This rare, early masterpiece caught the eye of an American gentleman who came to know Chen Wen Hsi as he traveled to Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia, organizing high-end tours with businessmen, academics and diplomats. They would meet prominent figures in the countries while learning about the local culture and changing landscapes. As a pioneering figure in Singapore’s burgeoning cultural scene, Chen Wen Hsi was an important artist the gentleman introduced to many foreigners curious about the fast-changing island. During his trips to Singapore, he also took photographs of the artist in his studio and visited the artist’s home. It was at Chen Wen Hsi’s Kingsmead residence that the original owner saw this very work. After his return to America, Chen sent him a letter:
“Bob, do you remember that the day you went to my house you were admiring me of my painting (Chinese New Year Painting)! I was very impress [ed] by your excellent taste and I realize [that] you are a great lover of Arts. Would you like me to present that painting to you as a complement and a token of our friendship? Actually, I wanted to give it to you that day. But I was not sure whether you would like to accept it or not."
The work traveled across the world to reach the gentleman’s home and has remained in the family’s collection since. Sotheby’s is honored to present Chinese New Year Painting this fall, a beautifully sentimental symbol of the relationship between artist and collector, creation and admiration, East and West.
An exhilarating picture of festive exuberance, Chinese New Year Painting is rendered in Chen’s spirited vernacular, deftly encapsulating the vividness that characterized the festivities of the New Year. The inscription of Chinese calligraphy upon the painting’s lively surface pays homage to the artist’s versatile range and expertise in the boldness of Western idioms and fluidity of Eastern brushwork. Full, black brushstrokes encompass the upper half of the painting, its confident swiftness attesting to the maestro’s virtuosity in calligraphy. Moments of fiery red and blue peek through the foreground, enlivening the piece with euphoric revelry. Striking Chinese characters emblazon the black background, reminiscent of the decorative calligraphy banners hung during Chinese New Year. The expressive script draws inspiration from Chen’s studies under the tutelage of prolific Chinese artist Pan Tianshou, the lyricism of each character reminiscent of Pan’s works. The cursive rhythm of his calligraphy animates his work with a buoyant dynamism, its vigorous movement immediately captivating the eye. The delicate text disappears into the coalescence of primary colors below, establishing a sharp juxtaposition between the material and the abstract. During his years of teaching, Chen was enlightened to the holistic importance of capturing the “...composite image and spirit, the overall beauty and cohesion” in his works, rather than maintaining a rigid loyalty to physical likeness. His shrewd philosophy prevails itself in the festive scene, where diverse components of color, shape and composition work in tandem to produce a mesmerizing, exultant experience of New Year celebrations.
Chinese New Year Painting is divided into two halves, each as equally arresting as the other. Both divisions share a similar palette of red, blue and black, the bold color scheme evocative of the boisterous festival. A conspicuous departure from the more muted nature of traditional Chinese art, the piece’s saturated vibrancy recalls the visual aesthetics of Fauvism. Chen’s familiarity and exposure to the intricacies of the Western style allows him to capture the gaiety of Chinese New Year with riotous, abstract detail. Brown, white and beige colors accent the lower half in loose brushwork, instilling a calming balance to the busy background. The colors are composed in linear strokes that extend downwards, the flow of the painting bearing similitude as to how one would typically read a Chinese calligraphy text. Rather than just a discordant collection of intersecting shapes, Chen’s ingenious composition provokes an intriguing cadence that engages the viewer with its unprecedented rhythm. A paradoxical force of harmony and tension, the masterpiece is testament to the maestro’s dexterity in both Eastern and Western realms of art.
A seminal piece executed in the vocabulary of modern art and inscribed in the language of Chen’s native roots, Chinese New Year Painting embodies the artist’s ground-breaking lexicon that marries Western and Eastern aesthetics in an arresting, eye-catching fusion. This wonderful amalgamation was perhaps what drew Chen’s American friend to the painting upon his visit to the artist’s home, an apt reflection of the constant cultural and meaningful exchange across geographical boundaries.
 Chen Wen-Hsi, Chen Wen-Hsi Paintings, Singapore 1975, 13.
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