Tan Kian Por
by Chor, Poh Chin
Tan Kian Por (陈建坡; b. 26 November 1949, Chaozhou, China–d. 16 August 2019, Singapore) was a Chinese calligrapher, painter and seal carver.1 His paintings have a distinctive style, and have been displayed in major art galleries in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea.2 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.3 For his contributions to the local art scene, Tan was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Visual Arts in 2001.4
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.5 Tan first enrolled in Guangyang Primary School and subsequently studied at Tuan Mong High School.6
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.7 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.8
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.9
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.10 Together with two friends, he started Sentosa Art Centre in 1976, selling the works of local artists as well as tourist souvenirs for the next 16 years.11
When Telok Kurau Studios, run by the National Arts Council, started in 1997, Tan took up a studio there till about 2015.12
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.13
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.14
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.15
Between 1976 and 1979, Tan held four solo exhibitions in Singapore and Melbourne, Australia, featuring his Chinese ink paintings and calligraphy.16 By then, his skills as an artist adept in Chinese ink painting, calligraphy and seal carving were established, and his artistic career took off.17
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.18 Tan went on to win the National Day Special Art Award twice, in 1978 and 1987, and the Cultural Medallion for Visual Arts in 2001.19
Tan believed that one should be bold and innovative in creative work and explore new mediums of expression. He advised his students to “believe in the new, but not to worship it for its own sake”.20 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.21
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.22 Subsequently, Tan continued to work in the traditional mediums while at the same time exploring new techniques, such as using computer software to do seal carving.23 Tan remained 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.”24
Tan was also advisor to the Siaw-Tao Chinese Seal-Carving, Calligraphy & Painting Society, and lectured at his alma mater NAFA.25
While Tan was influenced by the works of renowned artists like Chen Chong Swee, Shi Xiang Tuo, Wu Chang Shou and Ren Bo Nian, he did not restrict himself to one style or subject matter. Rather, Tan’s belief was always to seek to master the essence of the masters and to develop and accentuate one’s own style.26
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 liked to paint the Indians and Malays of Singapore.27
Tan was also well-known for his skill in seal carving. He preferred baiwen, or seals that imprint the background in red, leaving white characters, sometimes referred to as yin seals.28 He carved 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.29
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.30 Tan considered his practice in calligraphy, seal carving and painting to be 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 of which are essential in contributing to the complete composition of the work.31 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 allowed him to complete the spatial composition of the work, but also gave him full expression of his thoughts, thus displaying his combined artistic skills.32
Tan continued to find inspiration for his works from things around him and strove to express his own individual style through established art mediums.33
Tan Kian Por passed away on 16 August 2019 in Sengkang Hospital. He had been bedridden for two and a half years following a stroke.34
Wife: Poh Bee Choo35
Son: 陈怀泽 [Chen Huaize]36
Daughter: Gloria Tan37
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 & Painting Society.
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.
2015: Poems of Lightness, Singapore, and Beijing, China.39
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, Guangdong Art Museum, and 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.
Chor Poh Chin
1. “Tan Kian Por,” TributeSG, accessed 21 August 2019; Xie Yanyan 谢燕燕, “Shuhua qiaochu chunjianpo shìshì” 书画翘楚陈建坡逝世 [Chen Jianpo, a master of calligraphy and painting, passed away], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 17 August 2019, 6. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
2. TributeSG, “Tan Kian Por”; Tan Shzr Ee, “The Painter’s Gentle Evolution,” Straits Times, 20 September 2001, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Tan, “Painter’s Gentle Evolution.”
4. TributeSG, “Tan Kian Por.”
5. Tan Ban Huat, “Carving a New Path in Painting,” Straits Times, 29 March 1988, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Wu Qiji and Long Guoxiong 吴启基 and 龙国雄, “Shuhua jia chenjianpo sheying dai lai xin chuangzuo jiqing” 书画家陈建坡摄影带来新创作激情 [Calligraphy and painter Chen Jianpo's photography brings new creative passion], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 23 September 2008, 30 (From NewspaperSG)
7. TributeSG, “Tan Kian Por.”
8. Wu Qiji and Long Guoxiong, “Shuhua jia chenjianpo sheying dai lai xin chuangzuo jiqíng”; “Visual Artist – Tan Kian Por,” Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts, accessed 21 August 2019.
9. Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts, “Tan Kian Por”; Tan, “Painter’s Gentle Evolution”; TributeSG, “Tan Kian Por.”
