Georgette Chen: At Home In The World - five must-see items

HAKKA FAMILY (1939).
HAKKA FAMILY (1939).ST PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG
CERAMIC DISHES.
CERAMIC DISHES.ST PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG
LOTUS SYMPHONY (1962).
LOTUS SYMPHONY (1962).ST PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG
CITYSCAPE OF BEIJING (1945-1949)
CITYSCAPE OF BEIJING (1945-1949)ST PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG
LETTER FROM CHEN TO SOONG CHING-LING, DATED NOV 2, 1949.
LETTER FROM CHEN TO SOONG CHING-LING, DATED NOV 2, 1949.ST PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG

1 HAKKA FAMILY (1939)

This large-scale work, measuring 162cm by 130cm, represents an early breakthrough for the young Chen as a painter.

She was very pleased with the piece, which became the star attraction of subsequent solo shows.

Besides the significant size, the topic of mother and child was something which greatly engaged her in her pre-war career.

Its pyramidal composition, with a nursing mother, echoes classic European works, especially Renaissance-era Madonna-and-child compositions.

But the subject matter is very much Chinese, with the hat, bamboo yoke, wooden clogs and rice bowl instantly setting the scene in Asia.


2 CERAMIC DISHES 

While she is better known for her paintings today, Chen spent some time in 1950 working in a ceramic studio.

She took part in two group exhibitions and went on to design crockery for the Nanjing-Shanghai Railway.

Check out her seal on the bottom of the dishes, displayed on top of a mirror, which uses her Chinese name Ho Zhang Liying. Ho refers to her second husband, Ho Yung Chi.


3 LOTUS SYMPHONY (1962)

In true Impressionist tradition - think Claude Monet's water lilies and Paul Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire - Chen spent three weeks of her holiday simply painting the lotus pond at a friend's home.

This canvas, on loan from Shanghai's Long Museum, is hung next to another smaller work, Lotus In A Breeze, that is part of the National Gallery Singapore's collection.

The musical title is apt as there is harmony in the arrangement of the twining stems and complementary shades of blue and green.

She painted works en plein air in Impressionist fashion, working quickly to capture light and colour.


4 CITYSCAPE OF BEIJING (1945-1949)

This work, on loan from the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, is a showcase of Chen's technical skills as well as political awareness.

The subject is the Forbidden City's Meridian Gate, the entrance to the emperor's living quarters and administration. But Chen chooses an unusual angle, focusing on the canal and its distorted reflection of the edifice, while the walls of the City, patchy and discoloured, shows the decrepitude of a once-mighty fortress.

Her father's revolutionary fervour and her first husband's foreign service career meant she grew up in a politically savvy milieu and must have had well-informed opinions about the upheavals of the day.

  • Timeline

  • 1906: Born in October to wealthy arts and antiques dealer Zhang Jinjiang and his wife. Chen, the fourth of 12 children, has a privileged upbringing. Her father, who supported Dr Sun Yat Sen's revolutionary efforts, funds her art studies at the Art Students League of New York between 1926 and 1927 and the Academie Colarossi and Academie Biloul in Paris.

    1930: A momentous year for Chen, who marries Eugene Chen Youren, the Chinese foreign minister known for his fierce anti-imperialist stance. Two of her paintings are also accepted by the Salon d'Automne exhibition in Paris. She is the only Asian woman thus honoured.

    1930 to 1937: The couple relocate from Shanghai to Europe and back again to Hong Kong as the political winds shift in China. In Hong Kong, Eugene Chen becomes involved in anti-Japanese activities.

    1944: The couple are interrogated by the Japanese and placed under house arrest. Eugene Chen dies in May. Chen spends the next few years travelling through Asia, although she remains based in Shanghai.

    1947: Chen remarries. Ho Yung Chi was Eugene Chen's aide and worked as a journalist in New York. Chen moves to New York to join him.

    1949: Chen exhibits at the Asia Institute in New York and the couple move to Paris, where Chen exhibits at the Salon d'Automne and the Galerie La Licorne.

    1951: The couple move to Penang, where Chen teaches art at a Chinese high school.

    1953: Chen relocates to Singapore after her divorce from Ho and takes up a teaching post at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts at the invitation of founder and principal Lim Hak Tai. She has already been a frequent visitor to Singapore and has many artist friends. She becomes the sole female in the coterie who pioneers the Nanyang style of painting.

    1982: Chen receives the Cultural Medallion for her contributions to Singapore's arts scene.

    1993: She dies on March 15 at Mount Alvernia Hospital after a long battle with rheumatoid arthritis.

5 LETTER FROM CHEN TO SOONG CHING-LING, DATED NOV 2, 1949 

This letter shows Chen was still looking to return to China to continue her artistic career in the post-war era.

Her friendship with Madame Sun Yat Sen dates back to their time in Shanghai's McTyeire School for Girls. It is an intriguing peek at her connection with the legendary Soong sister and a reflection of the intimate circles of power and influence in early 20th-century China.

It is also full of details and nuances to pore over, from Chen's request to Soong, whom she addresses by her Christian name of Rosamond, for intercession for a possible commission, to her promise to purchase goods for which Soong has already sent money.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 26, 2020, with the headline 'Georgette Chen: At Home In The World - five must-see items'. Print Edition | Subscribe