T he notion of artistic style broadened quickly in the 20th century as modernism presented news ways of making and thinking about art. Although the influence of past styles remained present, artists sought ways to reinvent their practice, sometimes moving through multiple ‘isms’ over the spans of their careers. Rather than simply being influenced by familiar regional styles, they expanded their range by travelling, visiting museums and galleries overseas, and studying reproductions of modern art found in magazines and books.
In this fertile era, styles were often adapted or combined to suit the expressive needs of individual artists. At the same time familiar subjects were revisited and renewed. Examining the evolving representation of traditional subjects of figures and flowers in painting and sculpture – by both artists in the East and the West – is one way of understanding the hybridity of style that characterises modern art.
The influence of French modern art is especially strong in the figurative works of Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès (1880-1958) and Marc Chagall (1887-1985). A native of Belgium who settled in Bali in 1932, Le Mayeur painted scenes of local life that often included his wife – dancer Ni Pollok – and other women in sunlit gardens or at the beach. Whether working in oil or pastel he used a full range of Impressionist colour applied in visible strokes. His oil on canvas Balinese women by the pond shows how he adopted a brightly hued style – similar to that of the late career works of Impressionist Claude Monet (1840-1926) – to depict his life in exotic Bali. Chagall was born in Belarus, but spent most of his adult life in France. His subjects, portrayed imaginatively and with great tenderness, are rooted in his early memories of Jewish culture in Russia and Poland. After Chagall moved to Paris in 1911 he was influenced by modern styles that developed in France including Cubism and Surrealism, but ultimately developed a personal style that expresses a lyrical naïveté. Chagall’s Scène De Cirque depicts the spotlit interior of a crowded circus tent filled with fanciful figures that include a female acrobat riding a giant chicken.
Chagall also painted joyful still life paintings including Fleurs ou le bouquet champêtre (1965), which recasts the artist’s memories of the fragrances and sensations of village life. In contrast, Bernard Buffet (1928-99), a French artist known for his use of crackling black outlines, filled his Nature Morte À La Cafetière Bleue with somber colours and geometric patterns to create a mood of austerity and sober contemplation.
The influence of Japanese art is apparent in to the works of two modernists known for their florals, a traditional Japanese subject. Born in Japan, Zenzaburo Kojima (1893-1962) studied in France and Italy for three years, where styles as diverse as Venetian Mannerism and French Fauvism shaped his outlook and taste. The subjects he came to favor – nudes, landscapes and still lifes – were derived from this early exposure to Western art. As his style evolved Kojima’s still life and floral paintings such as Dahlias rendered a traditional Japanese subject in a style that demonstrated his absorption of modernist principles including the impulse to flatten and simplify form. Similarly, Liao Chi-Chun (1902-76), who was born in Taiwan, was exposed to Japanese art after his 1924 acceptance to the Tokyo School of Fine Arts where he and a classmate, Chen Chengbo (1895-1947) studied with the modernist Itaru Tanabe Itaru (1886-1968). As he contemplated both Japanese and Western influences Liao’s paintings grew bolder, displaying what the artist described as "the feeling of intense colour in our Chinese ethnic art.” His oil on canvas Flowers (1970) is rendered in a dynamic personal style that took many years to evolve. The work of visionary 20th century Singaporean artist, Georgette Chen (1906-1993) shows an individual style that responds even more strongly to European art. Her Coconuts and Chilies (1973) displays an interest in suggesting multiple points of view reminiscent of the paintings of Paul Cezanne (1839-1906).
The portrait paintings of Vietnamese painter Mai Trung Thu (1906-80), who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine, embody the artists growing affinity for French modern culture. Two rare oil on canvas portraits of Vietnamese women painted seven years apart, Mademoiselle Phuong and Femme au chapeau conique le long de la rivière demonstrate the artist’s interest in endowing a Vietnamese woman with elements of Parisian lifestyle. Painted in 1937, the year he left Vietnam to live in France, Femme à la robe orange presents a woman whose hairstyle, makeup and chic simplicity tell of a modern beauty on the convergence of two cultures.
