On a visit to Singapore a few years ago, I came upon Fan Chang Tien’s works at a friend’s place. I was deeply impressed with the Nanyang ink master’s brilliant artistry and remarkable cultural accomplishment, and rejoice at the fact that Nanyang was able to produce such a giant in Chinese ink painting. Recently I visited an exhibition on works by the late artist and his students at the Singapore Art Museum. It left me not only truly inspired, but also with myriad thoughts and feelings.
The exhibition showcased a comprehensive range of Fan’s works, allowing visitors a broader understanding of his style and accomplishment. Upon entering the exhibition hall, I was immediately greeted by the thrilling appeal that these paintings exuded. This elegant spirit that filled the entire room soothed the mind and delighted the senses. A form of direct visual communication, it is a unique experience offered by traditional Chinese ink painting. Great masters in the past have been successfully created this exceptional artistic effect. Undoubtedly, Fan is one of these doyens.
A scholar in his own right, Fan was a prominent artist who excelled in the four art forms of poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal carving. While flower-and-bird paintings in the daxieyi or highly expressive, spontaneous style using Chinese ink was his forte, he was also adept at portraying landscapes and human figures. In his early years, he painted in a refreshing and elegant style, as represented in works like Scholar and Palm Tree (1956) and Rustic Kampong Scene (1964). As he approached his twilight years, decades of experience and gradual transformation culminated in a unique style bestowed with a poignant sense of robust vitality and rustic charm. Examples include: Vine and Stone (1970), which dazzles with classical skillful brush work and simple, elegant colours; Bamboo and Stone (1978), a delightful portrayal of slender bamboo stalks swaying in the wind; Orchid and Stone and Flowers of the Four Seasons, both long scrolls completed in 1981, are rare gems that capture the imagination with the artist’s bold, vigorous strokes and sublime ink play, enabling one to visualize the majestic magnitude of the sets of works in full (they were exhibited only in part); Landscape Scene (1981) exemplifies the artist’s deft mastery of outlining contours and cun or textural brushwork in his holistic rendition of the mountains, rivers and trees, employing a kaleidoscopic range of brushstrokes as well as ink tones; White Lotus (1985), a highly spontaneous composition using minimal brushstrokes, stands out as a distinctive expression that evokes an ethereal, serene feel; and lastly, the three paintings on mynahs he completed in 1987 when he was taken ill perfectly demonstrates the concept of ‘image’ in art with his carefree strokes imbued with a rustic aesthetic sense (see page 299).
Harnessing his wealth of knowledge and superb artistic skills, Fan would often inscribe colophons in elegant calligraphy and affix classically fashioned seals on his works. By combining poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal carving, which contrast and complement well with each other, his works capture a rich erudite quality that characterizes literati painting. Writing is a solitary affair and accumulating knowledge is a lifelong effort. Having spent decades building his knowledge and experience and devoting all his energy throughout his life to his art, Fan’s achievement in high art and attainment of a lofty, sublime spiritual state is deeply admirable. Like many of his predecessors, he never forgot to nurture and support the younger generation in his pursuit of art and calligraphy. Some of the students that he carefully trained have become the backbone of the Chinese-ink-painting world of Singapore and Nanyang today. His selfless devotion and multiple contributions to society serve as shining examples in living and learning for the next generation and beyond.
However, aesthetic tastes and preferences of the audience have shifted due to changing times and societal developments. It may well be regarded as a natural phenomenon to see clashes between different academic viewpoints time and again in the art scene (including that of ink painting); but it is another thing when one is confused or misguided in his understanding of the history, current status and development as well as the concept of tradition versus innovation in Chinese ink painting. Some, who are accustomed to calling tradition passé and conservative, completely reject it. On the other hand, they fully embrace false art in all its bizarreness and absurdity – even to the point of regarding the ugly as beautiful – as the symbol of modern art. But the question is: how can there be innovation without tradition, and modernity without history?
Whether art is true or false, good or evil, beautiful or ugly, elegant or banal, highbrow or low class has nothing to do with time past or present. Just as the old may not be all bad, the new cannot be all good; each has its own fair share of treasure and trash. It should be common sense that a work of art should be judged according to its own merit, but in reality, many are caught in a whirlpool that breeds confusion and misunderstanding. This pollutes the cultural life of people and hinders cultural development. Hence, escaping from this bizarre trap so that Chinese ink painting can enjoy healthy growth and development is the historic mission of contemporary ink artists. I believe that many serious and dedicated ink painters will embrace this historic challenge and shoulder the heavy responsibility that comes with it. I am also confident that they will work hard to ensure that Chinese calligraphy and painting, as highbrow, elegant art forms that enjoy a long history and rich tradition, will be fully preserved, passed down and developed, to be embraced by both connoisseurs and layman alike. May the art of Chinese ink continue to thrive among the people of Singapore (as they strive to build a gracious society) and the numerous art lovers in Nanyang and all over the world. Indeed, this will serve well to honour the memory of Fan Chang Tien and other past masters.
As the saying goes, new talents will appear in every generation. The students that Fan spent much effort nurturing have grown to become mature art practitioners in their own right. The calligraphy and painting of the master himself will always be regarded as gems in humanity’s art repository that will continue to be appreciated by many generations to come.