CHEN CHONG SWEE
(1910 - 1985)
Source: Singapore Watercolor Society
He was an artist, teacher
and writer. He had major influence in the development of Singapore art. He was
the first in attempting a synthesis of distinctive aesthetic traditions of the
East and West through pioneering the style known as “Nanyang School” Chinese
Mr. Chen Chong Swee is one of the Singapore Watercolour Society founding members and was the treasurer for many years. His painting subjects were often composed from his surrounding environment and daily life activities for he believed that a painting must be understood and be a recollection of one’s thoughts. The many inspirational masterpieces were form his numerous tours to Bali and East Coast of West Malaysia.
Source: Living2000 - the Cape of Good Hope Gallery
1910 Born in Chenghai County, Guongdong Province, China.
1931 Settled in Singapore.
1985 Passed away in Singapore.
1929 Graduated form Union High School, Shantou, China.
1931 Graduated from Xinhua Arts Academy, Shanghai, China.
1935 Co-founded Salon Art Society, now known as the Singapore Society of Chinese Artists.
1936-75 Lectured Art at :-
Jit Sin Chinese Public School, Penang
Chung Hwa School, Malacca
Tao Nan School, Singapore
Tuan Mong High School, Singapore
Chinese High School, Singapore
Chung Cheng High School, Singapore
Teachers' Training College Singapore ( now The Institute of Education, Singapore)
Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore
1969 Co-founded The Singapore Water Colour Society.
1960-80s Served as member of the Selection Committee of Annual Singapore National Day Art Exhibition. Served as adviser to :-
Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore
Life Art Society, Singapore
San Yi Finger Painting Society, Singapore
Singapore Teachers Art & Craft Association
Served as President & Vice President of :-
Singapore Society of Chinese Artists
Singapore Water Colour Society
Singapore Art Society
1935 Cash award, King George V Silver Jubilee Art Exhibition.
1965 Meritorious Public Service Star of the Republic of Singapore.
1932-80s Participated in various local art exhibition including the yearly national day art exhibition and the yearly exhibition of the various art societies.
Selected to represent Singapore in various overseas exhibitions.
1984 Chen Chong Swee Retrospective, presented jointly by the Ministry of Culture and the National Museum, Singapore.
1993 Chen Chong Swee, His Thoughts, His Art, presented by the National Museum, Singapore.
1998 Passages, selected works of Chen Chong Swee, presented by National Heritage Board, Singapore Art Museum.
1983 The Paintings of Chen Chong Swee - published by Nan Fong Art Company.
1984 Chen Chong Swee Retrospective 1984 - published by the National Museum, Singapore.
1993 Chen Chong Swee : His thoughts, His art - published by the National Museum, Singapore.
1994 Chen Chong Swee Charity Auction, published by Sotheby's Singapore.
Educational Endowment Fund
1995 Established Chen Chong Swee Art Scholarship Fund, Managed by the National Art Council, Singapore.
Chen Chong Swee : HIS THOUGHTS
Source: by Kwok Kian Chow 1993
In the first monograph on the history of art in Singapore and Malaysia, A Concise History of Malayan Art published in 1963, Ma Ge wrote that Chen Chong Swee had received so much recognition for his art to the degree that it overshadowed his significant contribution to art education.' In an article of the same year, Cao Shuming quoted Ma Ge to call attention to Chen’s important work in art education and publication.
Chen Chong Swee was a prolific writer. He frequently contributed articles to newspapers, exhibition catalogues, and magazines published by art associations. These articles contain discussions on aesthetic issues such as the Fundamental differences in Chinese and Western art, the functions of art education, and the need to develop an ink painting relevant to a multicultural environment. These writings provide a wealth of resources not only for understanding Chen’s art theories, but also For characterising the art discourse in Singapore From the 1940s to the 1970s.
