S'poreans are carrying around a valuable painting by a pioneer S'pore artist in their wallets


Joshua Lee | August 03, 2019, 08:33 PM

The name Chen Wen Hsi might not ring a bell, but chances are, you have probably seen (but perhaps never really noticed) one of his works:

Chen Wen Hsi's "Two Gibbons Amidst Vines". Via.

If it doesn't look familiar, perhaps this might jog your memory:

Chen Wen Hsi's "Two Gibbons Amidst Vines" is featured on our S$50 note. Photo by Joshua Lee.

Here's a closer look:

Chen Wen Hsi's "Two Gibbons Amidst Vines" is featured on our S$50 note. Photo by Joshua Lee.

A top artist in China

Chen Wen Hsi was one of Singapore's pioneer artists.

Born in China's Guangdong province in 1906, he was the son of a scholar.

Against his family's wishes, Chen went to Shanghai to study art in the Shanghai Art Academy in 1926. There, he learnt both Chinese and Western painting techniques.

He later transferred to the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts where he became classmates with Liu Kang, Chan Jen Hao and Chen Chong Swee. All of them would become Singapore's pioneer artists.

After his graduation from the Xinhua Academy, Chen taught art at various schools. At the same time, he exhibited his works in Shantou, Xingning, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and parts of southern China.

He was soon recognised as a top artist in China.

Settling in Singapore

In 1949, Chen came to Singapore to exhibit his works, and later decided to settle here.

He taught art at the Chinese High School from 1949 to 1968 and then at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts from 1950 to 1959.

In 1968, Chen retired from teaching and opened an art gallery at Tanglin Shopping Centre.

Chen (right) with Johnny Quek (left), a patron at a farm in Singapore. Image courtesy of The Private Museum.

Chen, together with pioneer artists like Lim Hak Tai, Liu Kang, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee and Georgette Chen, was known for fusing elements of traditional Chinese ink painting and Western art.

According to Infopedia, this "Nanyang Style" is said to be the first modern art achievement in Singapore.

Painting gibbons and other animals

Chen's painting evolved over the years. In the 1950s, he was known for his expressive freehand Chinese ink paintings. It later evolved to become more abstract with cubist expressions in the 1990s.

Chickens (1980), Chinese ink on rice paper. Chen painted these chickens using his palm. Image courtesy of The Private Museum.

Chen was also skilled in finger painting, a technique he picked up in Shanghai.

But he was best known for his paintings of gibbons.

The artist was known to have a keen fascination with animals like gibbons, herons, and fish. He would buy and rear animals in a miniature "zoo" within his home in order to observe them closely.

Ducks (1972), Chinese ink on rice paper. Image courtesy of The Private Museum.

Coming back to "Two Gibbons Amidst Vines", you might notice the jumble of Chinese calligraphy in the top left corner.

According to an anecdote, the painting was originally discarded by Chen because there's a missing word in the text. Earl Lu, an art patron who was also a student of his, saw it and decided to ask to have it.

Chen then amended the calligraphy and gifted it to Lu.

It isn't so clear how it ended up in the design of the S$50 note, but it's a good thing Lu intervened, otherwise you might not be carrying a Chen Wen Hsi in your wallet today.

Over the years, Chen's works have also fetched quite a tidy sum. In 2013, his 1950 abstract painting "Pasar" was sold for S$1.4 million at an auction in Hong Kong.

See Chen Wen Hsi's works at a free exhibition

If you would like to see more of Chen's work, you can do so at The Private Museum's "Flashes of Brilliance" exhibition.

It showcases selected Chen Wen Hsi works from the private collections of Johnny Quek (a long time patron of Chen), Jennifer Lewis and Geraldine Lewis-Pereira.

Since these works are from private collections, this is one of the rare chances to see them in public — and for free, too. For more information, you can click here.

Flashes of Brilliance

When to go: August 2, 2019 - September 29, 2019

Where to go: The Private Museum, 51 Waterloo Street #02-06, Singapore 187969 (map)

When it's open: 10am - 7pm (Mon to Fri), 11am - 5pm (Sat to Sun), closed on Public Holidays

How much it costs to go in: Free

Top photo by Joshua Lee