10. TributeSG, “Tan Kian Por.”
11. Xie Yanyan, “Shuhua qiaochu chunjianpo shìshì.”
12. TributeSG, “Tan Kian Por”; Wu Qiji 吴启基, “Hua cai lou bi gao fei chu wu” 画彩楼笔高飞矗舞 [Painting the color building pen flying high and dancing], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 1 February 1997, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Zhou Yanbing 周雁冰, “Yìshujiamen” 艺术家们 [artists], I Report 我报, 19 October 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
13. Tan, “Carving a New Path in Painting.”
14. Shen Peiying 沈帼英, “Xiong cang zhong hua shui mo bi xie nan yang feng liu” 胸藏中华水墨笔写南洋风流 [Chest Tibetan Chinese ink pen to write Nanyang Merry], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 6 October 2000, 52 (From NewspaperSG); Tan, “Carving a New Path in Painting.”
15. Tan, “Carving a New Path in Painting.”
16. Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts, “Tan Kian Por.”
17. Tan, “Painter’s Gentle Evolution”; TributeSG, “Tan Kian Por.”
18. Tan, “Painter’s Gentle Evolution.”
19. Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts, “Tan Kian Por.”
20. Tan, “Painter’s Gentle Evolution.”
21. Clara Chow, “Photography from a Painter's Perspective,” Straits Times, 10 November 2004, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Leong Weng Kam, “Heart Works Go Digital,” Straits Times, 26 June 2008, 61. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Chen Jiapo 陈建坡, Tie bi zhu hen: Chen Jianpo zhuan ke ji 铁笔朱痕: 陈建坡篆 [Chinese seal carving by Tan Kian Por] (Singapore: Fullhouse Communications, 2012), 131. (Call no. Chinese RSING 737.6095957 CJP)
24. “Glad Daughter Does Not Mind Rough Hands,” Straits Times, 29 March 2002, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
25. TributeSG, “Tan Kian Por.”
26. Venkat Purushothaman, ed., Narratives: Notes on a Cultural Journey: Cultural Medallion Recipients 1979–2001 (Singapore: National Arts Council, 2002), 186 (Call no. RSING 700.95957 NAR); Tan, “Painter’s Gentle Evolution.”
27. Tan, “Carving a New Path in Painting”; Shen Peiying, “Xiong cang zhong hua shui mo bi xie nan yang feng liu.”
28. Wu Qiji and Long Guoxiong 吴启基 and 龙国雄,“Hua xin zhong de wu guang shi se” 花心中的五光十色 [Colorful flowers in the heart], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 8 November 2004, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Chen Jiapo, Tie bi zhu hen, 131.
30. Tan, “Painter’s Gentle Evolution.”
31. Purushothaman, ed., Notes on a Cultural Journey, 186; Shen Peiying, “Xiong cang zhong hua shui mo bi xie nan yang feng liu
32. Purushothaman, ed., Notes on a Cultural Journey, 186.
33. Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts, “Tan Kian Por.”
34. Xie Yanyan, “Shuhua qiaochu chunjianpo shìshì.”
35. Tan, “Painter’s Gentle Evolution.”
36. Xie Yanyan, “Shuhua qiaochu chunjianpo shìshì.”
37. “Glad Daughter Does Not Mind Rough Hands.”
38. TributeSG, “Tan Kian Por”; Tanoto Foundation Centre for Southeast Asian Arts, “Tan Kian Por.”
39. Leong Weng Kam, “See the Poetic Light,” Straits Times, 4 September 2015, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
Chen Jianpo 陈建坡, Chenjianpo zuopin ji陈建坡作品集 [The arts of Tan Kian Por] (Singapore: Crazy House, 1988). (Call no. Chinese RSING 759.95957 TKP)
Chen Jianpo 陈建坡, Cheng huai wei xiang: Chen Jianpo shu hua zhuan ke ji 澄怀味象: 陈建坡书画篆刻集 [Clarifying the taste of the image: Chen Jianpo's calligraphy, painting and seal cutting collection] (Singapore: Crazy House, 2000). (Call no. Chinese RSING q759.95957 CJP)
Chen Jianpo 陈建坡, Chenjianpo de yishu shijie: Shuhuqa zhuanke sheying 陈建坡的艺术世界 : 书画篆刻摄影集 [Chen Jianpo's Art World: Photography Collection of Calligraphy, Painting and Seal Cutting] (Singapore: Crazy House, 2004). (Call no. Chinese RSING 759.95957 TKP)
Leong Weng Kam, “Collectors and Artists Put On Show,” Straits Times, 27 September 2014, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
Leong Weng Kam, “Hongbao, Card Present the Best of Local Art,” Straits Times, 28 January 2017, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
Leong Weng Kam, “Malaysia Stones Given the Seal of Approval,” Straits Times, 28 January 2015, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
Tan Kian Por, oral history interview by Loke Tai Tay, 20 September 2010, MP audio, 37:54, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 003447)
Tham Yuen-Ching, “Painting Our Own Canvas,” Straits Times, 29 November 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
The information in this article is valid as at August 2019 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.