In the history of Singapore art, Chen Chong Swee has been acclaimed as the first artist to incorporate local subject matters in the traditional Chinese ink painting.’ Chen’s first attempts to incorporate Malay kampong scenes in ink painting was duly noted in Ma Ge’s monograph. T. K. Sabapathy sees the impetus of the Nanyang Style, the first art movement in Singapore in which Chen was among the key pioneer artists, as a cross-fertilisation between the Chinese painting traditions (the "scroll") and the School of Paris (the "easel"). The spirit of the School of Paris – in its celebration of the artist as a Free and bold creator of new visual languages – stimulated not only the Chinese artists in the 1920s and 1930s, but also the Nanyang artists as they emerged from the Former context (Chen and others were graduates of art academies in Shanghai in the 1930s) to face the challenges sec by the new Southeast Asian environment.
Chen Chong Swee’s path to modernize and localize ink painting was a long and difficult one. His writings over the years provide a glimpse into the complex theoretical platform mounted as a foundation For what appeared as a mere divergence in the depiction of subject matter in ink painting. In the tradition of Chinese art theoretical writings since the beginning of this century, such a discussion had to begin by addressing the fundamental differences in Chinese and Western art.
In an article which Chen wrote for the 1948 annual of the Society of Chinese Artists, he noted that since the days of Maneo Ricci, the Jesuit scholar who brought Western religious images to China in late 16th-to early 17th-century, the introduction of Western art into China was marked by a series of failures, such as the unconvincing works of Lang Shi’ning (Giuseppe Castig-lione, 1688 – 1766). Chen suggested that instead of the Westernization of Chinese art, it would be more fruitful to view the development in Western art since Impressionism as reaching towards the aesthetic ideals of the traditional Chinese ink painting. This process is seen in the Western painting’s increasing emphases on the subjective in artistic intentionality, linearity in pictorial expression, and the preference for extra-worldly subject matters, such as Paul Gauguin’s paintings on Tahiti.
In a 1961 article, Chen noted that the fundamental difference in Western and Chinese art may be discerned through the distinction between Western and Chinese art historical methodologies.’ Chen commented that for Western art, historical categorisation was based on aesthetic attitude and the subject matter of the art works: "The celebration of the revival of the Greek and Roman spirit was known as Neo-Classicism..., the depiction of heroes and beauties with idealistic passion was known as Romanticism..., painting purely landscape was Impressionism... , and pictorial exaggerations based on subj ectivity was Post-Impressionism..."’ Chinese art history, on the other hand, did not categorize according to such criteria: "Whether it was the Northern School of Ma (Yuan) and Xia (Gui), the Southern School of Dong (Yuan) and Ju(-ran), the bonelessXu (Xi) and Huang (Quan), and even the academic painting, the literati...; despite their categorical differentiation, they all comprised a very wide range of subject matters; the pictorial expressions were varied, but the aesthetic ideal was the same." This aesthetic ideal was Xie He’s Six Principles which Chen discussed in greater detail in his other articles (see below).
A further elaboration of the fundamental distinction between Chinese (the term "Eastern" was used in this article) and Western art was featured in the 1965 Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts graduation magazine: "Eastern art is abstruse while Western art is practical; Eastern art is synthetical while Western art is analytical... Chinese painting emphasises the spirit resonance (see below) while Western painting emphasises the feeling of texture; The Chinese stress the ties of friendship in the conduct of human affairs while the Westerners place emphasis on ‘reason’... This is the difference between Eastern and Western cultural dispositions... Today, as means of communications are advanced and sophisticated, there should be a greater exchange of Eastern and Western cultures to enhance mutual integration; Art transcends boundaries that separate nations and facilitates understanding between people."
Chen Chong Swee regarded the unchanging aesthetic ideal in ink painting tradition to have its bases on the Six Principles. Based on Osvald Siren’s translation of the original 5th-century Xie He’s text, the Six Principles
The first is: Spirit Resonance (or, Vibration of Vitality) and Life Movement;.
The second is: Bone Manner (i.e., Structural) Use of the Brush;
The third is: Conform with the Objects to Give Likeness;
The fourth is: Apply the Colours according to the Characteristics;
The fifth is: Plan and Design, Place and Position (i.e., Composition);
The sixth is: To Transmit Models by Drawing.
