Lot 1053
  • 1053

Chen Wen Hsi

5,000,000 - 7,000,000 HKD
bidding is closed


  • Chen Wen Hsi
  • Wooden Houses
  • Signed
  • Oil on canvas
This painting was published with the title Wooden Houses and dated 1976 in the exhibition Chen Wen Hsi Retrospective 1892, Singapore


Private Collection, Singapore


Singapore, Singapore Art Museum, Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition, Singapore, 1 December 2006 - 8 April 2007, Low Sze Wee

Singapore, National Museum Art Gallery, Chen Wen Hsi Retrospective 1982, Singapore, 7 - 22 November 1982, Choy Weng Yang


Chen Wen Hsi, Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition, Singapore Art Museum (Volume I), Singapore, 2006, P. 381, Color plate 84


This work is in very good overall condition as viewed. There is evidence of light wear and some small losses at the edges of the work, due to abrasions with the frame, but this does not affect the overall image of the work. There is a very light abrasion at the bottom right corner and another at white pigment on the upper left side. There is some paint shrinkage at darker pigments, but this is consistent with the age of the work. There is a very light and minor dent to the canvas at bottom center and another at bottom left, but this is only visible under very close inspection. Examination under ultraviolet light reveals no sign of restoration. Framed.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

“For Chen the ultimate goal was to achieve a kind of unity or cohesion within a painting, through an intuitive understanding of the inter relationship between the different elements in a work, be they colors, textures, lines, shapes or size. All had a role to play, and each had an impact on the rest. Hence the overall composition, rather than resemblance, was paramount”.1

An archetype of the Nanyang School of Arts, Chen Wen Hsi stands as one of the pioneering visionaries who redefined the pre-existing canons of art in Singapore in the early 20th century. Together with his fellow compatriots Georgette Chen, Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Chong Swee, Wen Hsi was part of a coterie of Singaporean artists who migrated from China and sought to develop a fresh aesthetic by integrating styles and mediums from assorted art historical periods. Ultimately, the Singaporean art scene became a bursting amalgamation of East and West, a true epithet of a nation composed of a heterogeneous society.

Chen Wen Hsi was born in Guangdong province and mastered his classical ink painting techniques at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts and the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts in the 1920s. During the Chinese Civil War in 1948, he voyaged to Singapore and taught at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. There, he began venturing into oil painting, a pursuit that armed him with the ability to traverse disparate aesthetic styles. Today, Wen Hsi’s Western-influenced oil paintings, such as the present lot, are celebrated as some of the most precious within the Nanyang School.

An arresting work by the artist, Wooden Houses demonstrates Wen Hsi’s consummate confidence in the medium and is a prime exemplar of his exploration of semi-abstraction, Fauvism and Cubism. Rather than emulate the details of wooden houses with verisimilitude, he captures the sensations he absorbed from the customary scene, and ultimately immortalizes his fleeting perception. Strictly concerning himself with the compositional arrangement, three-dimensional illusion and color relationships, he ultimately reduces the townscape to its pure, basic forms.

By utilizing a pale, glaucous blue to color the negative space in the backdrop of the work, he delivers the murky impression of a humid, rainy day. He chooses hues similar to those he had employed in his more representative painting, Boat Dock, which provides an insight into the characteristic type of scene he may have been looking at when painting Wooden Houses. Whilst he acknowledges the planar characteristic of his canvas, Wen Hsi permeates Wooden Houses with a sense of depth by purposefully overlapping transcendent shapes and utilizing contrasting color tones. With a palette knife, the artist vigorously employs earthy tints, from dull, fallow browns to warmer umbers and siennas, to capture the gradations reflected off the rooftops. Highlighting areas with reflective lighting in white, he juxtaposes illuminated spaces with darkened shaded areas.

In keeping with the custom of European Fauvist artists, Wen Hsi emphasizes intense color and painterly characteristics over the mimetic values stressed by Impressionism. In his vibrant painting Two Nudes in an Exotic Landscape, Fauvist Jean Metzinger delineates his representative composition into blocks of forms and then further deconstructs these forms by filling them in with small, pixelated brushstrokes. Concomitantly, Wen His understood that colors possess their own qualities and can exist autonomously. Essentially, he creates the impression of dimension by modulating and saturating certain hues, and subsequently confining them in enclosed compartments of different sizes and forms.

He would have learnt the notion of fragmenting and distorting the subject into its fundamental forms from artists such as Picabia. Much like Wooden Houses, Picabia’s La Source has no discernable light source or horizon of its own. With riven planes, Picabia’s image shows plants or anthropomorphic forms that appear to sprout vertically from the ground. This is exemplified by longer, upright forms at center weighing against the more compressed shapes along the top and bottom edges of the work.

Similarly, in Wooden Houses, the composition of the image constricts and convolutes the upper left side of center. Wen Hsi stated, “I feel that the visual plane produced by taking an aerial view is the most ideal, as it reduces horizontal division when the object is looked at from the side and minimizes the attendant sense of complication between objects and their spaces2. In Wooden Houses, it is as if we were looking at a complex of constructions from an angle, almost an aerial perspective. Though the simple black lines cause the formation to appear scanty, humble and precarious, Wen Hsi’s deliberately solid geometries and wild, energetic and bold brushstrokes strengthen these edifices. He includes a circular configuration at center of the work, as he believed that parabolic curves were important to bring rhythm and balance: “I also feel that there should be a large round shape in the structure of the painting to unite all types of geometric shapes and create a harmonic effect3.

Wen Hsi’s simple, interlaced diagonal lines conjure the triangular structures of rooftops, and his vertical lines indicate where walls begin and end. The scrupulous artist would determine where these contours would start and finish by marking the canvas with dots. His lines were predetermined, and could be big or small, thick or thin, slowly or quickly executed4. Wen Hsi’s ink painting Herons already demonstrates his leaning towards cubism early on, as well as his captivation with angles and shapes. The birds have been repositioned into a cubist inspired composition, depicted in a minimalist fashion with simple color scheme, such that the painting resembles a pattern or textile. Much like in Wooden Houses, the brushstrokes appear to have been applied buoyantly with western gestural strokes, when coloring in planes and lines that were predetermined and meticulously planned.

After having explored impressionism, expressionism, and realism, Wen Hsi focused on studying simplified forms, experimenting with semi-abstraction. For Wen Hsi, abstracting a scene eradicates its realness and projects it in a different dimension in a language that appeals to the psychological space of the individual. As a prolific artist who delved into diverse aesthetic styles and leitmotifs throughout his lifetime, Chen Wen Hsi urged the people of his nation to rethink themes of nature and perception, presenting a new paradigm that redefined the public understanding of fine art.

1 Low Sze Wee, Introduction to the exhibition”, Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2006, p. 33

2 Chen Wen Hsi, “The Creation of Modern Art”, Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2006, p. 79

3 Refer to 2, p. 80

4Refer to 2, p. 80