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Relive Singapore's yesteryear through iconic Chinese ink art

National Gallery Singapore opens a handful of exhibitions that take a look at the country’s Chinese ink history, from a retrospective on Chen Chong Swee to a showcase of works from the Xiu Hai Lou Collection. 

SINGAPORE: The year 1952 is widely regarded as the pivotal moment in which the so-called Nanyang Style of art came into its own. That year, four artists from Singapore travelled to Bali and consequently created paintings that would define a regional style which combined Chinese and Western techniques with local themes and subject matters.

But a new retrospective on one of those four artistic pioneers, slated to open at the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) this Saturday (Mar 11), offers glimpses into the Nanyang Style’s earlier roots in Singapore.

One of the Chinese ink paintings found in Strokes Of Life: The Art Of Chen Chong Swee is a seaside kampung - or village - scene done way back in 1937, the earliest that has been found done in that style.

Chen Chong Swee's 1972 work Returning From The Sea. (Photo: National Gallery Singapore)

The exhibition is one of three new shows on Chinese ink paintings at the museum, which also includes a survey of works from the famous Xiu Hai Lou art collection and a new showcase of paintings from Wu Guanzhong.

Strokes Of Life is the latest retrospective on the late Chen, who cemented his place in Singapore's art history as one of the “Bali artists”, together with Liu Kang, Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng.

While all four artists were equally influential, Chen was the earliest among them to arrive in Singapore in the early 1930s and when it comes to Chinese ink paintings, he was the first to incorporate local scenes.

“His biggest contribution to our art history was through the Chinese ink traditions,” explained assistant curator Grace Tng. “He was one of the first artists to integrate local landscapes in Chinese ink works.”

Chen, who had moved to Singapore from Shanghai via Penang and Malacca in 1935, not only painted kampung scenes but also local folk, from the satay man to ice kacang seller. It was in contrast to other Chinese ink practitioners, who stuck to more traditional themes.

The exhibition features more than a hundred works. These comprise mainly ink paintings from the 1930s to the 1980s, but also includes sketches and studies, as well as some oil and watercolour pieces.

Beach scenes and fishing villages were among his favourite subject matters, as he often painted along the East Coast. An avid traveller, he would also often bring along a camera to take photos, a selection of which are also included in the exhibition.

“He was probably the first to represent daily life in Singapore,” added curator Cai Heng. “His artistic career was developed and built in this region.”

Strokes Of Life: The Art Of Chen Chong Swee features the late Singaporean pioneer artist's work combining Chinese ink traditions with local themes. (Photo: National Gallery Singapore)

But Chen was not just a painter. He was also a prolific writer on the arts and had also helped co-found two art societies that are still active today, including the Singapore Watercolour Society. He also played a role in the nascent art collectors scene in Singapore during the post-World War II years.

In fact, it was Chen who had coined the name of the collection that is concurrently on display at the museum.

The exhibition Rediscovering Treasures: Ink Art From The Xiu Hai Lou Collection, features a selection of Chinese ink works from China and the region. It was assembled by the late businessman Yeo Khee Lim, who would often seek advice from Chen. The latter would eventually suggest naming it “xiu hai lou”, a line taken from a classical poem that meant “ocean in the sleeve”.

A detail from Xu Beihong's The Two Cats, one of the works on display at the exhibition Rediscovering Treasures: Ink Art from the Xiu Hai Lou Collection. (Photo: National Gallery Singapore)

Much of it comprised masterpieces that eventually found their way outside of China during the tumultuous and politically volatile post-war years. At its peak, the collection numbered 2,000 pieces. Today, it is considered one of the best collection of Chinese ink works in the region.

“It stands out because of the good quality of works and the fact that it is still intact while other collections have been dispersed,” said Dr Cai.

During the post-war years, art collections were often the only way artists and members of the public in Singapore could view art. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were around nine active art collectors who invigorated the scene, even as artists like Chen would themselves begin to shape what Nanyang art would be.

“Collectors at that time would open their doors to friends, peers and artists,” said assistant curator Jennifer Lam. “In fact, our art scene and heritage culture today are still being influenced by the collections they have.” 

A selection of works from the Xiu Hai Lou Collection, one of the most important Chinese ink art collections in the region. (Photo: National Gallery Singapore)