Chen wrote in an inscription on his painting, A Village Scene (1974):
What may be considered as a true painting is one that is able to capture thoroughly both the appearance and fundamental elements of a physical form. The reason why the Six Principles are the (unchanging) principles, it is precisely because of this (thoroughness).
In subsequent lines, Chen emphasized the need to apply the Six Principles according to the requirement of the subject matter of the painting. In painting Southeast Asian subject matters, the unchanging principles should be applied, though without restricting oneself to the traditional ink or brush methods:
By employing the traditional cun-textural ink methods, one can hardly bring out on paper the greenery, lush and luxuriant splendour of landscapes in South-east Asia. An integrated approach, incorporating the techniques of various schools of painting, is therefore adopted for this purpose – never mind the mixing-up of the Northern and Southern accents.
Chen apparently came to his decision to adhere to the Six Principles after attempts to incorporate chiaroscuro method in ink painting. The following inscription is found on a 1950 painting, A Kampong:
In painting scenes of South-east Asia, I employ mainly techniques of Chinese painting. The use of yinyang (chiaroscuro) approach for this painting is my first attempt of this kind. This is not to be repeated as it is against my principle.
In the scheme of the Six Principles, Chen regarded (1961) the contribution of a Western art learning to ink painting was restricted to the third principle, "Conform with Objects", i.e., representational methods." It was important for a student of ink painting to fully comprehend all the six principles in order to create good ink works.
In teaching ink painting, on the other hand, Chen Chong Swee elevated representational method to a position of foremost importance, a point of contention between him and Chen Wen Hsi who did not agree that ink painting should first be learnt through painting from nature." Chen Chong Swee’s emphasis may be understood in the context of what he conceived to be the purposes of art (1968):
Art is a part of life and cannot exist independently from real life. Art must be objective. If it fails to be accepted by another person, it loses its essence of universality and can no longer exist as art. If a work of art fails to embody truth, goodness and beauty, it cannot be regarded as a true work of art.
Evocation of sympathetic understanding in others by aesthetic means is the fundamental task of an artist.
In addition to sympathetic understanding, evoking in others a sense of admiration and appreciation of our life appropriately beautified by art, is a brilliant technique of an artist.
Furthermore, in addition to a sense of admiration and appreciation, evoking in others empathy with our life by aesthetic means so that they may, together with you, be steeped in the vision of beauty, is the mission of an artist.
Chen’s realist position in art had been consistent. In an earlier article (1960), he stressed the communicative function of art:
If you are an artist and do not want yourself kept within the confines of an ivory tower, you will be able to appreciate the social value of the arts. A great work of art does not end at the superficial stage of artistic decoration. The arts are about using the subtle aesthetic influence to evoke empathy in people. We must bear in mind that the arts serve as a bridge of communication, in ideas and emotions, between people. Only a vibrant work is a living work of art, widely accepted as such by the people.
Whereas the aesthetic ideal of Chinese art based on the Six Principles would always remain constant, Chen’s proclamation on the communicative function of art, on the other hand, was based on a concept of art historical evolution. Chen saw (1947) the visual arts in the feudal society as a plaything of the ruling classes and the socially privileged literati. Art was denied to the ordinary people. This was the condition within which Chinese art developed. Chen recognised (1973) the time of the Eight Eccentric Painters of Yangzhou (18th-century) as an important demarcation in Chinese art history:
The Eight Eccentric Painters of Yangzhou of Qing dynasty sought to protest against artists of that time who served only the affluent and the influential class, who eulogised the "Emperor" and even stooped servilely to be honoured and titled, who voluntarily abandoned the independence of the arts and reduced the arts to "offerings to the Emperor". The reason why the Eight Eccentric Painters of Yangzhou were praised and well received by the people at that time was that they freed themselves from the fetters of the arts and returned to the embrace of the "people", meaning mainly scholars of that time. Domination of the arts, shifted from the rich and influential class to the scholars, did bring some changes in form and content.
