Ink Painting in Singapore

Kwok Kian Chow

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.

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The dichotomy between the Society of Chinese Artists and the United Artists Malaysia produced a paradox: that the spirit of the May Fourth Movement would foster the development of a Nanyang style in ink painting, the favoured medium of United Artists Malaysia.

The May Fourth Movement influenced Chinese ink painting to give birth to a new approach to traditional ink work, imbuing it with a sense of Western representationalism, This was the xinguohuo (new Chinese painting) movement. In the early twentieth century, there emerged a tradition known as "Shanghai School" following the heritage of nineteenth-century masters Ren Bonian and Wu Changshi. The Shanghai School of ink painting continued as xieyihuci (paintings which express the spiritual essence), a name which stressed the essential meaning or value of the literati painting tradition. It is interesting that it was this xieyihua of the Shanghai School which would become the main form of traditional ink practised in Singapore although many Singapore artists came from the coastal provinces of South China. This is because many of these artists studied in Shanghai and were students of masters such as Wang Geyi in the early part of this century.

The Shanghai School, although an extension of the classical literati tradition, took on a somewhat decorative form when Wu Changshi incorporated archaic calligraphic elements into the style. Despite the traditional motifs and subjects, the xieyi style is a somewhat abbreviated, stylized, and symbolic form of the classical ink tradition. This approach, which reflected a microcosm of Chinese traditions, was what the United Artists Malaysia saw as representative of Chinese culture in the Nanyang.

Peach Tree Bamboo and Orchids Fan Chang Tien and See Hiang To, two of the most influential ink painting teachers in Singapore, usually paint in the xieyi style. While Fan Chang Tien's Peach Tree and Bamboo and Orchids are excellent examples in the traditional idiom, Fan's Under the Coconut Palms and See's Malay Man with Wayang Kulit are atypical as they show local people and scenery.

Autumn Scene is a collaborative work by Huang Pao Fang and Fan Chang Tien of the "First Generation", their students Ling Cher Erg and Low Eng of the "Younger Generation" and the Shanghai master Wang Geyi who inscribed the colophon. This work is a good representation of the continuance of the xieyi tradition in Singapore.

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Last updated: May 2000