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A meeting of image and calligraphy (Amended)
FROM Chinatown scenes and Chinese calligraphy to abstract "crazy" calligraphy and monumental scale paintings - nonagenarian artist Lim Tze Peng seems to have done it all with his Chinese brushes and ink.
And the common thread linking all of the 96-year-old's works for the last seven decades - from Singapore River scenes to big, branch-y trees - is the form of the line.
Chang Yueh Siang, curator of NUS Museum's Lee Kong Chian Collection of Chinese Art, notes: "Ink is not merely a medium or tool for Lim. The brush-line forms the substance of his works. When he thinks about calligraphy, he is considering how he can compose that as an image; and when he paints, he uses calligraphic lines. Eventually, in his later style, image and calligraphy become inseparable."
The exhibition at NUS Museum which opened a couple of weeks ago focuses on Lim's style in his later years, from the millennium onwards. Ms Chang notes how the artist's new stylistic changes came about when he was in his 70s. "These changes that occurred between his 70s and 80s included his Trees series, which accounts for its inclusion. Trees in fact is the subsequent phase to his abstract calligraphy period," explains Ms Chang.
Lim had reached significant milestones of his long career only very late in life, notes art writer Teo Han Wue. The alumni of Chung Cheng High School held his first solo show at the age of 77, in 1998. Five years later, at 82, he was awarded the Cultural Medallion.
The 22 works presented in the exhibition, Evening Climb, span his practice, from on-site renderings of local historical landmarks produced in the 1950s, to the turn of the millennium, as the artist's experimentations with ink and brush grew markedly more dramatic. Ms Chang points out that a significant work presented is Trees (2014), in which Lim pushes the boundaries of composition, colour and scale with a magnified canvas and style, bringing together Western composition techniques, colours reminiscent of the Nanyang tradition, and broad calligraphic brushstrokes to deliver a subject familiar to Chinese ink, nature.
The artist shares in an interview in the exhibition brochure: "Trees, as a subject matter, offer much potential to demonstrate brush strokes. Trees may also remind the viewer of an old man. Trees are full of life, their form is entirely variable, the shapes, the branches, the bark of the tree: These present all sorts of possibilities to exercise the brush stroke."
Ms Chang notes that Lim was very contemporary in his thinking - and that although his practice is grounded in calligraphy, he also feels it is important to not hold rigidly and unchangingly to traditions. "This later stage of his career is marked by a continual attempt to find new ways of expressing himself in ink," she says.
While large-scale works have become popular in recent years, executed by young artists, that Lim began to scale up the dimension of his works in his later years is remarkable, as they're physically demanding to execute. His monumental five-metre-long Singapore River, for example, was completed in 2014 - when he was 94 years old!
Ms Chang notes: "I feel that the confidence to execute his Chinatown or Singapore River scenes on a larger scale also came from having become adept at composing his abstract calligraphy on a larger scale. As he himself says: underpinning his paintings is his calligraphic foundation: having arrived at some maturity with his monumental calligraphy gives him ease in enlarging his landscapes as well."
Lim began painting in his 20s so it's been over 70 years. "That's remarkable dedication and effort that will not be easy to surpass," says Ms Chang.
Art critics and scholars have noted that in composing his abstract calligraphies, in bringing imagery into calligraphic execution, he has made Chinese ink and calligraphy more accessible to a younger audience who might otherwise not have a literary interest in classical Chinese art.
"In his own pursuit of newer ways of developing Chinese ink practice in Singapore, Lim has become one of the Singaporean artists who have produced our very own brand of contemporary Chinese ink," concludes Ms Chang.
- Evening Climb: The Later Style of Lim Tze Peng is on display at the Lee Kong Chian Gallery (Lobby Level) at NUS Museum until May 27, 2017. The works include recent donations to the Lee Kong Chian Collection, pieces from Chung Cheng High School (Main)'s Lim Tze Peng Art Gallery, as well as loans from private collections. Located at 50 Kent Ridge Crescent, the museum's public visiting hours are 10am-6pm, Tue-Sat
Amendement Note: An earlier version of the article incorrectly mentioned Mr Lim Tze Peng as a former principal of Chung Cheng High School. Mr Lim is an alumni member of Chung Cheng High School and a former principal of Xinmin Primary School. The article above has since been corrected to reflect that.