Stroll down Kingsmead Road in Bukit Timah and you might spot a colourful abstract mural on an external wall of a bungalow – one of the last surviving signs that a certain pioneer artist once lived there.
The property belonged to the late Singaporean painter Chen Wen Hsi, who called it home from the late 1950s till his death in 1991.
He is perhaps best known for his paintings of gibbons, two of which are printed on the back of Singapore’s $50 note.
For the past two decades, the two-storey house has been the home of artist Tay Joo Mee and her family. But the $15-million property has since been sold again and before it changes hands, its doors will open to the public for a showcase of Chen’s works.
Homecoming: Chen Wen Hsi Exhibition @ Kingsmead runs at the artist’s former residence from April 12 to May 3, with about 20 figurative, abstract and calligraphy paintings in different parts of the house. It is organised by Artcommune Gallery, curated by Mr Johnny Quek, director of Merlin Gallery, and partially funded by the National Arts Council. Most of the paintings will come from Mr Quek’s private collection.
“The public will have the opportunity to be at the artist’s house and, at the same time, see his outstanding artworks… The murals are an important landmark for the house,” says Mr Quek, 72.
Artists in residence
After Tay and her husband bought the property in 1998, the old house was demolished and rebuilt, although some structures, such as the mural’s wall – which has another abstract mural on its other side – were retained.
The first mural, titled Studio, was painted in the late 1950s, according to second-generation artist Wong Keen, one of Chen’s former students. Then a teenager, Wong assisted the older artist while he worked on it.
He feels that the mural has Cubist aspects and some affinities with the work of Spanish painter Joan Miro.
“I believe it also contains Nanyang-style characters and landscapes,” adds Wong, who turns 77 this year and is based in the United States. “The shapes are deformed… You could say this is a boat, or that is a Malay scene… But that’s not really important. It’s beautiful. Everything seems to work, shape-wise, colour-wise. No space is wasted. It’s a full, complete picture.”
Nanyang style of art
Chen was born in 1906 in Baigong village, Guangdong. He attended Shanghai’s Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts, where he met Chen Chong Swee and Liu Kang.
The three artists, together with artists Cheong Soo Pieng and Georgette Chen, pioneered the Nanyang style in Singapore.
The Nanyang style refers to art in South-east Asia that marries Chinese and Western styles and techniques of painting.
In 1949, Chen Wen Hsi settled in Singapore and taught at The Chinese High School, now known as Hwa Chong Institution, as well as the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa).
The prolific painter’s works feature Chinese as well as Western influences. They can fetch six-figure sums and are often the subject of forgery.
The upcoming exhibition will include abstract as well as figurative ink paintings of animals such as gibbons, fish and cranes.
Then there is an oil painting of crab – from a surprise haul in 1999, when artist Tay and her husband Greg Seow chanced upon a trove of about 30 paintings by Chen in the attic of the old house.
The architect they had hired to redesign the building was inspecting the roof when he stumbled upon the attic. It was not long before they found the stacks of dusty paintings inside. The couple handed the works over to Chen’s second son, Chen Siew Min, who let them keep the crab painting.
Tay says: “I was shocked… I was so busy trying to dust them. Every painting was fantastic.”
During the exhibition, a 3D model of the old house, sponsored by DP Architects, will help visitors imagine what it used to look like.
Artefacts from Chen’s life, such as his art books, will also be on display.
Chen’s third son David Chen, 74, says he lived at the Kingsmead Road house with his parents, two elder brothers and a Nafa student who helped with housework.
His late father gave group painting lessons in the living room and worked in a studio on the right of the entrance.
One of Chen’s former students, the late surgeon Earl Lu, recalled in a 1976 essay on the master artist: “His large sitting room is simply furnished, but its walls glitter with oils and watercolours painted by himself or by others.
“His private workshop is a small, well-lit study next to the sitting room. Here, he stores his huge collection of original paintings, antique porcelain, art books and periodicals from all over the world.”
Chen famously maintained a “miniature zoo” in his garden, with gibbons, ducks, chickens, peacocks, squirrels, and fish.He observed the animals closely and they informed his work.
“Every day, he stood there (in front of the cage) and looked at their behaviour,” recalls the younger Mr Chen, founder of Studio Industrial Design.
He says his father had a strong work ethic. “If he didn’t like a painting, he would put it in a steel dustbin and burn it (in the garden). My mother would try to salvage them, but he refused to let her keep them.”
Mr Quek, who started collecting Chen’s works in the 1970s and has amassed hundreds of them, says none of the paintings at the exhibition will be for sale.
Artist Wong would like to see a museum dedicated to Chen’s works one day.
He says: “His Chinese painting eventually merges with Western painting. At the end, you can see some of his colourful crane paintings, which are quite abstract.
“If he had lived a longer life, I don’t know what he would have done – there might be more exciting, less controlled types of paintings.”
VIEW IT / HOMECOMING: CHEN WEN HSI EXHIBITION @ KINGSMEAD
WHERE: 5 Kingsmead Road
WHEN: April 12 to May 3, noon to 7.30pm daily
FOR MORE DETAILS: E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published in The Straits Times.