Georgette Chen’s life was one marked by cosmopolitanism, a theme clearly reflected in her art. Born to a Chinese republican revolutionary who was close to Sun Yat-Sen, she travelled across the world with her parents in accordance with her father’s business dealings. Although her father, who had noted her interested in art, introduced her to Chinese brushwork at a young age, Chen never took to its technique and developed her style at the Academie Colarossi (1926-7) and Academie Biloul (1927-30) in Paris. She married in 1930, but the premature death of her husband in 1944 led her to eventually settle in Penang, and later in Singapore.
The present lot depicts objects commonly found during the celebration of the Mid-Autumn festival, held on the 15th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar. It illustrates three traditional lanterns, one in the shape of a goldfish, one in the shape of a bird and the last a geometric floral lantern with tassels. On a piece of cloth spread across a surface, baked mooncakes, pomelos and other delicacies are pictured. The coarse light green background that unifies the painting is a colour unique to the Nanyang Style palette, as seen in Cheong Soo Pieng’s Malay Boys with Goats, but was rarely used as a background colour in Chen’s still life works.
Still life paintings have traditionally been used to capture a moment of life in a particular time and place: in many cases, elevating everyday objects into something worthy of study, observation and remembrance. In the Western tradition, still life paintings were of distinctly European subjects, exemplified by Italian Baroque master Caravaggio’s Still Life with Fruit. Thus, Chen’s choice to paint these foods and lanterns gave these objects an importance that could rival its European counterparts. These objects are laced with symbolic meaning: pomelos of family harmony, goldfish of abundance of wealth, rabbits with the Moon goddess Chang’e, and mooncakes as a vehicle of memory of myth, tradition and unity. There existed in Chinese emigre artists an “ongoing tension between longing for the past, with attempts at rooting [themselves] in the present”1: within this choice of subject we might see a deep ambivalence regarding the rapidly changing present, and a quickly disappearing past. The wave of modernization in the 1960s promised the erasure of small pleasures deemed traditional and irrelevant: small acts of remembrance, such as painting on a lantern or the craft of making mooncakes, were dying out.
This piece, however, is certainly not nostalgic in its technique. Chen’s use of perspective can be compared to that of Paul Cezanne’s, the French post-Impressionist, with the simultaneous deployment of multiple perspectives within a piece. The perspective of the overall image is eschewed, allowing each object to exist only as contingent on other objects: the animal lanterns are painted in a flat perspective, while the food is roughly painted in single point perspective. This allows objects to be distilled into their essential geometric forms, a celebration of the complex within the deceptively simple – Chen’s cloth is rendered with jagged edges, and her mooncakes are reduced to their roundness, a technique also seen in the painting Lotus Symphony (1962). This still life is evidence that objects themselves contain plastic characteristics: it is merely a matter of perspective.
Like Matisse, Chen’s brushstrokes were bold, broad and bright, but they were also defined, deliberate and controlled. As Liu Kang wrote on Georgette Chen’s approach in relation to Van Gogh’s famously turbulent moods, “Subtlety supersedes those bold and unrestrained emotions to express a greater warmth and gentleness”2. They speak of a light quite unlike that of the Impressionists: whereas Claude Monet captured the incandescent qualities of light on objects, Chen sought to depict radiating luminosity from within, echoing the glow of the moon itself.
The relationship between colour, brushstroke and form is a constant theme throughout Chen’s oeuvre: they exist to inform each other in an inextricable, contingent web. Like Cezanne and many post-Impressionists, she outlined her objects in a complementary or contrasting colour, creating a deep tension between definition of form and instability of colour. In the words of Cezanne, “The outline and the colours are no longer distinct from each other. As you paint, you outline; the more the colours harmonize, the more the outline becomes precise... When the colour is at its richest, the form has reached plenitude.”3
Georgette Chen evidently was less concerned with capturing reality as we know it. Instead, her approach to still life perhaps echoes the philosopher Edmund Husserl’s famous call to action: “To the things themselves!” She renounces preconceived notions of the nature of objects and forms, instead focuses intensely upon the expressiveness of objects in the present. It is a suspension of a coarse-green, Nanyang unreality: frozen pieces outlined in space, yet exceedingly expressive in its emotive potency and historical meaning.
1 Daniel Tham ed., A Changed World: Singapore Art 1950s to 1970s, Dialogues between Szan Tan and Daniel Tham, National Museum of Singapore, Singapore, 2013, p. 23.
2 Liu Kang, Pioneer Artist of Singapore: Georgette Chen Retrospective 1985, Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum, Singpaore, 1985, p. 15.
3 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-Sense, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, USA, 1992, p. 15.
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