Chen Wen Hsi



Chen Wen Hsi (b. 9 September 1906, Guangdong, China–d. 17 December 1991, Singapore) was one of Singapore’s pioneer artists.1 A prolific painter who worked in a range of styles, Chen won acclaim for combining Western art with Chinese brush strokes in his paintings.2 He was also an influential art teacher at The Chinese High School and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) for many years.

Childhood and early influences
Chen was born in Baigong village in China’s Jieyang county, Chaozhou prefecture, Guangdong province.4 He was the younger of two sons of scholar Chen Ji Kuan.5

From a young age, Chen was interested in the small animals that he saw in his village and around his home. For example, he enjoyed watching sparrows in the courtyard as well as the chickens, ducks and geese reared by his family. Contact with these small animals at an early age instilled in him a great love for pets and animals.6

Chen was also fascinated by the paintings and calligraphic works in his home. He was curious about the paintings and wondered how they were produced, and even tried to create his own using mineral and vegetable colourings.7 One of his favourite pastimes was watching painters decorating the eaves and pillars of houses.8

Education
Chen received his senior primary school education in Jieyang, and was later sent to the city of Shantou for his secondary school education. Chen’s favourite subject in school was art.9 After graduation, Chen decided to study art in Shanghai. His uncle – then head of the household as Chen’s father had passed away – opposed the idea, and wanted him to study law instead. Chen had, however, made up his mind, and his uncle eventually relented and financially supported his education in Shanghai.10

In 1926, Chen enrolled at the Shanghai Art Academy as a student in the art education department.11 At the academy, Chen learnt both Chinese and Western painting techniques. Sculptor Zhang Chenbo and ink painter Pan Tianshou were among his teachers.12

A dispute in the academy in the autumn of 1926 led to unhappiness with the school management, resulting in student protests. Subsequently, a group of teachers left the academy and set up a private art college known as Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts.13 Chen transferred to this school  and became classmates with Liu Kang, Chan Jen Hao and Chen Chong Swee, all of whom would later become Singapore’s pioneer artists.14 Chen graduated from the academy in 1929.15

Early career

After graduating from the Xinhua academy, Chen fell in love with a primary school teacher, Huang Jinzhuang (Ng Kang Chan). The couple married and moved to Shantou where Chen started teaching at Jinshan Secondary School in Chao’an.16 As there was a high demand for art teachers at the time, Chen also concurrently taught at several other schools. Chen enjoyed his teaching stints as he was fond of children who loved art and, in the process, helped nurture many good students.17

In addition to teaching, Chen also found time to stage exhibitions. In the 1930s and early 1940s, he exhibited his artworks in Shantou, Xingning, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and other parts of southern China.18 In 1937, Chen was recognised as one of the top artists in China when his works were selected for display at the Second China National Art Exhibition held in Nanjing.19

Teaching and painting in Singapore
In 1948, Chen embarked on a trip to exhibit his works in Hanoi, Vietnam, and Singapore.20 He arrived in Singapore in 1949, and staged a one-man exhibition at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce with the help of the China Society of Singapore. When his visa expired, then Commissioner-General Malcolm MacDonald and others such as Liu Kang persuaded Chen to settle in Singapore.21

In Singapore, Chen was employed as an art teacher at The Chinese High School from 1949 to 1968, and at NAFA from 1950 to 1959.22 During his lessons, Chen usually asked his students to sketch from life and then he would correct their drawings.23 Chen also gave private art lessons, and among his students was Earl Lu, who became a prominent artist in his own right and an avid art collector.24

Chen retired from teaching in 1968 to devote his attention full-time to his artistic pursuits. He opened the Old and New Gallery at Tanglin Shopping Centre in 1972, and the Chen Wen-Hsi Gallery at the Singapore Handicraft Centre in 1976.25

Painting styles and techniques
Chen, together with his colleagues at NAFA, such as Lim Hak Tai, Liu Kang, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee and Georgette Chen, were Singapore’s pioneer artists. Their works incorporated elements of both traditional Chinese painting and Western art, particularly the School of Paris (a term referring to the styles and techniques used by Parisian artists in their paintings between 1880 and 1910), and this confluence of elements became known as the Nanyang style.26 The works by these Nanyang artists were said to mark the first modern art achievement in Singapore.27


Chen painted both Western and Chinese paintings. His Western-style works in the early 1950s were realistic depictions infused with post-impressionistic and expressionistic elements. Chen’s Western painting style subsequently evolved, moving from simplified forms and strong colours to cubism, and later abstraction. Besides using oil paints for his Western artworks, Chen also experimented with acrylic and viscous paints as well as sand on canvas.28

Although adept at Western oil painting, Chen specialised in Chinese brush painting. His main subject matter was animals like gibbons, egrets and fish.29  He became well known in Asia for his unique and realistic paintings of gibbons, for which he held a lifelong fascination.30

To observe the characteristics and movements of the animals he painted, Chen bought and reared gibbons, fish, birds, squirrels, egrets and peacocks.31 He was said to have a “miniature zoo” in his backyard.32

