Poetry and painting come together in Fishes in a Lotus Pond in a rare and exceptional collaboration between two giants of Singaporean art, Chen Wen Hsi and Pan Shou. Rendered in a style reminiscent of literati ink paintings, it offers an aerial glimpse into a river where colourful fish dart among the lotus leaves. Complementing Chen’s artwork is an inscription by the master calligrapher Pan Shou, which expresses the poet’s envy of the fishes’ carefree existence.
In the present lot, one can behold the simultaneous use of both the freehand xieyi style and meticulous gongbi style to stunning effect, highlighting Chen’s versatility in adapting both to his visual language. What appears initially to be a random juxtaposition of flowers, leaves, and stems in fact encapsulates the free-flowing essence of Chinese cursive scripts, recalling the work of masters like Qi Baishi. The visual rhythm of black against a white background is contrasted by the vibrant reds and pinks of the flowers and fishes. The fish are painted using highly detailed brushstrokes, capturing the expressive movements of the fish in such a realistic manner that one can almost imagine reaching into the water and touching them.
At the same time, Chen’s use of a Western-inspired top-heavy compositional layout in the present work gives it rich visual dynamism by directly contrasting the blank space the fish inhabit below with the ordered chaos of the lotus leaves above. In a departure from the formal, comparatively sparse layout of traditional Chinese bird-and-flower paintings, Chen makes use of the ‘extracted scene’ model to depict a natural vista. By doing so, the painting achieves a sense of harmony that seems more spontaneous than deliberate.
Pan’s flowing calligraphic script on the upper left corner of the painting brings literal poetry to the painting. Although already well-regarded as a calligrapher with works exhibited in China and Singapore, Pan’s talent for poetry was acknowledged by scholars as well, and he has several poetry anthologies published in his name. The inclusion of his inscription in the painting further elevates it as a confluence of three distinct artistic traditions—calligraphy, poetry, and painting.
As one of the only known works ever worked on together by Chen and Pan, Fishes in a Lotus Pond is a supremely rare instance of collaboration in Singaporean art. A vibrant medley of script and colour, it captures an extraordinary moment of visual dialogue between two masters in their element.
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