Tan Kian Por



Tan Kian Por (b. 26 November 1949, Chaozhou, China–) is a Chinese calligrapher, painter and seal carver. His paintings have a distinctive style and are displayed in major art galleries in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea.1 Tan’s works are recognised internationally; they are considered masterpieces in the Nanyang Style and regarded alongside those of pioneer artists Aw Tee Hong and Chen Wen Hsi.2 For his contributions to the local art scene, Tan was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Visual Arts in 2001.3

Early life and career
China-born Tan came to Singapore in 1962 to join his parents, who had arrived earlier. His father sold betel palm for a living and his mother was a housewife.4 Tan first enrolled in Guangyang Primary School and subsequently studied at Tuan Mong High School.5


During his childhood, Tan enjoyed drawing. In secondary school, under the guidance of his Chinese-language teacher, he discovered a love for Chinese calligraphy and painting.6 Under the recommendation of his teachers, the well-known artists Shi Xiang Tuo and Huang Zai Ling, Tan enrolled in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in 1968 to further his art studies.7

Upon his graduation from NAFA in 1970, Tan took on various jobs, including spray painting carpets and moulding fibre glass basins in factories, while continuing with his artistic interests.

In 1971, Tan founded the Siaw-Tao Chinese Seal-Carving, Calligraphy & Painting Society with a few like-minded friends and served as its president for about 30 years.8

In 1972, Tan held his first solo exhibition, after which he decided to switch from Western to Chinese art. His artistic career took off in the mid-1970s as his reputation as a Chinese ink and brush painter grew.9

Tan is now a full-time artist and has a studio in Telok Kurau Studios, which is run by the National Arts Council.10

Artistic career
As a child, Tan grew up reading Chinese comics depicting famous classics such as The Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He would often copy out the cartoons in the comics he read without any guidance.11


It was in his secondary school days in Tuan Mong High School that Tan’s interest in Chinese painting and calligraphy was rekindled. However, when Tan enrolled at NAFA in 1968, there was no course on Chinese painting available so he majored in Western art instead.12

Like all young artists, Tan was all for new ideas and creativity and focused on the Western medium. However, after his first solo exhibition in 1972, he had a change of heart. He realised that his passion was for Chinese traditional arts, such as Chinese ink brush painting, seal carving and calligraphy. Tan decided then that he would drop the Western medium and pursue traditional Chinese art forms instead. Tan then studied the works of Chinese artists in order to learn their techniques and ideas.13

Between 1976 and 1979, Tan held four solo exhibitions in Singapore and Melbourne, Australia, featuring his Chinese ink paintings and calligraphy.14 By then, his skills as an artist adept in Chinese ink painting, calligraphy and seal carving were established and his artistic career took off.15

Since then, Tan’s works have been featured in more than 150 group exhibitions around the world. His works are recognised internationally alongside eminent Nanyang art pioneers such as Aw Tee Hong and Chen Wen Hsi.16 Tan went on to win the National Day Special Art Award twice, in 1978 and 1987, and the Cultural Medallion for Visual Arts in 2001.17

Tan believes that one should be bold and innovative in creative work and explore new mediums of expression. He advises his students to “believe in the new, but not to worship it for its own sake”.18

Thus, although Tan was initially technology resistant, he did not rule out the option of using technology in his works. In 2004, he displayed 50 digital photographs in his 11th solo exhibition, The Art Word of Tan Kian Por. This was the result of two years worth of work during which Tan experimented with scanning his calligraphic works and superimposing them onto digital photographs depicting lotus flowers.19

In 2008, Tan published a book, Journey of the Heart, which featured original artwork made by combining digital pictures of his Chinese calligraphy and seal carvings with images from his art collections of figurines and antiques.20

In recent years, Tan has continued to work in the traditional mediums while at the same time exploring new techniques, such as using computer software to do seal carving.21

Tan remains a humble man. For him, “the best thing in life is to be able to pursue what you want to, meaning that, what you do for a living and what you are passionate about coincides. So, I find that my life is very rich. Everything I do is full of meaning to me”.22

Today, Tan serves as advisor to the Siaw-Tao Chinese Seal-Carving, Calligraphy & Painting Society and lectures at NAFA, his alma mater.23

Stylistic conventions
While Tan has been influenced by the works of renowned artists like Chen Chong Swee, Shi Xiang Tuo, Wu Chang Shou and Ren Bo Nian, he does not restrict himself to one style or subject matter. Rather, Tan’s belief is always to seek to master the essence of the masters and to develop and accentuate one’s own style.24

