Modern Art Society Singapore (MASS)

This document on the Modern Art Society is written by Kwok Kian Chow.

This document is part of a joint project of the Singapore Art Museum and the Honours Core Curriculum, National University of Singapore. would like to thank Kwok Kian Chow for his support on the endeavors of This article has been reformatted for html by MASS (Modern Art Society) member. This article, freely available from the NUS archive server, has been stored here for its historical importance.


The Social Realist orientation of the Equator Art Society found direct opposition in the Modern Art Society. In a 1964 newspaper article entitled "Current Art Scene in Singapore", Ho Ho Ying discussed the opposing aesthetic orientation of the Modern Art Society vis-a-vis the Equator Art Society.

Ho lamented that in the initial years of the Equator Art Society, there were a few artists with a strong foundation in realism and the society's exhibitions showcased good realist works. However, the realist works of the society in general were merely documentary and lacked creativity. On the other hand, the established art associations -- Singapore Art Society and Society of Chinese Artists -- were habitually organising comprehensive art exhibitions which lacked dynamic artistic leadership. Ho's analysis of the general art scene was that many artists were lost in the midst of the new and the old without their own direction. He concluded that the creative path for the artists was a difficult one given the prevailing commercialism and the absence of artistic heritage in Singapore ("Xinjieduan di Xinjiapo huatan").

Ho, however, went on to state that Singapore artists working in the "new direction" outnumbered those working in the "conventional direction." Ho identified Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi as the first major artists to have deviated from tradition to achieve a stylistic breakthrough in oil and ink respectively. He predicted that Cheong and Chen would receive considerable recognition. He also noted that the key significance of the then recently established Modern Art Society was that moderm art could now be exhibited in a devoted exhibition.

Before this, it was not that there were no modern art works being exhibited, but they had to be displayed together with conventional works... as if the organisers felt that if the newer works were not shown together with the conventional works, it would not have beer persuasive that the modern works had, indeed, a foundation in the conventional.

Ho Ho Ying was thought to have transgressed the deep-rooted values in Chinese aesthetics -- truth, virtue, and beauty -- in his defence of non-objective abstractor in the late-1950s. The keen debate between Ho Ho Ying and Chen Fan in 1958 centred upon two different meanings -- if not a miscommunication -- of the concept of jia (untrue or unreal) in art. The debate reflected the deep rift between realism and abstraction in Singapore art circles.

Ho maintained that representational or realist works in art, by virtue of the fact that they were representations, were jia as they were not the actual physical objects. Non-objective art had the potential of presenting an unmediated reality between the artist as the creator and the canvas.

Coming from a steadfast Social Realist tradition, Chen Fan argued that it was precisely the aesthetic transcending of the every-day which uplifted the subject matter to a higher reality. To Chen Fan, truth and beauty were two sides of a coin and he criticised Ho for setting them up as a dichotomy ("Xieshi zhuyi yu xinhuapai").

Following the Modern Art exhibition of 1963 by Ho Ho Ying, Jolinda Goh, Tan Yee Hong, Ng Yat Chuan, Tay Chee Toh, Wee Beng Chong and Tong Siang Eng, the artists formed the Modem Art Society in 1964. The Society's emphasis and direction were clearly articulated in its catalogue:

Let us have a look at our era.,. Realism has passed its golden age; Impressionism has done its duty, Fauvism and Cubism are declining. Something new must turn up to succeed the unfinished task left by our predecessors. Any attempt to recover past glory shall be in vain, because history will not repeat... Art, like all things in the world, is ever changing, and we are trying to catch up with the change. ["Preface"]

In the following year, five new members - Sim Pang Liang, Tan Ping Chiang, Han Kuan Cheng, Loo Pook Chiang and Swee Khim Ann -- participated in the Society's exhibition. Three of Ho Ho Ying's oil works are illustrated here: Cave Age , Rhythm of Dance and Stone Age, Lim Chong Keat noted in 1966 that Ho Ho Ying admitted to an intense admiration for the work of Jackson Pollock, the American Abstract Expressionist which Ho had seen mainly in illustrations and art titles:

(Ho Ho Ying) appears to have established a natural sympathy for the spontaneous expression of this kind of imagery and has used it as a vehicle towards his own ends. The essential characteristic of his work seems to be reflective: the finished paintings serve as an object for inward meditation. Even when they attempt to portray an emotion, they are literally cool and disciplined, and are quite unlike the tempestuous expressionism of Pollock Perhaps this difference arises from the influence of Chinese cultural traditions, whereby a work of plastic beauty is regarded as an object for contemplative veneration.... Ho has arrived at a very distinctive and assured control of textures and abstract forms; indeed these textures form definite elements in his composition, akin in some respects with calligraphy. ["The Art of Ho Ho Ying"]

Another founding member of the Modern Art Society, Wee Beng Chong was closely associated with NAFA first as a student and later as a lecturer after studying sculpture at the École Nationale Supérièure des Beaux Arts in Paris. A versatile artist, Wee works in painting, print and mixed media. In the early-1960s, he became interested in both realist and abstract renditions and produced works including Conflict in mixed media, and Standing Figure, in bronze. Two other artists associated with the Modern Art Society are Thang Kiang How and Tar Ping Chiang. They furthered the formalist direction in Singapore and were to serve as presidents of the Modern Art Society and Singapore Printmaking Society respectively. Examples of their works are Thang's mixed-media painting Crackling Towards July and Tan's mixed-media relief Music.

Chen Fan. "Xieshi zhuyi yu xinhuapai". Nanyang Siang Pau, June 24, 1958.

Ho Ho Ying. "Xianjieduan di Xinjiapo huatan". Sin Chew Jit Poh, June 20, 1964.

Ho Ho Ying. "Preface", Modern Art. Singapore, 1963.

Lim Chong Keat. "The Art of Ho Ho Ying". The Art of Ho Ho Ying, Singapore, 1993.