Chen’s Chinese painting style also changed over time. In the 1950s, Chen’s ink paintings were rendered in the traditional xieyi (写意) style, which is an expressive style of Chinese painting using freehand brushstrokes.33 In the 1960s and 1970s, Chen began to incorporate Western compositional formats in his Chinese paintings. The figures he painted also became simpler and more abstract. In the 1980s and 1990s, Chen’s painting style further evolved with the use of a new technique that combined cubist and semi-abstract expressions.34

Chen was also highly skilled at finger-painting. He first learnt this skill from his teacher Pan Tianshou and his artist-friend Fu Luofei in Shanghai. Over time, Chen also experimented and developed his own style,35 and often demonstrated his finger-painting skill to various audiences, including the king of Thailand.36

Death
Chen died of heart failure on 17 December 1991 at the age of 87. He had been suffering from an abdominal tumour.37

Artworks and legacy
After his death, Chen’s artworks became highly sought-after, fetching exorbitant prices in various auctions. In 1993, Chen’s painting of five gibbons in Chinese ink sold for S$100,000 to a private collector in Taiwan.38  In 1994, three of his oil paintings sold at record prices of over S$100,000 each, making them the most expensive Singapore artwork sold at the time.39

Chen’s works have been featured on Singapore stamps, commemorative ingots as well as EZ-link cards and currency.40 The gibbons in his painting “Two Gibbons Amidst Vines” appear on the reverse side of the S$50 banknote in the portrait series of the Singapore currency.41

The site of Chen’s former residence at 7 Kingsmead Road is now a marked historic site. Chen lived there from the 1960s to 1991.42

Family
Wife:
Huang Jingzhuang (Ng Kang Chan).
Children: Sons Shaorui, Shaoming and Shaofen.43

Selected exhibitions44
1949:
Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Singapore.
1951: Joint exhibition with Chen Chong Swee, Liu Kang and Cheong Soo Pieng.
1953: Joint exhibition with Chen Chong Swee, Liu Kang and Cheong Soo Pieng.
1958: Kuala Lumpur, Malaya.
1960: Victorian Artists’ Society, Melbourne, Australia.
1962: Commonwealth Arts Today exhibition, London, England.
1964: Victoria Memorial Hall, Singapore. 1965: Malaysia Art Exhibition, Commonwealth Festival of Arts, United Kingdom.
1965: Cologne and Duisburg, West Germany.
1966: Artists’ Own Gallery, London, England.
1968: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Oxford, England.
1972: Adelaide Cultural Festival, Australia.
1974: Melbourne, Australia.
1977: Auckland, New Zealand.
1980: National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan.
1982: Chen Wen Hsi Retrospective, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1987: Chen Wen Hsi Retrospective, National Art Museum of China, Beijing.
1989: Hong Kong.
1990: Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan.

Awards
1964: Public Service Star, Republic of Singapore.45
1975: Honorary degree of Doctor of Letters, University of Singapore.46
1980: Gold medal, National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan.47
1987: ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award.48
1992: Meritorious Service Medal (Posthumous), Republic of Singapore.49