Applying his earlier Western art training to Chinese brush painting, Tan’s works show an attention to light, realistic treatment of objects and the use of colours. His works include traditional Chinese painting subjects like plum blossoms and chrysanthemums as well as less conventional ones like tropical plants, fruits and flowers. Rambutans, narcissuses, mangosteens, orchids and tropical fish are among his favourite subjects. As for human subjects, Tan especially likes to paint the Indians and Malays of Singapore.25

Tan’s skill in seal carving is also well known. He prefers the baiwen, or seals that imprint the background in red, leaving white characters, sometimes referred to as yin seals.26 He carves in hanzhuan, the ancient Chinese script from the Han dynasty; hanjian, a simplified version of hanzhuan; lishu, the official script from the Han Dynasty; and jianshu, a script that is usually written on bamboo surfaces.27

A distinctive style of Tan’s is his creative use of the picture, calligraphic text and the seal – the three essential elements of Chinese painting – in his works.28 Tan sees his practice in calligraphy, seal carving and painting as inextricably linked. The three elements interplay with one another to complete his artistic thoughts and expressions. Thus in Tan’s paintings, one can see calligraphic texts, drawings and a number of seal prints, all essential in contributing to the complete composition of the work.29

For example, in his art work Letting Go At Heart, the portrait of an old Indian man is framed by Tan’s seals and calligraphy. Tan’s combination of the three elements not only allows him to complete the spatial composition of the work, but also gives him full expression of his thoughts and displays his combined artistic skills.30

Tan continues to find inspiration for his works from things around him and strives to express his own individual style through established art mediums.31

Family
Wife: Poh Bee Choo.32
Daughter: Gloria Tan.33

Awards
34
1978:
National Day Special Art Award, Singapore.

1987: National Day Special Art Award, Singapore.
2000: Calligraphy Award by Tan Keng Cheow.
2001: The Culture Medallion for Visual Arts.
2004: Contribution Award by the Siaw-Tao Chinese Seal-Carving, Calligraphy and Painting Society.

Exhibitions
Solo exhibitions

1972: First solo art exhibition, Singapore.
1976: Second solo exhibition, Modern Chinese Calligraphy, Melbourne, Australia.
1978: Third solo exhibition, Chinese Brush Painting, Melbourne, Australia.
1979: Fourth and fifth solo art exhibitions, Singapore.
1981: Sixth solo exhibition, Modern Chinese Calligraphy, Melbourne, Australia.
1988: Seventh solo exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
2000: Ninth solo exhibition, Singapore.

Group exhibitions
1973: Three Men Art Exhibition, National Library, Singapore.
1975: Contemporary Art Exhibition, Orchard Towers, Singapore.
1977: Two Men Chinese Art Exhibition, Raya Art Gallery, Melbourne, Australia.
1977: Two Men Chinese Brush Painting Exhibition, Grace Art Gallery, Singapore.
1980: 5th Festival of Asian Arts, Singapore.
1982: Two Men Chinese Arts Exhibition, Singapore.
1983: Two Men Chinese Arts Exhibition, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
1984: 1st International Seal-Carving Engraving Art Exhibition, Seoul, Korea.
1985: International Calligraphy Exhibition, Cheng Chow, China.
1986: Exhibition of the International Calligraphy, Seoul, Korea.
1986: Commerce of Singapore and Hong Kong Calligraphy Exhibition.
1987: The International Teochew Artists Exhibition, Singapore.
1987: Modern Art Exhibition, National Museum, Singapore.
1988: One Man Tour Arts Exhibition, Taiwan.
2000: 5th International Chinese Calligraphy Exchange Exhibition, Taipei, Taiwan.
2000: Swatow Art Exhibition, Guang Dong Art Museum & Beijing Art Museum, China.
2001: Walking into the 21st Century Grand Art Exhibition, Singapore.
2001: International Chow Tens Art Exhibition, Beijing, China.
2002: International Painting Exchange Art Exhibition, Japan.
2002: Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan touring art exhibition.
2002: The National Calligraphy (Local Poetry Writing) Exhibition.



