting by Southern Song painter Muxi (active in the 13th century), now in the Daitokuji collection in Kyoto, Japan. Convinced that Muxi had developed his skill from his close observation of the faunae, the determined Chen Wen Hsi began his collection of gibbons in the late 1940s. Awestruck upon viewing this 13th century image, he desired to emulate his ancient mentor and commenced a lifelong pursuit of depicting these noble, human-like animals in an impeccable manner.
Throughout his life, the artist yearned to capture the true essence of the animal and the synchronized effects of their movement and mentality. With a collection of six or seven of his very own gibbons, Chen Wen Hsi was able to thoroughly study their movements to a level of minutiae. In order to paint gibbons with the highest standard of verisimilitude, he would take into consideration the balance of their body weight in regards to their motioning bodies. Additionally, he would pay attention to the expressions on their faces, which tended to change in tandem with their sprinting limbs.
Chen Wen Hsi believed that each color possessed an inherent meaning of its own. He explained: ‘we use a lot of blue to depict leaves and the sky, as it can signify serenity… a mixture of yellow and red becomes orange, which signifies passion. Red speaks of courage, warfare or bloodshed… Another point is that green speaks of life. Leaves are painted in green. A mixture of blue and red yields purple, which enhances unusual shapes.’[iii] In the present lot, he utilizes glorious blues, presenting a cool color palette that exudes an element of tranquility. The gibbons are noticeably earthy in tone, mirroring the brown hues of the wooden branches on which they hang and becoming one with the forest.
As a passionate collector of fine Chinese ink paintings, Chen Wen Hsi was also a connoisseur well versed in the art of the ancient masters. Living amongst the works by Monk Xugu (1823 – 96) and Bada Shanren (Zhu Da) (1626-1705) in his collection, he was constantly inspired. Chen Wen Hsi emulated the impressionistic tree branches and twigs of Monk Xugu by rendering a network of crisscrossing strokes to deliver a generally angular effect. Using sweeping strokes to paint vigorously defined lines, Chen Wen His would demarcate his picture and geometricize his composition.
He stated: “When I see that there are many parts that require a soft brush, I would use a goat’s-hair brush. When hardness is required, I would use a wolf’s-hair brush, or a mountain horse’s-hair brush. I use both big and small brushes.[iv]” There is an element of spontaneity so prevalent in the present lot, suggesting that he was influenced by the refined xieyi style. Much like Bada Shanren, Chen Wen Hsi embraced a degree of freedom and granted himself the artistic liberty to be somewhat rough with his brushstrokes in certain areas of his composition. By incessantly observing the works of the ancient masters, he found a perfect balance of premeditation and impulsiveness, which allowed him to truly capture the essence of his subjects. Upon viewing this painting, it is evident that Chen Wen Hsi successfully captured the spirit of the animal, not merely its anatomy.
Eight Gibbons Frolicking in the Woods appears in the public market at the opportune time, inaugurating the auspicious tidings of the year of the monkey. Sotheby’s is privileged to have the rare opportunity to offer the largest Chen Wen Hsi ink painting to ever appear in the public market, as only infrequently does a private collector part with a work of this caliber. This rare and brilliant painting is truly a masterwork, painted by a maestro who succeeded in communicating the delights of traditional Chinese ink painting in a region far beyond its motherland. As one of the last few big-format works painted by Chen Wen Hsi during the end of his life, this museum-quality painting stands as a highly significant work that will forever grace the scholarship of Southeast Asian art and culture.
[i] Chen Wen Hsi, Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2006, p. 65
[ii] The Straits Times Annual ’82, Singapore: Straits Times, 1982, p.114
[iii] Chen Wen Hsi, Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition, Vol II, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2006, p. 41-42
[iv] Transcript of Oral Interview in Chen Wen Hsi, Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition, Vol II, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2006, p. 34
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