Chen Wen Hsi was a first generation Singapore artist and a seminal pioneer of the Nanyang style. A graduate of the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai, Chen migrated to Singapore after World War II. Here, he embarked on a career as an art teacher that saw him teaching at The Chinese High School and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, and established an art practice that merged Western and Chinese art traditions in a distinctive aesthetic expression that went on to be hugely influential in Singapore art.
Born in Baigong village in Guangdong, China in 1906, Chen Wen Hsi enrolled in the Shanghai College of Art in 1928. Two years later, he transferred to the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai where he met Chen Chong Swee and Liu Kang, who would later become—together with him, Cheong Soo Pieng and Georgette Chen—influential pioneers of the Nanyang style when they moved to Singapore.
After graduation, he established an art practice, holding four solo exhibitions in Shanghai and Guangzhou to much acclaim. In 1946, after the end of World War II, Chen took on a job as a lecturer at the South China College in Shantou, China. A year later, he left China, travelling through much of Southeast Asia before settling in Singapore in 1948, fascinated by the tropical foliage and environs of the Straits Settlements region.
In Singapore, Chen became an art teacher at The Chinese High School and taught there from 1949 to 1968, concurrently teaching art at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts from 1951 to 1959. His teachings as an art educator greatly influenced many of Singapore’s early Chinese artists.
At the same time, he continued practicing art, travelling around the region for inspiration and painting landscapes, human figures and animals as well as making abstract compositions in oils and Chinese inks. His earlier works show the influence of the Post-Impressionist movement, and also show his love for nature, cultivated from his childhood years growing up in a rural village in Guangdong surrounded by animals whose habits he loved to observe.
In Singapore, he sought to replicate that experience, rearing animals such as chickens and gibbons at his home, making them—in addition to other animals encountered on field trips such as cows, ducks, squirrels and carp—the subjects of many of his Chinese ink paintings. He was also fascinated by the diverse ethnic communities in Singapore and created many artworks depicting subjects such as ferry workers, labourers, and Indian and Malay children.
In 1952, he made a historic trip to Bali, Indonesia, together with peers Chen Chong Swee, Liu Kang and Cheong Soo Pieng that resulted in fresh inspiration, a wealth of visual sources and a shift in style. Post-Bali, Chen began working more in oil and ink, and his paintings showed the influences of analytical Cubism and Fauvism, featuring the former’s flat, patterned renderings based on life and Fauvism’s non-naturalistic, exuberant colours which vividly expressed the colourful vibrance and exoticism of Southeast Asia. His Western and traditional Chinese influences also began to merge seamlessly, resulting in artworks with a more distinctive voice.
An example is 1990’s famous Herons which depicts a flock of herons feeding on fishes in a pond. Playing with light and form, space and structure, and combining the re-assembled abstraction of Western Cubism with the balance, symbolism, white space and light touch of Chinese ink painting, Chen created in Herons an unusual sense of logical clutter and peaceful chaos.
Over the decades, Chen painted tirelessly, especially after retiring from teaching in 1968 to concentrate on his art. Through his life, Chen participated in numerous group exhibitions and held numerous solo exhibitions in Singapore and around the world.
For his contributions to Singapore art, Chen received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) in 1964. He also became first Singapore artist to receive an honorary doctorate from the National University of Singapore; the first Singapore artist to receive a Gold Medal by the National Museum of History, Taiwan in 1980; as well as the first recipient of the ASEAN Cultural and Communication Award for outstanding artists in 1987.
In 1991, Chen passed away. The following year, he was awarded a posthumous Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal). His artistic legacy lives on in the practice of Singapore artists, and on the back on the Singapore $50 note, where a portion of his work Two Gibbons Amidst Vines is printed.