Author
Chor Poh Chin



References
1. Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Kian Por. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Kian+Por
2. Tan, S. E. (2001, September 20). The painter’s gentle evolution. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. National Arts Council Singapore. (2012). Cultural Medallion & Young Artist Award Recipients for Visual Arts. Retrieved from National Arts Council website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/art-forms/visual-arts/local-directory/cultural-medallion-young-artist-award-recipients-for-visual-arts
4.
Tan, B. H. (1988, March 29). Carving a new path in painting. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. 吴启基 & 龙国雄 [Wu, Q. J. & Long, G. X.]. (2008, September 23). 书画家陈建坡摄影带来新创作激情 [Shu fa jia Chen Jian Po she ying dai lai xin chuang zuo ji qing]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Kian Por. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Kian+Por
7. 吴启基 & 龙国雄 [Wu, Q. J. & Long, G. X.]. (2008, September 23). 书画家陈建坡摄影带来新创作激情 [Shu fa jia Chen Jian Po she ying dai lai xin chuang zuo ji qing]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts. (2011). Visual artist – Tan Kian Por. Retrieved from http://tfcsea.nafa.edu.sg/artist_biography.aspx?id=13
8. Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts. (2011). Visual artist – Tan Kian Por. Retrieved from http://tfcsea.nafa.edu.sg/artist_biography.aspx?id=13; Tan, S. E. (2001, September 20). The painter’s gentle evolution. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Kian Por. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Kian+Por
9. Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Kian Por. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Kian+Por
10. Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Kian Por. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Kian+Por
11. Tan, B. H. (1988, March 29). Carving a new path in painting. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. 沈帼英 [Shen, K. Y.]. (2000, October 6). 胸藏中华水墨笔写南洋风流 [Xiong cang zhong hua shui mo bi xie nan yang feng liu]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 52; Tan, B. H. (1988, March 29). Carving a new path in painting. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Tan, B. H. (1988, March 29). Carving a new path in painting. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts. (2011). Visual artist – Tan Kian Por. Retrieved from http://tfcsea.nafa.edu.sg/artist_biography.aspx?id=13
15. Tan, S. E. (2001, September 20). The painter’s gentle evolution. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Kian Por. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Kian+Por
16. Tan, S. E. (2001, September 20). The painter’s gentle evolution. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts. (2011). Visual artist – Tan Kian Por. Retrieved from http://tfcsea.nafa.edu.sg/artist_biography.aspx?id=13
18. Tan, S. E. (2001, September 20). The painter’s gentle evolution. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Chow, C. (2004, November 10). Photography from a painter's perspective. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Leong, W. K. (2008, June 26). Heart works go digital. The Straits Times, p. 61. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. 陈建坡 [Chen, J. P.]. (2012). 铁笔朱痕: 陈建坡篆刻集 [Chinese seal carving by Tan Kian Por]. Singapore: Fullhouse Communications, p. 131. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 737.6095957 CJP)
22. Glad daughter does not mind rough hands. (2002, March 29). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Kian Por. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Kian+Por
24. Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 186. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR); Tan, S. E. (2001, September 20). The painter’s gentle evolution. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Tan, B. H. (1988, March 29). Carving a new path in painting. The Straits Times, p. 5; 沈帼英 [Shen, K. Y.]. (2000, October 6). 胸藏中华水墨笔写南洋风流 [Xiong cang zhong hua shui mo bi xie nan yang feng liu]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 52. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. 吴启基 & 龙国雄 [Wu, Q. J. & Long, G. X.]. (2004, November 8). 花心中的五光十色 [Hua xin zhong de wu guang shi se]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. 陈建坡 [Chen, J. P.]. (2012). 铁笔朱痕: 陈建坡篆刻集 [Chinese seal carving by Tan Kian Por]. Singapore: Fullhouse Communications, p. 131. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 737.6095957 CJP)
28. Tan, S. E. (2001, September 20). The painter’s gentle evolution. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 186. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR); 沈帼英 [Shen, K. Y.]. (2000, October 6). 胸藏中华水墨笔写南洋风流 [Xiong cang zhong hua shui mo bi xie nan yang feng liu]. 联合早报 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 52. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 186. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR)
31. Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts. (2011). Visual artist – Tan Kian Por. Retrieved from http://tfcsea.nafa.edu.sg/artist_biography.aspx?id=13
32. Tan, S. E. (2001, September 20). The painter’s gentle evolution. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Glad daughter does not mind rough hands. (2002, March 29). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Tribute.sg. (2012). Tan Kian Por. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Tan+Kian+Por; Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts. (2011). Visual artist – Tan Kian Por. Retrieved from http://tfcsea.nafa.edu.sg/artist_biography.aspx?id=13



Further resources

陈建坡 [Chen, J. P.]. (1988). 陈建坡作品集 [The arts of Tan Kian Por]. 新加坡: 痴黠轩.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 TKP)

陈建坡 [Chen, J. P.]. (2000). 澄怀味象: 陈建坡书画篆刻集 [Cheng huai wei xiang: Chen Jianpo shu hua zhuan ke ji]. 新加坡: 痴黠轩.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING q759.95957 CJP)

陈建坡 [Chen, J. P.]. (2004). 陈建坡的艺术世界: 书画篆刻摄影集 [The art of Tan Kian Por]. 新加坡: 痴黠轩.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 TKP)



The information in this article is valid as at 18 February 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Personalities
Arts