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Georgette Chen's paintings Hakka Family and Malay Wedding on display at National Gallery Singapore.

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Affandi's canvas At The Beach showcased at Art Agenda SEA.

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Sujak Rahman's batik work Neighbours at ArtSpace @ Helutrans.

In art, old is gold

Three exhibitions of late or late-career Singapore artists, from Georgette Chen to Sujak Rahman, are worth making time for.
27/11/2020 - 05:50

Georgette Chen: At Home In The World
National Gallery Singapore
From now till Sept 26 , 2021

AMONG Singapore's visual arts pioneers, there is none who captures the imagination quite like Georgette Chen (1906 - 1993). Scion of a wealthy and powerful entrepreneur, wife of an influential diplomat, a well-travelled cosmopolitan with effortless style, Chen seemed predestined for the limelight - even if the vocation she picked for herself was one that was frowned upon for women then.

In the photographs taken of her as a young woman, she never looked less than chic and radiant, wearing the latest fashion of the times. But it's her painted self-portraits that crystalised her image: The cool gaze, confident chin, long jawline and artfully coiffed hair. They convey an undefinable mélange of sex appeal, charisma and steely determination.

Chen was no typical "It girl" who achieves status by being attractive and doing nothing particularly lasting. She was a genuinely talented and ambitious artist, driven by her own internal critical voice to hone her painting skills and break new ground. And evidence of this abounds in the new retrospective exhibition opening on Nov 27 at the National Gallery Singapore.

Spread across two galleries, Georgette Chen: At Home In The World is a large-scale survey featuring 69 important artworks and 74 archival materials. The Gallery's curators searched far and wide for mementos, and found some priceless artefacts such as rare photographs, personal letters and published documents.

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They come together to chronicle a life and a talent so epic in proportions, it's small wonder Chen is the only Singapore icon who has to her name a TV docudrama starring Rui En as Chen, a stage musical written by Ng Yi-Sheng, and a graphic novel told by Sonny Liew.

Chen was born in 1906 to a wealthy family in Zhejiang Province in China. Her father was an antique dealer who ran businesses in Paris, London and New York. The family soon moved to Paris where Chen grew up gazing at great art in museums.

When she turned 20, her father's money and connections allowed her to enter the Art Students League Of New York. But she subsequently returned to Paris to study art there instead, preferring the life of Parisians.

In 1930, she married the influential diplomat Eugene Chen, who rose to become the first foreign minister to Sun Yat-Sen's government. Encouraged and supported by her husband, Chen honed her practice and held exhibitions in New York, Shanghai and Paris. After his death in 1944, she moved to Penang in 1951 to teach art at a high school, and then to Singapore in 1953 to teach art part-time at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. She acquired a palate for the local cuisine, learnt to speak good Malay, and was especially fond of painting Sikh guards and Buddhist monks.

It was here in Singapore that her Western art sensibilities melded with the colours, climate and characteristics of the country to create a distinct visual vocabulary. Together with fellow Chinese migrant artists Liu Kang, Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee and Cheong Soo Pieng, she pioneered the Nanyang art movement.

Among the standout works in National Gallery's show are her still lifes, which bear the influences of Van Gogh and Cezanne in the vibrant depiction of tropical fruits. (Her friends called her a "rambutan specialist".) Her en plein air paintings are notable for their expressive movement and perspectives. She was a fast painter who could capture the essence of a scene before it dissipated, as evidenced in paintings such as Malay Wedding and Trengganu Market Scene.

She was also a gifted and empathetic portraitist: Her many portraits feature a wide array of sitters from different racial and socioeconomic classes. In 1974, Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya (Association Artists of Various Resources), an association of largely Malay artists, gave out its distinguished award - a precursor to the Cultural Medallion - to Chen.

Her pieces de resistance are no doubt her two biggest paintings, Hakka Family (1939) and Family Portrait (1954), both measuring approximately 162cms by 130cms. Each depicts a family unit of four or five, with nearly every character displaying an individual set of attitudes and vulnerabilities. Yet each image is brilliantly cohesive, inviting the viewer into a direct intimacy with her subjects.

In art as in real life, Chen always knew how to draw and hold the viewer's gaze.

To Sea
Art Agenda SEA,
Tan Boon Liat Building
From now till Jan 15, 2021

Art Agenda's latest selling exhibition, To Sea, is a small but substantial showcase of 12 works by mostly Singapore and Indonesian artists, depicting bodies of water. Its biggest and most important work is At The Beach (1982) by Indonesian art giant Affandi, a large 121cm by 240cm canvas showing a furious series of waves crashing against rocks.

It was painted at the Parangtritis beach some 30km south of Yogyakarta, and there's even a video document of Affandi standing right before the ocean, vigorously applying brushstrokes on the canvas, as if in a trance. The work is for sale for S$1 million.

At the lower end of the price spectrum are paintings by Arthur Yap (S$15,000), AD Pirous (S$12,000) and Teng Nee Cheong (S$21,800), each a small work executed in abstract, cubist and realist styles respectively. Teng's painting is particularly lovely because the image is suffused in a dreamy haze like an old Technicolor film.

Even Georgette Chen makes an appearance in this show. Her work titled Calm Waters (1959) depicts boats gently bobbing in the waters of the midday sea. Though simple in composition, it eloquently captures an idyllic Singapore before the advent of industrialisation.

Other notable artists in this exhibition include Lee Man Fong, Chua Ek Kay and Zaini.

Sujak Rahman - Return: Retrospective 1978 -2020
ArtSpace @ Helutrans,
Tanjong Pagar Distripark
From now till Nov 29, 2020

Senior batik artist Sujak Rahman, 71, has long combined batik art with modern art techniques. For over 40 years, he has delved into abstraction and figuration, rendering his images in a fusion of batik techniques, acrylic paint and sometimes even charcoal and sand.

In this retrospective organised by T.H.E.O. Arts Professionals, the artist is showcasing 40 of his works, many of which feature his trademark 'Temasek batik' techniques derived from traditional and experimental methods of batik art.

One of his best works is Neighbours (1978), a striking depiction of the doors, corridors and stairwells of the one-room HDB flat in Taman Jurong that Sujak and his wife moved into when they were young and newly-married. The artist uses traditional yellow and brown dyes to create a dour and foreboding image, encapsulated in the outlines of a seashell as a symbol of home and protection.

Meanwhile, several works feature a multiplicity of coy female faces, which Sujak interprets as masks people wear to dissemble and protect themselves from the rest of the world.

All works are priced from S$6,000 to S$25,000, and there will be an artist talk on Nov 28 at 4pm at ArtSpace @ Helutrans.