The contemporary art historical phase was a further development from the time of the Eight Eccentric Painters of Yangzhou:
In a world enjoying freedom of thinking and speech, unreasonable phenomena, kindness or degeneration of society, tragedies or comedies of the mortal world, heroic and moving deeds, could all be expressed fully through different art forms. The era of the Eight Eccentric Painters of Yang-zhou, with its prosperity for ambiguity and sentiments implicit in objects and poems, is over.
In the current period of Freedom of expression, it would follow that ink painting should no longer be "crossing the bridge on the donkey, fishing in the winterly lake, and the sounds of the old temple bell...; if during the Song dynasty there was Life Along the River on the Eve of the Qingming Festival (by Zhang Zeduan, late 11th- to early 12th-century), why shouldn’t we have a painting like ‘Life Along the Singapore River’ ?" Below are two proposals by Chen on the renewal of ink painting written in 1967 and 1974 respectively. The earlier version is more passionate and confrontational:
What should be the content of our ink painting in view of the change in social and geographical circumstances? I propose:
(1) The depiction of actual sceneries. Although my own experience tells me that capturing aeroplanes, atomic bombs, bungalows and tarred roads in ink painting is not easy, we do need to find a way...
(2) The merger of literature and painting as a basic characteristic of Chinese art must be preserved. However, why not feel free about adding English or Malay inscriptions to ink painting in order to enhance its appeal.
The later version is more subdued, but with a tone of certainty following his further experiments in ink painting:
(1) Techniques of Western art should be incorporated;
(2) New subject matters should be accommodated;
(3) Modern life should be depicted.
Chen continued with specific recommendations on the preservation of the traditional spirit in Chinese painting:
(1) The various traditional formats of ink painting such as the hanging scroll, hand scroll and album leaf should be preserved;
(2) Linearity should be the basic structural element of painting, supplemented by colour; in the case of boneless works, the brushwork should revolve round the structural forms and the application of colour should be sprightly and clear to avoid resemblances to watercolour; [cf. Xie He’s second principle: Bone Manner]
(3) Objects in painting should harmonize with one another;
(4) Voids and solids should be well balanced in the composition; [cf. Xie He’s fifth principle: Plan and Design]
(5) Painting should be implicit rather than explicit;
(6) Painting should convey a literary perspective which is characteristic of Chinese art.
Chen Chong Swee was a leading artist, art educationist, and arts writer in Singapore in the 1940s to 1970s. The current essay has thus far attempted to delineate the theoretical infrastructure that supported Chen’s endeavours to modernize and localize Chinese ink painting: from Chen’s concept of the fundamental differences in Chinese and Western art, the Six Principles perceived as the constant aesthetic ideal of Chinese art, the social purposes of art, to Chen’s concept of art historical evolution which supported his view of contemporary art as having a communicative function.
Chen’s writings on art are not limited to the above topics discussed. His writings also serve as important primary sources for Singapore art history. His most comprehensive article on Singapore art history is Singapore Art Circle in the Past Four Decades: A Retrospective (1969) which has a section on the visual arts in Singapore in the late 1920s. Mention was made of the Nanyang shuhuashe ("Nanyang Society of Calligraphy and Painting") founded in 1929 as the first art society in Singapore and Malaysia." In the same article, Chen also discussed the visual arts activities of the Japanese residents during the Japanese occupation of Singapore, the growth of caricature practice and the advertising industry in Singapore. The inclusion of the above topics demonstrated Chen Chong Swee’s view of art history as unrestricted to the traditional categories of painting and sculpture.
