Message for Fan Chang Tien exhibition catalogue

Chief Executive Officer, Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre

Low Sze Wee

I am delighted to write a message on the occasion of this exhibition of Fan Chang Tien’s works in Beijing. Born in China in 1907, this is the first major retrospective of Fan’s paintings in the country of his birth since his passing in Singapore in 1987.

Fan Chang Tien is one of Singapore’s most important and respected ink painters. In Singapore, Fan is treasured for three reasons.

Firstly, he was one those rare artists who encompassed the scholarly ideals of the ‘Three Perfections’(三绝). Within the tradition of literati painting, the best artists were celebrated for their proficiency in poetry, calligraphy and painting. All three art forms were regarded as vehicles of self-expression. Literati-artists sought to integrate calligraphy, poetry and painting in a single work, such that writing, poetic imagery, and pictorial form worked together to express the artist’s mind and emotion. These artists valued spontaneity in execution over laborious creation, and subjective expression over objective depiction. For them, painting, through its interplay of ink and brush, was an outlet for expressing their thoughts and emotions, free from worldly concerns. In this regard, Fan was a master exponent of all three art forms. In many of his artworks, he often inscribed an original poem to accompany his painted image. Through the union of poems and paintings, Fan’s personality is clearly reflected. For instance, one senses his resoluteness in maintaining the Chinese ink painting tradition despite the challenges of modernity. In an inscription in 1973, Fan had noted whilst there was constant pressure to change, he did not see a good reason for changing tradition. Yearning for a simple life, Fan also placed great emphasis on personal values such as integrity and humility. This could be seen through his use of seals, carved with phrases like ‘in pursuit of neither fame nor fortune’ (不逐名利之客) and ‘knowing that beauty rests in simplicity’ (知美在拙), on a number of his paintings.

Secondly, Fan represents a direct link between the highly significant Shanghai School of painting in China and Singapore’s current ink painting scene. In the late 19th century, artists in Shanghai produced works which were highly popular with city’s wealthy patrons. Their paintings were filled with rich colours, bold calligraphic strokes, lively compositions, and accessible subjects like birds and flowers or themes drawn from mythology, history or popular fiction. One of its best-known artists was Wu Changshuo (1844-1927), who applied his knowledge of calligraphy and seal carving to painting. His works were characterised by bold confident brushwork, often combined with calligraphic inscriptions that lend an archaic flavour that appealed to scholars and merchant collectors alike. One of Wu’s last students was Wang Geyi (1897-1988). The latter, in turn, was Fan’s teacher at the Changming Art Academy in Shanghai in the late 1920s. Due to the turmoils of civil war and civil strife, Fan left China for Thailand in the late 1940s, and later settled down in Singapore in 1956 where he spent the rest of his life, practising and teaching art. In this respect, Fan represents a continuation, and extension of the Shanghai School lineage beyond China.


Thirdly, under Fan’s patient tutelage, he nurtured a younger generation of students who have become established artists in their own right. They include important ink practitioners like Lim Kay Hiong 林家雄, Nai Swee Leng 赖瑞龙, Tan Oe Pang 陈有炳, Chen KeZhan 陈克湛 and the late Ling Cher Eng 林子影and Chua Ek Kay 蔡逸溪. In many respects, Fan was the ideal teacher. He insisted that his students secure a good foundation in painting, poetry and calligraphy. However, his humility and modesty were such that he never imposed his own style on his students once they had mastered the basic techniques. To his credit, many of his best students eventually developed painting styles and approaches which were vastly different from each other. In a way, this eclectic and open attitude amongst Fan’s students exemplifies the innovative spirit of the Shanghai School. More importantly, a number of Fan’s students have also followed in their mentor’s path to become teachers themselves, thereby continuing the tradition of passing on the Shanghai School to younger generations of art lovers in Singapore.  

Through his own paintings and the work of his students in Singapore, Fan’s important legacy lives on.