Mr Fan Chang Tien came to Singapore in 1956 at the age of 49 after a sojourn of almost 10 years in Bangkok. As a young man, he was already a well-known and influential artist in China. He had studied with literati masters Wang Geyi and Zhu Wenyun, both outstanding disciples of the doyen of the Shanghai School of Painting, Wu Changshuo (1842-1927), who towards the end of the 20th century had reinvigorated the xieyi (which literally means “writing the meaning”) style of painting.
The only qualification I have to pen a short piece for this publication is my being Fan’s last student. Thanks to an introduction in 1986 by my grand uncle, I was admitted to his Sunday morning lessons in his house at Telok Kurau. Fan demonstrated freely his manner of painting during our lessons. He showed and discussed the methods of painting which we observed and practised under his guidance. Being his last student, I was probably one who studied with him for the shortest duration; yet my beloved teacher left me a deep and lasting impression of his noble character and exquisite art.
I had the fortune to watch Fan paint when his art was at its peak. Just as Pan Shou had written in an earlier essay about Fan’s painting, “Age matters in art-making; those who have not come of age will not be able to attain a certain level in the artistic realm,” Fan’s painting achieved a level of attainment rare in Chinese ink painting. He had established his style of painting and his influence in the art circles in China and Singapore much earlier. But beyond style, as he continued his relentless practice and search, his interpretations and expressions of nature, the choice of his colours, the subtle tones of his ink, the strength and quality of his brushstrokes left him with fewer and fewer equals. Regardless of the subject or scene, his paintings exude an air of tranquillity and a sense of innocence and naivety. Like his noble character, honourable values and relentless pursuit of art that one discerns in his poems and seals (for example, 不逐名利之客), there is a total absence of pretence and artifice in his paintings. Just as one of his many seals proclaimed “emotions emerge beyond form 情生像外,” Fan strived to convey the essence rather than the mere form of the subjects he painted. For instance in his depictions of the mynah bird (Wisteria with Eight Mynahs), he was less interested in the faithful rendition of the form of the mynah than the “mynahness” of the bird. And this, he did with an economy of effort honed through decades of practice; there is no need for a third brushstroke if two suffice. Zhang Daqian distils the essence of Fan’s art in saying: “With simplicity and elegance, lustre and clarity, (Fan) ingeniously interprets nature.” The quality of Fan’s brushwork is equally astounding, dry when necessary and damp when appropriate but always conveying an overall sense of moistness and vitality. Fan’s powerful brushstrokes are easily discernible in the long stems of bamboo or branches of trees and plants he painted but they are equally apparent in the short feet and claws of his birds, crabs and prawns. It is perhaps these attributes of his brushwork coupled with his eye for composition that give Fan’s paintings their characteristic overall visual weight. It is my great honour to have studied with Fan, however brief the lessons were. He was perhaps one of the last literati masters who was equally adept at painting, calligraphy, poetry and seal carving. Like the bamboos and orchids he painted, the poems and seals he composed and crafted, Fan was a man of noble character. With no interest to pursue fame or fortune, the gardener (as he called himself) cultivated his art assiduously, not to be distracted by the trends of the day. His efforts have not been in vain and his art is still being appreciated and admired long after his passing.
Prof Heng Chye Kiang
School of Design and Environment
National University of Singapore