Distinctive regional and individual styles also resulted from the coming together of diverse cultures. The noted Singaporean artist Liu Kang (1911-2004) was born in Fujian, China, grew up on the Malay peninsula and first studied art at the Shanghai College of Fine Arts where he was exposed to Chinese modern art. After studying in Paris in 1928 he returned to Shanghai to paint and teach. Liu’s close personal relationship with Liu Haisu (1896-1994), the founder of an art magazine and the first Chinese artist to encourage his students to paint European style nudes, resulted in a shared admiration for the European modernists Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse. His canvas Listening to the Birds, is painted in the Singaporean Nanyang style, which synthesises Western watercolour and oil painting techniques with the aesthetics of Chinese ink painting. Meanwhile, the works of Chinese artist Chen Yifei present female figures in a clear and refined style that the artist called Romantic Realism. Combining two French stylistic traditions – Realism and Romanticism – Chen sought to portray his solitary female subjects in a new style with carefully controlled moods. His oil portraits, Admiration (c.1990s) and Opening Night (1989) which feature deeply toned shadows and subdued hues of colour, show the influence of cinematography in their solemn and carefully orchestrated compositions.
The style of Foreign Woman (1970) by Shiy De-jinn (1923-81) is synthesis of East and West. Born in Sichuan in 1923, Shiy was deeply influenced by his studies with Lin Fengmian (1900-91) an artist well acquainted with European modernism. After settling in Taiwan, Shiy moved through three distinctive stylistic phases. Foreign Woman is from the second phase of his career which featured crisply outlined portraits – including homoerotically charged images of young men – painted adeptly with firm brushstrokes. Increasingly recognised for his contributions to Taiwanese modern art, in his third and final phase, Shiy painted ink landscapes of exceptional vigor and subtlety.
Another such synthesis can be found in the art of Andre Brasilier (b.1929), a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Art in Paris, who credits the literary works of François Cheng – a Chinese-born French writer – with influencing his inner-directed style. Quatre Cavaliers (1990) features the fluid brushwork and dreamlike atmosphere that has made his art so sought after by Asian collectors. White Camargue horses and his wife Chantal, portrayed in paintings such as Chantal au Bouquet Rose (1990), are among Brasilier’s favourite subjects.
Like modern painters, 20th century sculptors felt liberated to use the figure as a vehicle for stylistic experimentation. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), was 80 years old when he created the Musician figure cast in bronze in 1961. More than any other modern artist Picasso demonstrated the varied possibilities of style in modern art. Among his many sculptural innovations were collage-like sheet metal guitars, animals assembled from cast off toys, and polychromed ceramic vases with feminine curves. The standing figure of Musician was originally cut from of a single slab of clay. With its silhouetted form, playfully rolled up arms and briskly applied details, Musician can be seen as Picasso’s affectionate parody of the refined style of classical sculpture. Another standing bronze figure, Three-Quarter Figure: Lines (1980) by Henry Moore (1898-1986) is comprised of a group of sensuous abstracted forms that appear to turn in space. A network of seams and lines on the figure’s surface – which derive from the appearance of newly cast bronzes before they are filed down – add formal interest to the otherwise smooth surface. The amorphous, hard to classify character of Three-Quarter Figure: Lines can be linked to Surrealism and also to the artist’s fascination with bones and rock formations.
An innovator in style and the use of materials, Ju Ming (1938-2023) was a Taiwanese artist who made sculptures in wood, bronze, styrofoam, ceramic and stainless steel. Apprenticed as a teenager to the artisan Lee Chinchuan who carved Buddhist statues for a local temple, Ju began his career making religious figures until his friend Yuyu Yang (1926-97) introduced him to the ancient practice of T’ai chi. The tense angular forms of his 1976 camphor wood carving Shuttling Maiden (1976) derive from the artist’s goal of developing a style that mirrors the inner discipline and mental clarity of T’ai chi. Using saws to expose the qualities of the wood as he worked, Ju explored the hidden connections between nature and its energies in a philosophical and spiritual pursuit.
Through their choices of mediums and materials, sculptors can create figures that make contrasting impressions. The dignified figures of Ren Zhe (b.1983) look back towards dynastic China for inspiration. His refined stainless steel casting After the Storm (2020) evokes the inner strength of a man who contemplates the damage caused by a storm. The late Vietnamese modern master Vu Cao Dam (1908-2000), achieved a very different mood – one of feminine sensuality and grace – with his sensitive modeling of terracotta in Deux Jeunes Femmes (1939).
“There is, in art, neither past, nor future,” Picasso once stated. “Art that is not in the present will never be.” This point of view, which argues that great art must absorb and express the energies and ideas of the era in which it was created, offers a powerful lens with which to observe and consider the evolution of style. The history of style in art, seen this way, is the history of how remarkable individual artists developed artistic languages to tell the stories of their times.