Author
Stephanie Ho



References
1. Chen, W. (2006). Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, pp. 423, 433. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE); Goh, B. C. (1991, December 18). Singapore artist Chen Wen Hsi dies at 87. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Yap, C. (1982, November 1). Art show a tribute to Dr Chen.. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Chen, W. (2006). Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 427. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
4. Chen, W., & Zhong, M. (2006). Fifty years of artistic life. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 59. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
5. Chen, W., & Zhong, M. (2006). Fifty years of artistic life. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 59. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
6. Chen, W., & Zhong, M. (2006). Fifty years of artistic life. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 59. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE); Chen, W., & Pan, E. L. (1982). Half a century’s life of an artist. In Chen Wen Hsi retrospective 1982. Singapore: Ministry of Culture and National Museum. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
7. Chen, W., & Pan, E. L. (1982). Half a century’s life of an artist. In Chen Wen Hsi retrospective 1982.  Singapore: Ministry of Culture and National Museum. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
8. Chen, W., & Zhong, M. (2006). Fifty years of artistic life. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 60. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
9. Chen, W., & Zhong, M. (2006). Fifty years of artistic life. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 60. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
10. Oral history interview with artist. (2006). In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 2). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, pp. 14–15. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
11. Andrews, J. F. (2006). Chen Wen Hsi and art education in 1920s Shanghai. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 84. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
12. Andrews, J. F. (2006). Chen Wen Hsi and art education in 1920s Shanghai. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 86. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
13. Andrews, J. F. (2006). Chen Wen Hsi and art education in 1920s Shanghai. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, pp. 87–88. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
14. Oral history interview with artist. (2006). In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 2). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 15. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
15. Chua, K. A. (2006). The artistic path of Mr Chen Wen Hsi. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 107. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
16. Chen, W., & Zhong, M. (2006). Fifty years of artistic life. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 61. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
17. Chen, W., & Zhong, M. (2006). Fifty years of artistic life. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 62. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
18. Chen, W. (2006). Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, pp. 424–426. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
19. Ho, H. Y. (2006). The development of Chen Wen Hsi's western paintings. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 128. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
20. Chua, K. A. (2006). The artistic path of Mr Chen Wen Hsi. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 107. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE); Oral history interview with artist. (2006). In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 2). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 24. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
21. Chua, K. A. (2006). The artistic path of Mr Chen Wen Hsi. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 108. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
22. Chen, W. (2006). Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 427. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
23. Oral history interview with artist. (2006). In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 2). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 28. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
24. Lu, E. (1992). My friendship with Chen Wen Hsi. In A dialogue with tradition: Chen Wen Hsi’s art of the ’80s: In commemoration of pioneer artist Chen Wen Hsi’s investiture. Singapore: The Museum, p. 13. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 DIA)
25. Chen, W. (2006). Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, pp. 431–432. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
26. Sabapathy, T. K. (1980, October 4). Art and artists. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Sabapathy, T. K. (1980, October 4). Art and artists. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Ho, H. Y. (2006). The development of Chen Wen Hsi’s western paintings. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 129. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
29. Toh, L. H. (2006). Pioneering a new visuality – The role of Chen Wen Hsi in the modernization of Chinese ink painting. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 168. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
30. Lord of the apes. (1992, February 4). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Low, S. W. (2006). Introduction to exhibition. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 24. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE); Chen, W. (2006). Fifty years of artistic life. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 65. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
32. Lord of the apes. (1992, February 4). The Straits Times, p. 2; Nayar, P. (2006, December 29). Tracing the evolution of Chen Wen Hsi’s works. The Business Times, p. 29. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Toh, L. H. (2006). Pioneering a new visuality – The role of Chen Wen Hsi in the modernization of Chinese ink painting. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 173. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
34. Toh, L. H. (2006). Pioneering a new visuality – The role of Chen Wen Hsi in the modernization of Chinese ink painting. In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, pp.173–174. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
35. Oral history interview with artist. (2006). In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 2). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, pp. 53–55. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
36. Oral history interview with artist. (2006). In Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 2). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, pp. 25–26. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE); Mr. Chen has art at his finger-tips. (1961, September 30). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Singapore artist Chen Wen Hsi dies at 87. (1991, December 18). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. Goh, B. C. (1993, February 24). Chen Wen Hsi: Art of gold? The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Leong, W. K. (1994, October 11). Three Chen Wen Hsi oils sold at record prices. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Guan, L. (1993, May 3). Stamp of honour. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Chen W. (2006). Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, pp. 431–435. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
41. Chen, W. (2006). Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 434. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
42. National Heritage Board. (2014). Marked historic sites: Former residence of Chen Wen Hsi. Retrieved from National Heritage Board website: http://www.nhb.gov.sg/NHBPortal/Places/HistoricSites
43. Chen, W. (2006). Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 424. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
44. Chen, W. (2006). Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, pp. 426–433. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
45. Chen, W. (2006). Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 429. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
46. Chen, W. (2006). Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 431. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE); Chong, W. H. (1982, November 4). The heart chose art. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
47. Reminiscence of Singapore’s pioneer art masters: Liu Kang, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi. (1994). Singapore: Singapore Mint (Unpaginated) (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 REM)
48. Chen W. (2006). Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1).  Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 432. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE); Asean award-winners honoured at dinner. (1987, August 20). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
49. Chen, W. (2006). Convergences: Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (Vol. 1). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 433. (Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)




Further resources
Chen, W. (1987). Chen Wen Hsi: Paintings. Singapore: Old & New Gallery.
(Call no.: RDTSH 759.95957 CHE)

陈文希 [Chen, W.]. (1990).陈文希回顾展 : 90' 亚洲巡回展--台湾, 中国画大师 / 办, 台北市立美术馆 ; 协办, 新加坡现代画会, 台湾吸引力画廊, 圆画廊 = Chen Wen Hsi retrospective: Taiwan, 1990 Asian travelling exhibition, the master of Chinese paintings. Taipei: Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 CWX)

陈文希 [Chen, W.]. (1991). 陈文希画集 = Paintings by Chen Wen Hsi. Kaoshiung: Grand Art.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 CWX)

Chen, W. (2013). Strokes across eternity: A tribute to Chen Wen Hsi. Singapore: MAD Museum of Art and Design.
(Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)

承前启后破旧立新 = Master of tradition & revolution: The artist and teacher Chen Wen Hsi. (2006). Singapore: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.
(Call no.: Chinese RSING 759.95957 MAS)



The information in this article is valid as at 28 January 2015 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
Arts>>Painting
Artists--Singapore--Biography
Personalities>>Biographies>>Artists
Artists
Arts>>Visual Arts>>Painting
Arts
Painters--Singapore--Biography
Painting
Arts personalities
Chen, Wenxi, 1906-1992