Friday, April 06, 2007

At SAM: Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition

Many people in Singapore could have own a copy of one of Chen Wen Hsi's artwork without realising it.

Unconvinced? Take out your wallet, and look for a S$50 note (from the Portrait Series). Turn to the back of the note, and look for a pair of gibbons on it.

Image of gibbons on S$50 note

The image of those two gibbons is actually part of an artwork by Chen Wen Hsi.

If you care to find out the name of the original artwork that the image of those two gibbons came from, or if you wish to find out more about Chen Wen Hsi himself, read on to join me on my visits to Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition (held till 8 April 2007) at the Singapore Art Museum.

Without any further delay, I shall share my findings from my visits to the exhibition. The photo right below and the caption that I have included right below it will give you an obvious clue to the name of the original artwork from which the image of the two gibbons found on the S$50 note were taken.

Chen Wen Hsi's Two Gibbons Amidst Vines
(Collection of Singapore Art Museum, donated by Dr Earl Lu)

I heard from the guide (who gave the guided tour on 30 April 2007's evening) that Chen Wen Hsi had initially wanted to throw away the above artwork. In the end, one of his friends managed to convince Chen Wen Hsi to give it to him.

Whatever it is, I don't think Chen Wen Hsi would have ever expected that one of his artworks would find its way to becoming one of the images on a Singapore currency note.

For myself, I will never see the S$50 currency note the same way as I had used to after my visits to Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition. From now, when I see the images of the two gibbons on the S$50 currency note, I will remember Chen Wen Hsi and his art. I will remember the moment when my accompanying friend, Mystic, took out a S$50 currency note of the Portrait series and held it against Chen Wen Hsi's Two Gibbons Amidst Vines for comparison. I will remember the delight that Mystic and myself have had ascertaining that Chen Wen Hsi's Two Gibbons Amidst Vines was the original painting where the two gibbons on the S$50 currency note were taken from.

Perhaps a piece of art is not simply a piece of art. It is a key that opens the doors to some of our treasured memories?

By the way, in case any of you asked why I use the word "visits" instead of "visit", it is because I have visited Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition thrice so far.

On my first visit, I was pressed for time and only had the time to browse through all the works fairly quickly. On 30 April 2007, I made my second visit to this exhibition and I joined one of the guided tours. SB was my guide for that guided tour. On 1 April 2007, I made my third visit to the exhibition. I have the pleasure to have one of my good friends, Mystic, with me. Although I tend to visit museums alone, it proved to be quite a fun and interesting experience visiting the art museum with a friend.

I first knew of Chen Wen Hsi and his artworks when I studied Art during my secondary school years. He was one of the Pioneer Artists of Singapore that I had to study during my Art History class.

While I can't remember all the facts that I have used to study about him right now, I have managed to find a site that has a biography of Chen Wen Hsi for anyone wishing for a quick overview on Chen Wen Hsi. The URL of the site is:

Fishes in the Pond

Back to Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition, this exhibition is divided into four broad sections. These are namely: Traditions, Life, Exploration and Synthesis.

From the way the exhibition has been curated, it seems to me that the curator could have wanted visitors to start with the section, Traditions. At this section, one very large piece of Chinese painting that would certainly capture the attention of most visitors would be Chen Wen Hsi's Fishes in the Pond. It is probably quite a significant work because I remember hearing from the guide that this was the work that Chen Wen Hsi had brought with him to this part of the world when he came in the year 1949 (some sources indicated that it was year 1948).

Even though I have very limited knowledge about Chinese art, I found it very helpful that my guide for the guided tour gave a quick overview on the characteristics of Chinese painting. That certainly had helped me better appreciate many of Chen Wen Hsi's works done in Chinese ink. My thumbs up and appreciation to my guide, SB.

Please allow me to share some of what I have learnt from the guided tour: Try viewing Fishes in the Pond by walking from the left of the painting to the right, you may perceive that the fishes on the painting were moving horizontally across the scroll.

My friend, Mystic, initially did not think very much about Chen Wen Hsi's Chinese paintings. But with some prompting from yours truly, Mystic and I took a closer look at one of Chen Wen Hsi's paintings, Squirrels Climbing Tree Trunk.

Squirrels Climbing Tree Trunk

Close up of one section of Squirrels Climbing Tree Trunk

Upon closer examination, Mystic then took back her initial verdict, and realised that it would probably take great skill to execute those strokes found on the tails and bodies of the squirrels. Mystic has a question she would like help with: What did Chen Wen Hsi use to achieve those brushstrokes found on the tail of the squirrel that you would see right above?

If you have the answer, please share it with me and Mystic.

My favourite work from the Traditions section was Gibbons Fetching the Moon from the Water which was probably painted in the early 1970s, on or before 1975. Somehow, I was particularly attracted to the interesting pose that the gibbon attempting to fetch the moon has had.

Gibbons Fetching the MoonGibbons Fetching the Moon from the Water

On the right: sub-section on Chen Wen Hsi's finger-paintings.

There is a sub-section under the Traditions section that displayed some of Chen Wen Hsi's finger-paintings. Don't miss it when you are at the exhibition.

As one walks up the flight of stairs to the second level of the exhibition, one would be greeted by works that have been classifed under the broad theme of Life. Summarising the notes on one of the exhibition panels: Chen Wen Hsi's practice of art is guided by his strong belief that "art must be informed by life". To do so, Chen Wen Hsi would make close observations of nature.

I suppose drawing from life would be one essential procedure that Chen Wen Hsi would take in the process of his practice of art?

The following are some of the works under the theme of Life that I personally like:

Indian ChildrenIndian Children

The Ferry

According to this article, Tracing the evolution of Chen Wen Hsi's works by Parvathi Nayar - Dec 29, 2006, The Business Times, The Ferry "is the exhibition's best representation of Chen's contribution to the so-called Nanyang School of painting".

Notice the bright, tropical-like colours used in The Ferry. Its subject matter is also based on something that is fairly specific to the Southeast Asia, "Nanyang" region, i.e. a Balinese boatman.

For more information about the Nanyang style of art, you may wish to visit Nanyang Art by Ting Szu Kiong.

Malay GirlsMalay Girls

It was interesting to simply take time to look at the various works from the Life section and to evaluate how Eastern and Western art styles and techniques could have influenced Chen Wen Hsi's art.

More exciting works await for the keen and curious visitor.

For your information, Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition will be held at the Singapore Art Museum till 8 April 2007 only. For people who are interested in the art scene in Singapore, this exhibition is definitely not-to-be-missed given the significance of Chen Wen Hsi and his art .

Plan for a trip to the Singapore Art Museum now:

Singapore Art Museum
71 Bras Basah Road
Singapore 189555
Tel: (65) 6332 3222
Fax: (65) 6336 5361

Adult: $5.00
Student: $2.50
Senior Citizen (above 60 years): $2.50
Family Ticket (3 Adults and 2 Children): $13.00

More visitors' information can be found here

Part II of this series is available here: At SAM: Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition, Part II.
Part III of this series is available here: At SAM: Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi Centennial Exhibition, Part III.

Singapore Circulation Notes: Portrait Series - $50
Chen Wen Hsi's biography (on Czine-NAFAHUB)
Review by Choy Weng Yang

On Nanyang Style (of art):
Nanyang Art by Ting Szu Kiong

Also view:
Chen Wen Hsi @ SAM
Bada Shanren: Information from

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Singapore Art Museum for granting me the permission to take non-flash photography of this exhibition. Special thanks to Shaun for helping me to obtain the permission.

(Note: The materials on this post have also been posted on, on 4 April 2007)

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