Artist to Watch

Sanyu (San Yu or Chang Yu常玉)

Sanyu born 14 October 1901 in Nanchong, Sichuan Province, was a Chinese-French painter.  The family’s wealth (Dehe Silk Factory) allowed Sanyu to be schooled at home which included calligraphy lessons and painting lessons.  In 1931, he travelled to Paris with Xu Beihong and later to Berlin.   After two years in Berlin, Sanyu returned to Paris in 1923, to register his study with Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, exploring lines on human form.  He has over 2000 ink and pencil drawings of nudes and figures.

The financial supports became irregular due to the downturn in the silk business back home.  Sanyu engaged Henri-Pierre Roche as his dealer for his artworks.  Over two years, Roche collected 111 paintings and 600 drawings by Sanyu.  But Sanyu’s constant demands for money became an emotional liability that Roche decided to drop the relationship in 1932.

Despite the sour note on which their relationship ended.  Roche had encouraged Sanyu to experiment with printmaking as a means of reaching a wider public at a lower cost.  In prints, Sanyu found that he could demonstrate the same sensitivity to economy of line as his drawings, using drypoint, an intaglio technique.  Drypoint worked particularly well for Sanyu, the small size of the plates lent an intimacy with the viewer and the fines lines conveyed the essence of his simplicity and skillful drawings.

All the sketching and drawing during his eight years in Paris served to prepare Sanyu for his eventual foray into oil painting.  His earliest oil painting is dated 1929.  By the early1930s Sanyu was fully committed to oil painting, never revisiting printmaking.

In 1948, Sanyu travelled to New York and met Robert Frank.  Frank organized an exhibition for Sanyu in New York but none of the paintings sold.  Disillusioned, Sanyu decided to return to Paris leaving all his paintings to Frank as a way of repaying him for supporting him during his two year stay in New York.  As Frank’s career as a photographer took off, he never forgot his dear friend and kept his paintings with him wherever he moved over the next 50 years.  In 1997, Frank sold these paintings and donated the proceeds to establish the Sanyu Scholarship Fund at Yale University to support Chinese students of art.

When Sanyu returned to Paris in 1950, even though the post-war art market was recovering, he still had little success in selling his paintings.  He managed to survive by painting furniture and doing some carpentry work for Chinese restaurants.

On 12 August 1966, Sanyu was found dead at his studio at 28 rue de la Sabliere, lying on his bed with a book propped against his chest.  He did not turn the stove off properly and the gas leak has killed him in his sleep.

(Extracted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Georgette Chen (1906-1993)

Georgette ChenGeorgette Chen was an artist who contributed to the birth of the Nanyang art style in Singapore.  She was born Chang Li Ying (张荔) in Zeijang Province, China in 1906.

Chen’s father was an antique art dealer businessman who had business interests in Paris and New York and hence Chen spent her early year’s education in these cities. She felt that Parisian life suited her better and in 1927 she returned to study in Paris.  Though her parents provided financial support for her art education, they never fully accepted her decision to become full-time artist.

Chen met Eugene Chen, a Chinese diplomat and a friend of Sun Yat Sen.  He was an arts and music lover who deeply appreciated Chen’s aspiration to become a professional artist.  In 1930, Chen married Eugene Chen and travelled in China with her husband.  Chen was Eugene’s second wife after the death of his first wife, Agatha Alphosin Ganteaume.

Chen’s artworks were selected for the Salon d’Automne exhibition in Paris.  When the Sino-Japanese War broke out, the couple was imprisoned, Eugene Chen died in Shanghai in 1944 towards the end of World War II.

Chen arrived in Singapore in 1954 and began teaching art at Nanyang Academy of Fine Art. Not given to emotional displays of the artistic temperament, her approach was disciplined and methodical. Liu Kang wrote of her:  ‘…During her long years of teaching at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, she transmitted to her students not only fundamental knowledge and techniques, but also the ethics of artistic creation, and her hope that they would not be confined by what they learnt from the past, but would be able to break new ground and create their own expressions…’

Chen’s subjects are culled from her travels through China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. Her eye for composition and colour all emphasize her belief that all elements in her painting should be executed with deliberation to the whole and with only the right amount of expression needed. 1952 trip to Bali. In 1952, Chen with 3 other artists – Liu Kang, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee went to Bali on painting trip.

