Life drawing is a vital practice that never ceased throughout Chen Wen Hsi’s prolific career. This fixation and development of this skill first began when the artist interacted with the birds and animals around his home in Guangzhou as a child. It was this simple bucolic lifestyle that revealed beauty in his surroundings and allowed his passion for painting to take root. When the artist moved to Singapore, he continued painting animals from life. In particular, he reared gibbons in his backyard, consciously studying their every movement. These studies resulted in masterful depictions of the nuanced movements and features of gibbons, a favoured motif – of which the present work is an exceptional example.
Gibbons is a truly striking work that is iconic to Chen Wen Hsi’s oeuvre. In this rare composition, three lively gibbons make their way off the cliff and into the thicket of the forest, traversing a narrow opening. Distinguished for the vibrant coloration in the painting’s background and generously spontaneous brushstrokes, the present lot exemplifies the assurance of the artist’s inspired hand. The three gibbons are spaced out. Two gibbons are balancing on the edge a jagged cliff with one reaching out for the tree branch ahead. These two gibbons look down, watching the third gibbon making his way down the vertical trees as if preparing to follow suit.
Despite their elusive nature and instinctive preference for sailing through imposing trees, Chen skilfully captures their anatomy in detail. From the angles of their fingers and toes, to the placement of their limbs, the forms of these creatures are seamlessly depicted by the artist. As they lithely manoeuvre through their natural element, their long limbs mirror the heights of the tall, spindly trees. Chen is masterful in recreating the fleeting moment of these graceful creatures, capturing the synchronicity of the gibbon’s mentality and its physicality in motion.
Gibbons demonstrates Chen’s expressive brushwork and penchant for detail, having mastered traditional Chinese ink painting techniques prior to migrating to Singapore. What is immediately striking about the present piece is the sheer spontaneity of the artist’s strokes that run swiftly and fervently across the surface of the paper. Indeed, it reveals the artist’s admiration for Southern Song painters. While Chen is often quoted as an admirer of Muxi’s painting of gibbons, the artist’s affinity with the Southern Song school of thought – the belief that images should evoke poetic ideas that appeal to the senses or capture the fleeting qualities of a moment in time – is especially salient in the current work.
The given scene of the ravine is a well-balanced composition – at once severe yet calming. The verticality of the work is emphasized by Chen’s long, defined brushstrokes running the length of the entire surface, accentuating the height of the space in which the elusive creatures inhabit. The washes of orange and blue are complementary, imparting a subliminal duality throughout the work. The juxtaposition between the quiet serenity of the environs and the palpable dynamism exuded by the gibbons, reveals the artist’s acuity in composing large format works.
Through correspondence with the Chinese ink painter, Xu Beihong (1895 – 1953), whose works he admired, Chen was exposed to Xu’s thoughts on how an artist should steer his work away from empty iterations of tradition2. This exchange inspired Wen Hsi to tune his artistic lens to the subtleties of natural beauty and to re-express his observances with his own interpretation. Much like the synergistic movement of the animals he observed, Chen Wen Hsi practice as an artist was a polished act of balance. His renowned works are testament to his keenness in merging both Chinese and Western aspects of painting, and the articulation of observed natural beauty through one’s individual style.
 Transcript of Oral History Interview with Artist, Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition, Vol II, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2006, p.51
 Ibid. p. 25 – 26
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