This document is part of a joint project of the Singapore Art Museum and the Honours Core Curriculum, National University of Singapore. This image and accompanying text appears here with the kind permission of the Singapore Art Museum.
One of the most outstanding artists to emerge in the Singapore art circle in the 1950s was Georgette Liying Chendana Chen. Widely recognised as the most important of Singapore's women pioneer artists, she taught at NAFA from 1954, the year she settled in Singapore, until her retirement in 1981. Chen's paintings and drawings demonstrate the same keen sensitivity towards her subjects whether landscapes, still-lifes or portraits. Yet, Chen appeared to others as a person of cool, rational disposition. Liu Kang wrote of her:
We should not assume that good artists are necessarily more emotional than good teachers. The mistaken belief that creativity and a rational cool-minded approach are incompatible was over-thrown by the career of the late 19th-century painter Gustave Moreau... Chen Liying... can be said to have followed in the footsteps of Moreau. During her long years of teaching at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, she transmitted to her students not only fundamental knowledge and techniques, but also the ethics of artistic creation, and her hope that they would not be confined by what they learnt from the past, but would be able to break new ground and create their own expressions. ["The Chang Liying I Know"]
Self Portrait , painted in 1946, testifies well to the principles Georgette Chen held dear in her art. With a remarkable sense of detachment, she portrays herself with a disciplined approach to method while engaging the viewer with the personality behind the face. The painting is a close-up, full-sized and hauntlngly-real likeness of herself. Faithful to her ideas of portraiture, Chen composed Self-Portrait employing strict economy of means -- minimum lines to delineate the contours of the face and hair, meagre use of colours to differentiate shades of facial complexion from the simple background and clear articulation of features such as the curly fringe above her ear and the starched Chinese collar of her dress. The serene and sensitive disposition of the artist is expressed in the choice of harmonious colours -- subtle nuances of pink, beige and brown, and to add interest, a dash of vermilion on the lips. The sharp, piercing eyes reflect a steady determination and a keen sense of purpose.
Georgette Chen was born in Paris in 1907. Her father was Zhang Jingjiang, a businessman with interests in Paris and New York, and a close friend and supporter of Dr Sun Yat-sen. Georgette Chen moved to China at the age of three but spent her years of education mostly in Paris and New York where she studied art at the Academie Colarossi, Academe Biloul and the Art Students' League. In 1930, Georgette Chen and Liu Kang participated in the same Salon d'Automne.
Georgette Chen's earlier works were rendered with heavy brush strokes and texture. An excellent example is Still Life with Cut Apple and Orange which reveals traces of the influence of Paul Cezanne. Chen combined the use of dynamic brush strokes with dark, heavy tones filled with vigour and energy to suggest volume and texture. The apples and oranges are made more tangible through a focused and compact composition, giving immediacy and conviction to the still-life, a quality which is consistently found in Chen's paintings, The vitality of the colours of the fruits and their different textures contrast with the vague and gray background colours to achieve a calculated and sensitive balance of elements in the painting.
Mosque in Kuala Lumpur sums up Georgette Chen's later achievements in pictorial composition, colour rendition and formal organisation. Painted in 1957, Mosque in Kuala Lumpur is conceived as a landscape with no particular focus, yet it is thoroughly balanced and harmonious. The sky is azure blue, clear and crisp, and the two tall coconut trees elegantly flank and frame the painting. The palpable sense of spatial depth is reflected in the detail of the Moorish-inspired facade and the graceful lemon-yellow dome in the middle and the tall and slender minaret in the background. The assimilation of such composite elements can only be achieved through Chen's mastery of fine draughtmanship and excellent use of perspective. The gently swaying palms both in the foreground and those tucked behind the mosque convey a sense of rhythm to this richly-organised painting.
Singapore Waterfront, created in the following year (1958), is a painting of refreshing casualness, enhanced by the use of a variety of brushstrokes which changes according to the surface Chen wished to represent -- light, sensuous, pointillist touch of the brush to reveal the transparent and atmospheric quality of water, thick and swirling strokes to follow the curves of the bumboats and, pencil-thin delicate lines to delineate one shop building from another. The light colours of the sky exude the sunny airiness of a tropical landscape. The effect of the work is poetic, serene and pleasing.
The same quality of lightness and pleasure is also manifested in her later still-life painting, Still Life: Moon Festival Table belies the conscious and careful efforts Chen put into her choice of objects, their composition and colour scheme. The work is a formal and yet unpretentious arrangement of festive goods, in reds and greens, against a simple, pale yellow background. Inspite of the presentation being so direct, the viewer cannot but be affected by the colourful exuberance of the festive table and the spiritedness of the occasion. Still-Life: Moon Festival Table represents Chen's expression of the simple joy given by the common things enjoyed by everyday folk.
Liu Kang. "The Chang Liying I Know" in National Museum. Geogrette Chen Retrospective. Singapore: 1985.
Last updated: May 2000