Legacy of Chen Wen Hsi


Alexandra Tan
10 June 2013 - 12:00am

Born in Guangdong, China, Chen (1906-1991) moved to Singapore, then part of Malaya, in 1948. He grew up fascinated with the Chinese ink paintings and calligraphy works that hung in his family home. Later, he pursued an art course at the Shanghai College of Fine Art, transferring to the Xinhua College of Fine Art only a year after.

By the time Chen attended art college in the 1920s, Shanghai had become the richest port city in China, with a large mercantile class that demanded paintings and calligraphy as status symbols. Talents from all over the country were attracted to Shanghai’s market and collectively, the “Shanghai school” of artwork proved to be commercially successful.

This style of art offered rich colours, bold strokes, dynamic compositions, and subjects drawn from mythology, history or popular fiction. Owing to cultural reforms such as the May Fourth Movement in 1919, Chinese painting adapted to changing times. As such, syllabuses of Chinese art academies had grown to include life drawing with an emphasis on realist as well as Impressionistic styles.

Chen became a teacher at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art in Singapore, a school that placed emphasis on fusing Chinese and Western ideals in art and forging a Nanyang art style. His training in the keen observation of nature and the play of light, was to have an impact on his career in art, and he advocated it to his students.

Other practitioners of the Nanyang style included Georgette Chen (1906-1933) and Cheong Soo Pieng (1917-1983). Many successful Malayan artists trained at NAFA during Chen’s time, including most notably Chia Yu Chian (1936-1990), the first Malaysian to gain a French government scholarship to study at the Ecole Nationale Des beaux Arts de Paris.


Xu Beihong

Chen was also successful outside his role as an educationist. He held more than 30 exhibitions around Asia as well as in Koln (Germany), London and Melbourne. Art was his first love, and he attributed his accomplishments to his wife, who patiently allowed him to spend his little free time outside of teaching, painting. Celebrated Chinese painter Xu Beihong encouraged him and praised his work, which offered him critical support.

Chen believed that artists should develop their own style to the best of their abilities, as well as responding to tradition but not be a slave to it. Well-versed in both Chinese literati and modern Western artistic conventions, Chen painted in the abstract style between the 1960s-80s, focusing on ink painting only in the last decades of his life.  He strove for balance and unity of formal elements, studying his subjects with precision. He had six pet gibbons as well as fish, egrets, squirrels and peacocks.

Chen’s prized paintings are collected by institutions such as the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford, the Museum of Koln in Germany and universities in Singapore. Bestowed the Silver Star award by the President of Singapore in 1964 and conferred an honorary doctorate degree of letters by the University of Singapore, Chen was rewarded for his patient pursuit of his ideals. Posthumously recognised with a Meritorious Service Medal, Chen was honoured with a Centennial Exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum (2006-2007) as one of Singapore’s most significant 20th century artists.