Chen was awarded the Singapore Cultural Medallion in 1982.  She died of complications from rheumatoid arthritis on March 15, 1993, at Mount Alvernia Hospital after an 11-year struggle with the ailment.  Mr Lee Seng Gee, Chairman of the Lee Foundation was appointed as the Executor of the Georgette Chen Estate.  In April 1994, Chen’s house on Siglap Plain was auctioned for S$2.8 million.  The money raised from the auction gave to the Georgette Chen Arts Scholarship for art students managed by the National Arts Council.  A collection of Chen’s paintings were stowed away in two rooms of her home, and recently discovered by Lee.  In June 1994, Lee donated the 53 newly discovered paintings to the Singapore Art Museum (SAM).  This brought a total of 104 paintings by Chen to be found in the museum collection.  Apart from donations sale proceeds of her house, sales from Chen’s personal investments of stocks and shares were also used to fund a new building for the Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations (SCWO), as well as for community welfare projects for the local Malay community, and to the Practice Theatre Ensemble (founded by Kuo Pao Kun) to support Chinese theatrical art in Singapore.


Chng Seok Tin

Article from The Monday Interview with Chng Seok Tin, The Straits Times, Monday, January 4, 2010 by Akshita Nanda

A white cane leans against the door of the studio in Telok Kurau but for the first-time visitor surrounded by delicate dancing human figures sculpted in bronze, foil or wire etched in paint, there is little indication that artist Chng Seok Tin has a visual handicap.

Only the cane and her failure to register a proffered hand signal the fact that this Cultural Medallion recipient has been blind for 21 years.  But the lack of sight has not held back this woman whose career spans 30 years.  Her sculptures, prints and mixed-media works, have been displayed in 26 solo-exhibitions and over 100 group shows.  She has taught at the Lasalle College of the Arts (Singapore) and held residencies in universities in the United States and China.

Express amazement at her feats after the brain abscess and surgery that robbed her of her vision in 1988 and she laughs, saying that there is much she still has to achieve.  Financial security, for one thing, she reveals dryly, explaining that she just manage to make do by selling her art and the occasional teaching gig.  “But something always turns up,” she adds with her trademark of good cheer.

Single, she lives with her mother, now 90, in a scrupulously clean four-room HDB flat in Haig Road.  Her father died in 2001.  Family ties are tightly knit.  Her two brothers and remaining three sisters – the eldest died some years ago – contribute to the care of their parent.  One of Chng’s nieces maintains the artist’s website and her sisters stop by daily to cook, clean or spend time with their mother while the artist heads to her studio – by bus.

“I can go anywhere by myself on the bus and MRT,” she boasts proudly.  “Only sometimes, if it is raining or a very unfamiliar location, I take cabs.”  Self reliance and resilience were bred into her.  Her father, a well-to-do ship owner, went bankrupt during World War II, and in the 1950s, the family moved from their residence in Katong to a leaky attap house in Kampung Chai Chee.  Chng, 62, grew up there making her own dolls and helping her mother make bags out of newspaper which they sold to provision stores for extra cash.  She describes her childhood with nostalgia, recalling the taste of fatty pork that was a treat during Chinese New Year.  “When you are poor, you appreciate everything,” she says, laughing.

Her parents insisted their five daughters and two sons go to school.  Her father worked in the clothes-selling trade and her mother scrimped and saved for uniforms and books that were passed down from child to child.  Like her siblings, Chng is a graduate of Chung Cheng High.  After High school, she took her certificate in education at the then Teacher’s College and began teaching Chinese at Tanjong Katong Girls’ School in 1966.  It was then that she could finally indulge her love of art by taking private lessons from the school art teacher and also doing a diploma in Western painting at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.  “At that time, I did not think I would be an artist.  Art was just a hobby.”

Now it is clearly her life’s passion.  She works in her studio from 9am to 5pm, sometimes with a student, usually turning the radio on to classical music channels for inspiration.  Towards evening, she packs up her materials and takes them home to work on.

