Chen Wen Hsi

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This is a Chinese name; the family name is Chen (陈).
Chen Wen Hsi
Native name 陈文希
Born 9 September 1906
Guangdong, China
Died 17 December 1991(1991-12-17) (aged 85)
Nationality Singaporean
Education Shanghai College of Art,
Xinhua College of Art
Pan TianShou
Known for Oil Painting, Drawing, Chinese ink painting,
Awards 1964: Public Service Star
1975: Honorary degree of Doctor of Letters, National University of Singapore (NUS)
1980: Gold Medal, The National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan
1987: The First ASEAN Cultural Ad Communication Award
1992: Meritious Public Service Award (Posthumous)

Chen Wen Hsi (simplified Chinese: 陈文希; traditional Chinese: 陳文希; pinyin: Chén Wén Xī) is one of Singapore's pioneer artists, known for his avant-garde Chinese paintings.

He was born in Baigong in Guangdong province, and had his early education at Chen Li Primary School and St. Joseph Middle School.[1]

After graduation from secondary school, Chen Wen Hsi decided to study full-time in fine art at the Shanghai College of Art in 1928, despite his uncle's objection. Unhappy with the college, Chen transferred to the Xinhua College of Art in Shanghai, where he was taught by renowned artists such as Pan Tianshou, with half of his classmates a year later. It was at Xinhua that he became acquainted with Chen Jen Hao, Chen Chong Swee and Liu Kang, all of whom were to become Singapore's Nanyang pioneer artists and art educationists. After four years at Xinhua, Chen graduated and returned to his hometown.


After getting married at his hometown, Chen Wen Hsi went to Swatow in 1929, at the age of 21. He left China in 1947, and since then he continued to have solo exhibitions in other parts of Asia: Shanghai (1931, 1933), Guangzhou (1932, 1936), Saigon (1948), Hong Kong (1949), BangkokKuala Lumpur (1949), and Bangkok-Singapore (1950).[1] In 1937, he received recognition and praise of Chinese painter Xu Beihong at the second Chinese National Art Exhibition in Nanjing. In the same year, an English arts magazine elected him as one of contemporary China's ten greatest artists.

In 1948, Chen arrived and settled in Singapore, where he originally planned to stay for not more than three months. In Singapore, he proceeded to teach art at The Chinese High School (1949–1968) and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (1951–1959). Chen travelled to various places in Southeast Asia to collect drawing materials during his vacations, and he was especially inspired by the people and customs of Bali and Java. In June 1955, Chen took part in a seven-artist group exhibition organised by the Singapore Art Society.[1]

In 1968, Chen retired from teaching, and decided to concentrate on drawing. Between 1923 and 1992, he conducted 38 one-man exhibitions in Singapore and other countries such as China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong.


Chen was proficient in both traditional Chinese ink and Western oil painting, and experimented with a variety of styles ranging from Fauvism to Cubism. In Chen's exhibition held in May 1956, Sullivan noted his fascination for man-made things and clutter. The artist loved to experiment with the interplay of light and forms in chaotic subjects, like a junkyard. His unique style which showed interest in angles but not Cubist; strays not far from reality and is obsessed with shapes, and yet not an abstract painter. Chen also did not take to modern western art philosophies of that by western counterparts of his time like Picasso and Salvador Dalí.[1]

Chen was also interested in human figures. He also did not see that humans are complex with distortions and conflicts, but merely a pattern of images, yet not like a pieced jigsaw puzzle. His interest was especially in local Indian people, particularly blue-collared workers and dairymen working in cattleyard; the geometric forms of Indian women dancers was an ideal subject of study for the artist.[1]

Chen's mastery in depicting human figures was also found in keen observation of nature and animals.[1] His subjects include landscapes, figures, birds and animals, still life studies and abstract compositions. Chen was especially adept at drawing egrets and monkeys. Among all the animal paintings by him, Chen's gibbon paintings stand out, as they were noted by Chen's attention to detail and sensitive rendering of the beautiful creatures.His first inspiration from painting gibbons came from a reproduction of a gibbon painting that formed the right triptych of the famous painting, White Robed Guanyin, Crane and Gibbon[2] by the 13th century Southern Song Dynasty Chinese artist Mu Xi (牧溪).[3]

Awed by its lifelike quality, he was convinced with Mu Xi's great skill in close observation of the gibbons. So day and night, Chen studied Mu Xi's print and emulated the painting. Chen had never seen a gibbon when he was in China, and as a result he did not realise that gibbons, unlike monkeys, had no tails!

It was only much later in the late-1940s, that a foreigner pointed out his error in his painting, and corrected him. At around then, he had bought a white faced gibbon for $300 at a local pet shop shortly after he arrived in Singapore. This gave him immense opportunities to study the creature's postures and its characteristics, by rearing it in his home garden. In time, Chen had a total of six pet gibbons – one white, one grey and four black ones.[4]


For his contributions to the fine arts in Singapore, President Yusof Ishak conferred Chen the Public Service Star in 1964.

Chen's artistic endeavours have also made history by being the first artist with a number of first honours conferred on him. In 1975, Chen was conferred an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by the then-Chancellor of the University of Singapore, and President of Singapore, Benjamin Sheares. In 1980, he became the first Singaporean artist to be invited, and conferred with the Golden Chapter gold medal award, by the National Museum of History in Taiwan. He was also the first recipient of the ASEAN Cultural and Communications Award for outstanding artists, in 1987.[5]

After his death in 1991 at age 87, Chen was awarded a posthumous Meritorious Service Medal.


See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Sullivan, Frank J. "Chen Wen Hsi: exhibition of paintings, organized by Singapore Art Society, May 4–13, 1956". Singapore: Hiap Seng Press.  |contribution= ignored (help)
  2. ^ Barnhart, Richard M.; et al. (2002). "3000 Years of Chinese Painting". New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press: Plate 128. 
  3. ^ Wen Xi, Chen Chen Wen Hsi centennial exhibition (汇流:陈文希百年诞辰纪念展). Singapore: Singapore Art Museum.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. ^ . Singapore: LianHe WanBao (联合晚报). 18 August 1987.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  5. ^ "Dr Chen Wen Hsi: artist". Singapore Tatler. Singapore (August 1990): 54.