In the resilient history of Chinese ink painting in China which crossed centuries, eras and social upheavals, there emerged from time to time exponents of the fascinating art form whose brilliant artworks shifted the direction of Chinese ink painting as it evolved from transition to transition. Bada Shanren was such an exemplary artist, so was Wu ChangShuo.
Wu's single-minded contribution to the development of Chinese ink painting was comprehensive and of great consequence. A prodigy artist who started the art of seal-carving and wrote poetry at 10, he eventually revived the lost art of traditional canons which made it possible for the early masters to forge towering masterpieces. The fusion of poetry, Chinese calligraphy and painting towards an art expression which was fuller and richer touching the imagination and emotion was such a canon. A restless inventor, Wu forged the concept of blending Chinese ink with colour infusing his painting with vivid radiancy.
Because of his overwhelming artistic gifts which changed the direction of Chinese ink art in no uncertain way, Wu inspired the influential and enduring Shanghai School of Chinese art of which Fan Chang Tien, Singapore's pioneer artist has the direct lineage through his master Wang Geyi who was the last disciple of Wu.
Fan Chang Tien
In the National art collection of Singapore is a distinguished painting by Fan Chang Tien. Titled Bamboo and Orchids, Chinese ink on paper, measuring 98x180cm, the work was executed in 1979. Characteristic of Fan's art, the artist's virtuosities were abundant: powerful brushwork for evocative invigoration, the interplay of lines and shapes for dramatic effects, the stark black and white colour scheme for the heightening of the work's integrity and dignity. The poetry in flowing calligraphy further enhanced the visual expression. But it was the bold generous expanse of the white space and daring of the pictorial seals which transported the otherwise transitional concept to modernity in the spirit of his time. Fan's personal attributes are remarkable: an exponent of traditional Chinese ink art of the highest calibre, an outstanding practitioner of the challenging art of Chinese calligraphy, a gifted poet of artistic sensibilities, and the highly admired person of integrity and magnanimity.
There is a sharp difference between the training of a craftsman which equips him with the relevant techniques for a functional purpose and the daunting nurturing of an artist of potential so that in time he could share his creativity and vision. The practical output of the former will in time be forgotten whereas the visionary insights of the latter will endure and enrich others.
Fan had a passionate mission. To achieve it, he selected students with the right character, motivation and the potential in art. To achieve this, his lessons took the form of revealing painting demonstrations, incessant students' practice and his entrancing narratives of brilliant artists in the realm of traditional Chinese ink painting in China. These narratives captured the students' imagination.
Glimpses of the works of the disciples who went through Fan's tutelage for several years are revealing. The works reveal Fan's visionary goal and his ultimate success in achieving it. Now at their peak, the disciples are relentlessly in pursuit of their respective distinct style.
Nai Swee Leng's zealous dedication to the time-tested canons of Traditional Chinese ink painting has resulted in his flourishing practice and being acknowledged as an authority in the still widely embraced traditional art form. His current Chinese ink paintings which he has evolved in a span of decades and which are excitingly expanding in scale and content resonate with the quintessential techniques of traditional practices. These are characterized by eloquent brushwork, evocative tonal nuances of the Chinese ink and splashes of radiant colours. As an influential and respected teacher of the art of Chinese ink, Nai has made possible the emergence of countless competent exponents. Nai travelled to China consistently to create a meaningful bond between Singapore and China artists.
Tan Oe Pang had a phenomenal start. His ambition instantaneously drove him at a fervent pace to explore and experiment with the possibilities inherent in the repertoire of the traditional Chinese ink practice in order to forge a unique style. His adventurous approach led him to blend unorthodox Chinese concepts with historic Western movements such as Surrealism. Such was the impact of his creativity in ink abstraction that his work captured attention in Brazil as far back as the 1980s. Today, having traveled very far, Tan's powerful and inimitable style in Chinese ink painting is highly endorsed. As an artist besides having a reputation in Singapore, he is making a mark in China.
It was through the language of ink painting - conceived with fresh perception -that Chua Ek Kay revealed his versatile artistic talents: his visual sensitivity, his forte in poetry and his ability in creativity and re-invention. Chua's ongoing series of painting on the auspicious theme of lotus brought to the surface his incomparable powerful evocative brushwork and his dramatic composition re-inventions, thus offering the viewer new and thrilling visual experiences. Chua's artistic endeavors opened up fresh and intriguing horizons in artistic cultivation when his experimentations led to his explorations in light, mysticism, symbolism. His daring works of vast magnitude took his art to a new direction with renewed possibilities. Chua's reputation and influence as an artist in Singapore has wide endorsement.
Inspired by a farsighted ambition, Chen Kezhan's continuous artistic evolution - which involved a series of distinct transitions - is the chief characteristic of his artistic endeavor. Intense experimentation and exploration are constant features. In his ongoing Lotus Series - spanning decades - his ink art went from the traditional to the symbolic and then to the semi-abstract. At his height as a serious exponent of modern ink painting, his creative works were captivating reinventions. These were often artistic fusions of modern practices from East and West. The lyrical power of Kezhan's art is widely admired in Singapore and abroad.
Fan -The Poet
Besides being a painter, Fan is very much a poet in his own right and his poetry is a powerful driving force in his Chinese calligraphy art and his art of Chinese ink painting. His beautiful poems not only reveal his contemplation and aspirations in life but also his artistic vision and sensitivities. A Spectrum of heartfelt themes characterizes Fan's Poetry:
Just passion to paint, not vying for riches or fame,
Rid of all vulgarities, with mind focused to paint...
Tenacity and integrity must be respected,
Heavy responsibility for traditions as expected.
Far and near, sound of waterfall heard endlessly,
Lay before the eye, beauty evokes memory.
Ancient melody not in vogue with current trend,
But the obvious nobility of the plants withstand
By heaven's grace, grateful that my ink pot has never been dry,
With a single stroke depicting bamboo braving cold, I try
My mind still active and roving, do not urge it to rest,
Lest on returning, my brush may be idle and regress.
Fan -The Legacy
Fan Chang Tien was a rare artist as well as a rare person. Once he decided to make Singapore his permanent home after leaving China, he had an aspiration which was to make a distinctive contribution to his new country, in a way that was meaningful and enduring. He had a vision: it was to give Singapore an artistic gift that would have an impact on the long term expansion and elevation of Singapore Art. The preciousness of the gift was an immense consequence. Eventually, Fan was to realize his vision beyond wildest expectations. He succeeded in endowing Singapore with an artistic legacy. Through his own substantial artistic achievements-in the form of traditional Chinese ink paintings at their peak - he extended Chinese ink painting in Singapore with the artistic doctrine of one of the greatest masters in China's art history, Wu ChangShuo whose artistic brilliance inspired the Shanghai School of Chinese Brush Painting.