W hen the transcontinental upheavals of the mid-20th century prompted Chinese artists to relocate, their displacement generated a diaspora that extended and re-shaped the traditions of Chinese art and resulted in the emergence of hybrid styles. In Singapore, Chinese born artists including Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi, and Georgette Chen became associated with the Nanyang School which synthesised Western painting methods with Chinese ink painting to depict Southeast Asian subjects. Working and living in Paris, the artists Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-ki painted idiosyncratic abstractions that reflected their close contact with Postwar European trends including the Informel movement. Chinese expatriates in both locations also felt the far-reaching influence of American Abstract Expressionism.
In this dynamic and fertile situation, China's overseas painters created works that reflected their shifting cultural perspectives and interests, while still being deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Today, these diasporic artists are seen as an influential generation that continue to inspire contemporary artists worldwide. Considering a selection of works by five notable artists – Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi, Georgette Chen, Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-ki – can provide a glimpse of the considerable stylistic variety and hybridity that developed.
Cheong Soo Pieng
Born in Xiamen, China, Cheong Soo Pieng (1917-1983) first studied art at the Xiamen Academy of Fine Art. He then moved to Shanghai, where he attended the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts and was exposed to Western art and methods. After leaving China in 1945 at the age of 29, he travelled to Hong Kong and then settled in Singapore in 1946. There he joined his friend and former teacher Lim Has Tai who had founded The Nanyang Academy of Fine Art (NAFA). During the years that Cheong Soo Pieng taught at the NAFA, from 1947 to 1961, his art evolved in response to regional cultural influences, especially those of the Malay Peninsula.
Cheong Soo Pieng’s Shepherdess reflects a remarkable new aesthetic that resulted from the artist’s visit to Bali with a group of artist friends in 1952. Painted with oil on canvas it shows Cheong Soo Pieng’s interest in painting his subjects in a style that combines a limited palette with firm outlines and dense patterns. In its stylisation Shepherdess reflects the flattened space shared by both Balinese shadow puppets and Western modernism. Boldly graphic and inventively composed, it is a fine example of a mature and individualistic Nanyang-style painting.
Chen Wen Hsi
Chen Wen Hsi (1906-1991), a native of Jieyang, Guangdong, began his studies in 1928 at the Shanghai College of Art and later the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts. There he developed his skills in traditionalist ink painting and studied with Pan Tianhow who introduced him to the use of finger painting, a technique that would later play an important role in Chen Wen Hsi's art. Although exposed to Western art in Shanghai, Chen Wen Hsi did not experiment with hybrid styles until his 1948 arrival in Singapore. He went on to teach at Singapore’s Chinese High School for almost twenty years and also at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. An avid traveller who collected drawing materials during his vacations in Southeast Asia, he took a special interest in Javanese and Balinese culture.
Painted with oil paint and sand on board – a medium often used by the pioneering French Cubist Georges Braque (1883-1963) – Chen Wen Hsi’s Shadows consists of a series of reduced forms, possibly derived from shadow puppetry, expressed in simple geometric terms. The composition’s inherent sense of structure is characteristic of the artist’s carefully planned abstractions. Its closely hued earth-tone palette and granular textures create a sense of formal unity. Remarkably, even while making abstract works like Shadows, Chen Wen Hsi continued to execute superb traditionalist ink paintings.
One of twelve children born to a prominent antiques dealer with businesses in Paris, London, and New York, Georgette Chen (1906-1993) had an international childhood that exposed her to a broad range of art at an early age. She attended high school in the United States, studied first at the Art Student’s League in New York and then at two Parisian academies. After exhibiting at the Salon d’Automne in 1930, she married Eugene Chen Youren, a diplomat, and lived with him in Shanghai and then Hong Kong until his death in 1944. Following several years of travel Chen remarried, exhibited in New York and Paris, and eventually settled in Singapore. She taught at the Nanyang Academy of Arts for more than twenty years and established herself as one of the leading artists of the Nanyang School.
Boats and Shophouses, an oil on canvas painted in the mid-1960s, exemplifies Chen’s assimilation of Post-Impressionist styles. The canvas depicts a Singapore riverfront marketplace filled with houseboats afloat on a curving river: a subject Vincent Van Gogh might have painted. It is rendered with deft, boldly coloured strokes that are derived from French Pointillist and Fauvist brushwork. Chen’s ability to evoke a Singaporean scene with a painterly vocabulary gleaned from European modernism is an indication of her cosmopolitan sophistication. Boats and Shophouses also highlights the artist’s affection for Singapore and her well-developed powers of observation. “Representation based on imagination can never truly reflect the real thing,” Chen wrote in 1943. “I paint what I see.”
Raised in the town of Baitu, now part of China’s Anhui province, Che Teh-Chun (1920-2014) attended the National School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. There he studied both Chinese and Western art under Chinese teachers trained in France. Chu and fellow Hangzhou schoolmates Wu Guanzhong and Zao Wou-Ki would all go on to become members of the prestigious French Académie des Beaux-Arts. In 1949, he moved to Taipei and taught at the National University before leaving for Paris in 1955. Living in a city filled with both French and expatriate artists, a thriving scene energised his art. He was especially taken with the works of Nicolas de Stäel who painted landscapes in a reduced, semi-abstract fashion.
The swirling red and black forms of No. 487 reveal a powerful synthesis of calligraphic and invented imagery. One of Chu Teh-Chun’s strengths was his ability to create harmonious worlds that balance between observed and imagined realities. The artist's Chinese heritage, deep connection with European culture, and feeling for nature are present and essential to his sensitive compositions.
Interested in drawing and painting from the age of ten, Zao Wou-ki (1920-2013) was encouraged to pursue art by his banker father. While attending the Hangzhou School of Fine Arts, where there was an emphasis on figurative art, he was mentored by Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), one of the first Chinese artists who had studied in Europe. He moved to Paris with his composer wife Xie Jinglan (Lalan) in 1948 where he took classes with the Fauvist Achille-Émile Othon Friesz. After a divorce in the mid-1950s the artist visited his brother in the United States where he met American Abstract Expressionists and found inspiration in their work.
Painted after his visit to the United States, December 1958 shows the artist at a turning point; he had recently starting naming his works after the date they were produced to avoid literal associations. Reflecting the imagery of Shang dynasty artefacts, including oracle bones, and set in a sensitively brushed abstract ground, the canvas opens up the possibilities of finding interchanges between antique and contemporary aesthetics. Over time, Zao Wou-ki moved towards more improvisational brushwork inspired by Western abstraction to generate universes of energetic and spiritually-charged gestures. Also an acclaimed printmaker, watercolourist and ink painter, Zao Wou-ki has come to be considered one of the 20th century’s most versatile abstractionists. In 2006 French President Jacques Chirac appointed Zao Wou-ki to the French Legion of Honour, affirming his status as a cultural icon.