Not long after settling in Singapore, Chen Wen Hsi taught at the Nanyang Acadamy of Fine Arts (NAFA), the first art academy to introduce students to both Eastern and Western traditions and methods. This marriage of techniques was later referred to as the Nanyang style. It encompassed a universal form of adopting and integrating different methods of color, composition and rhythm onto various mediums.
His philosophy was to “…discipline the eye to see lines and planes in all visible forms… and to him, they are essentially alternative analytical approaches to visible forms”1. He strongly emphasized that, “We mustn’t think of abstract art as an uncontrolled form of spontaneous expression. In fact it is highly calculated and controlled… The same goes for Western art. abstract art goes even further in playing with forms, to the extent of doing away with tones, textures and structures”2. Chen’s work reveals his fascination with angles and an exploration and critique of shapes. The bold gestures and distinguished palate reflects the development of Chen Wen Hsi’s cubist modernistic vocabulary. This painting is a quintessential example of his work during the seminal period of his career. The contrast between the artist’s Chinese watercolors and his early pieces on oil are perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of Singaporean art in the post-war era.
Movements in abstract art that incorporate cubist influences, demonstrates the pictorial language that can be found in Chen’s ink paintings, with the traditional conventions and modernist modes complimenting each other. These different modes of expression highly influenced Chen’s distinctive style. The present work reveals the remarkable control that the artist had over his materials. The brushwork is powerful and confident, with a combination of thick impastos and coursed texture. Protruding shapes are developed through the lines and forms – deliberately making it difficult to identify a single-point perspective. Finding new ways of seeing and portraying his subjects, the oil on board medium transformed into Chen Wen Hsi’s very own ‘laboratory’, adding density, identity and brilliance to his approach with ink and brush.
Chen’s traditional Chinese ink paintings are muted, but exceptionally elegant in moods and tones, while conversely remaining sparse in composition. In contrast with his ink works, Pasar (Market) is a complete distortion of reality that is a testimony to Chen Wen Hsi’s vision of the complex nature of combining Chinese and Western aesthetics together. Expressing both positive and negative geometrical spaces in the works, Chen draws upon basic memories with three primary colors: red, blue and yellow. These hues vividly capture the energetic atmosphere of the Singaporean market scene.
The painting’s dynamic lines, use of colors, as well as the expressive brushwork – hint at the artist’s optimism and excitement in being able to express himself in the language of modern art, however in a complete distortion of reality. The elements of ‘pictorial structure’ of abstraction and color theory is reminiscent of the fine executions of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Fig. 1) and Paul Klee’s relationship with colors in Castle and Sun (Fig. 2). “He studies his subjects with symphony, insight and child-like enthusiasm, so that he imparts life into whatever he paints… He has an uncanny knack of entering into the world of his subject, abstracting what is essential in their nature, and depicting them with rhythmic vitality and with humor…[Such as the] movements in living things” 3.
Teaching art as a profession and praised as an art-innovator, Chen Wen Hsi illustrates the powerful and revolutionary concept of visual satisfaction in his work. It has been said about the artist, that “...to praise him with the standard eulogy ‘capturing the spirit with perfect brush strokes’ is not enough. He impresses you, his whole personality simply comes across like a hot iron”1. Chen only produced a few works of abstract city scenes in his oeuvre. Pasar (Market) is an outstanding example of Chen Wen Hsi’s diverse repertoire and legacy of fusing Eastern and Western practices and philosophy together. An exceptional piece such as Lot 37 is regarded as the largest oil on board piece that has ever come to auction.
1 Chang Tsong –Zung, The Art of Chen Wen Hsi, 1987
2 Refer to 1
3 Dr. E.M.T Lu, An Introduction to the Art of Chen Wen Hsi, 1976
4 Refer to 3
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