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.
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.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.