G eorgette Chen is one of the foremost pioneers of the ‘Nanyang’ style, a foundational movement which consciously worked towards synthesizing an aesthetic language distinctive to Singaporean art history. Chen’s bucolic depictions hark back to simpler times, a longing for the unhurried pace of kampong life, ensconced within a sense of community. The representation of colourful shophouses and sampans along the river in Chen’s painting Boats and Shophouses, for example, offers an evocative and nostalgic view. Her oeuvre is inextricably rooted in the quintessential Singapore. Chen’s fondness for the island’s multifarious influences, her cosmopolitan eye, along with her ability to paint with an elegant finesse, situates her works as some of the most beloved in modern Southeast Asian art history.
Because the artist is associated as key figure of the 'Nanyang School', one might overlook the fact that it was only in the later years of her life that Chen settled in Singapore. As with many fellow Chinese émigré artists during that time, she had spent much of her early life in France and China. She was the daughter of a businessman who dealt in Asian art and antiques. Born Chang Li Ying in 1906 in Zhejiang, Chen later spent her formative years in France. As a student in Paris, she showed great artistic promise and was influenced by modern art movements. Through the decades, she led a transcontinental and peripatetic life, against a backdrop of mid-century global upheavals, and thus experienced the vicissitudes of both privilege and penury.
The year 1930 was momentous for the young artist, as it marked her marriage to Eugene Chen Youren, then Chinese Foreign Minister; it was also the year that the first of her art works was accepted for exhibition at the Salon d'Automne in Paris, the first of several major exhibitions in France. While residing in Shanghai during the 1940s, Georgette Chen also exhibited her works in China. In the wake of World War II and the untimely death of her husband in 1944, she eventually made her way to Singapore in 1954. There she settled permanently and made her mark within the pioneering generation of Singaporean artists. Her work, which often depicts people and objects she encountered in daily life, is celebrated for the elegant yet intimate style by which she documents vignettes of mid-20th century Southeast Asian life.
“Truly one of the paradises of this world with these calm and warm shores on which so many races live, blending their cultures and colours into a many-splendored pattern to feast the avid eyes of the artist.”
Chen was particularly enchanted by the surroundings of her adopted home, which she called the “island of perpetual summer”; the artist would see her relationship with Singapore in parallel to Paul Gaugin's vis-à-vis Tahiti.
Though she worked with watercolours and pastels, it was her oil paintings that garnered the artist a place in Singapore’s art canon. This particular medium allowed her to embrace the thick brushstrokes and rich colour palette that were the hallmarks of Post-Impressionist painters. Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh were both key influences upon her paintings. Their creative philosophies and appropriation of certain colours, as well as application of lights and shadows, can be found within Chen’s own oeuvre.
Boats and Shophouses exemplifies Chen’s precise yet bold brushstrokes, creating a scene bathed in the golden light of the sun. Chen possessed a keen sense for colour and visual harmony, which manifests in her choice of palette as its hues evoke the sun-drenched setting of equatorial Singapore.
We may also find both the Post-Impressionist and Fauvist influences on Georgette’s artistic style, some works reminiscent of Claude Monet’s water reflections or Albert Marquet’s (1875-1947) seascapes. Chen’s artistic vision shines through in how she masterfully adapts European landscape aesthetics into a Southeast Asian context and imbues her works with a distinctive Nanyang flair.
In 2020, the National Gallery Singapore staged Georgette Chen: At Home In The World, the first major museum retrospective of the artist in more than two decades, focusing on her lasting legacy in the development of Singapore’s artistic landscape. Chen's works feature in the collections of the Long Museum in Singapore, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, and the Centre Pompidou in France. Her works are incredibly rare and only a handful of oil paintings remain in private hands. Many of the most noteworthy examples of her oeuvre stem from her years in Singapore where she sought continuous inspiration in the land and people surrounding her. Chen’s tributes to tropical Southeast Asia suggest a particular yearning of a wandering artist who, in her serene, sonorous, and supernal images, expresses visions of homecoming.