In the same article, Chen also wrote on Le Mayeur, the Belgian artist who resided in Bali and who exhibited in Singapore in the late 1930s. Le Mayeur’s images of Bali would have influenced Singapore artists’ perception of Bali and were important visual sources for the Singapore pioneer artists prior to their historical field trip there in 1952. Chen wrote:
A Belgian artist who settled in Bali put up an art exhibition in Singapore in 1938 (?). This Belgian artist originally wanted to go to Tahiti as he had a yearning for the type of life led by the Post-Impressionist artist Gauguin. On his way there he passed through Bali and found that there was no place on earth like Bali – its dancing and singing so soul-stirring and its women so vigorous and graceful. Hence, he settled down at the stretch of Bali beach fronting the Indian Ocean. As the standard of living in Bali was very low, the proceeds from the sale of a few paintings were enough to support him for a few years. It was around the summer of 1938 that he held a second art exhibition in Singapore. Before the opening of the exhibition, the Belgian consul held a reception on his behalf for people in the art circle at a house at Holland Road. I remembered seeing many large landscape paintings of his done during his travel in India. His works were executed with free-flowing and bold, strong strokes, in bright and gay colours. Figures dominated his Bali paintings. His works, be they sketches done in light colours or bright-coloured oil paintings, showed that they were inspired by the bright and clear tropical sunlight. His brightly-clad energetic and graceful dancers, dancing to the beat of the drums and bells, or his weaving women, kneeling beside the loom weaving sarong cloth, fully demonstrated the tranquil and fine life of the Balinese. The painting partner (who later became his wife) he brought along, attired in traditional Balinese costumes, was on hand to receive guests. She offered herself for photographs bare-breast. This created quite a stir in Singapore.
During the 1952 Bali field trip Chen Chong Swee made with Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng and Liu Kang, Chen drafted an unfinished essay, A Profile of Bali. Chen wrote that the Dutch in promoting Bali as the paradise on earth to generate revenue from tourism marketed the island internationally as "Eden, Gem Island, Island of Poetry, Island of Dream, etc." The term, "Nudist Empire" was popular then amongst people in Nanyang. Prior to visiting Bali, Chen was told a vulgar description of Bali as a place where there were women with breasts so huge that they would knock an approaching pedestrian off the road. "Although this is a joke," Chen wrote rhetorically to turn this description into acknowledging the elegance of Balinese women, "it is a fairly accurate description of Bali; Bali is indeed a women’s empire; the robust beauty of Balinese women and the pastoral scenery form an excellent painting." Chen and company stayed in Bali for more than three weeks and visited many locations on the island. They also attended a flamboyant Balinese cremation ceremony and spoke with many Balinese, "from royalties to women and children in the villages.
On another occasion Chen wrote (1965) about women artists. Chen noted that they had been many important women artists in Chinese cultural history who did not subject themselves to the feudal edict that women without talents and skills were virtuous. Chen commented that given half of human kind were women there were, however, proportionately too few prominent women in all fields. Chen commended the Chinese Women’s Association for its visual arts programmes which provided women opportunities to participate in cultural activities.
Chen Chong Swee was a keen observer and writer in all aspects of visual arts culture. Chen praised the work of Pablo Picasso. He lamented on the low priority given to art in formal education. Chen commended on-the-spot art competitions but questioned aspects of art exhibition practices in Singapore. Chen discussed the need for a national art gallery and collection, and a national art built upon the Western, Chinese and Indian civilizations.
In Chen Chong Swee’s writings, it is observed that Chen was an artist deeply concerned with the larger issues of visual culture and art history. In Ma Ge’s A Concise History of Malayan Art, the author identified Chen Chong Swee, together with Liu Kang, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi, Georgette Chen Li Ying, Lim Cheng Hoe and the Penang artist, Chuah Thean Teng as the pioneer artists in shaping a Malayan consciousness in the visual arts. Drawing reference to Lim Hak Tai, the founder of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’s notion of Nanyang Art, T. K. Sabapathy and others have identified the former six artists to be the pioneer artists of the Nanyang Style. The Nanyang Style as an art historical topic will continue to be discussed for a long time to come. Chen Chong Swee played a pivotal role in both the visual linguistic and art theoretical formation of the Nanyang Style. Chen, in fact, went further to deal with universal issues such as the purposes of art and the modernisation of ink painting.