She enjoys social interaction and the company of male friends, though she no longer dates.  She delights in meeting new people, offering very visitor to her studio a cup of tea or coffee, apologising because it is instant and carefully laying out biscuits on a plate.

Any chance remark can lead her into a memory of long-time friends and past students.  She speaks of them with affection, easily recalling their telephone numbers.  She cannot make out letters and numbers on her cellphone, so she makes sure to memorise even a new acquaintance’s contact details.

Certain people are clearly top on her list, such as her second-eldest sister, who helped pay for her degree, and the late Brother Joseph McNally, the founder of Lasalle, who gave her her first job in Singapore and who also saved her artistic career after she went blind in 1988.  Her voice turns low and respectful when speaking of him.

Before that fateful year, it seemed as if the sky would be the limit for Chng.  Funded by her own savings, a Lee Foundation Study Award and contributions from her sister, she earned her bachelor’s in art from the Hull College of Higher Education in 1979.  That same year, the National Museum Art Gallery of Singapore held an exhibition of her prints and an award from the Ministry of Culture allowed her to study advanced printmaking at England’s Hornsey College of Art the next year.  “I was lucky,” she says modestly.  “The Hornsey studio caught fire within months of her arrival and she was offered the chance to study engraving at Atelier 17 in Paris instead.

She followed this up with a master’s in arts at the New Mexico State University in 1983 and another in fine arts in 1985 at the University of Iowa.  Paying her way with teaching and art research, she was beginning to make a name for herself.

Fall from bus

In 1986, she was introduced to Brother McNally.  Impressed by his dedication to the arts, she took up his offer to teach printmaking at Lasalle because it would allow her to be near her family.  Used to independence, she lived alone in a flat in Marshall Road, juggling teaching with exhibitions around the world.  Sometimes she wondered if her hectic life was to blame for her increasing headaches and bouts of giddiness.  One such attack caused her to fall from a bus in June 1988 and soon after, she was told she had a brain abscess.  She went for surgery to treat it in August.  “After I regained consciousness, everything was a blue,” she recalls.

The horror of the event seeps through even in her measured tones, resigned to fate after two decades.  She could no longer distinguish faces, forms, letters or signs.  She could tell the difference between light and shadow and make a guess at strong colours but that was little help to an artist whose eyes were her precious tool.  And her usual retreat was denied her, because the avid reader of fiction ad philosophy could no longer make out the written word.

A lover of classic literature in English and Chinese, she had been publishing essays and short stories in Chinese since 1978 and wrote a column for the now defunct Nanyang Siang Pau newspaper.  “I was in a very pathetic state,” she says frankly.  “I resigned from Lasalle, thinking I could do nothing now.”

The support of family and friends helped, as did the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped.  Case workers went to her home and taught her to use a cane and take buses.  She learnt to distinguish money by the size of notes and coins and took comfort in audio books that friends and students sent.

A visit from Brother McNally ended her despair.  He insisted she return to work at Lasalle and would not take no for an answer.  “He was very compassionate.  He said he would provide me with an assistant.  I was so grateful to him that I thought, why not just try and see.”  And try she did, heading back to Lasalle in 1989.

She had to re-learn how to teach print-making techniques, relying on the hands of a student assistant.  A machine donated by a friend allowed her to scan in type written text and convert it to speech so she could make use of the school library.  Slowly she gained confidence and continued to teach at the school till 1995.

She learnt to compensate for the lack of sight, trusting in intuition and her tactile senses.  Her focus turned to sculpture and mixed media, as 3-D material and thick, vivid paints, such as acrylic, allow her to exert greater control over what she created.  “If you have ideas, it is not difficult to do art,” she says, adding that she is frustrated at times by her inability to work more with colour.  “Because I can’t see properly, I can’t tell how colours turn out.  I have to learn to let go,” she says.

From 1992, she began venturing farther afield, starting with a residency at San Jose State University in California, than art exhibitions organised by Very Special Art (VSA), a Singapore charity that aids artists with disabilities.  VSA and its international affiliates have helped her to exhibit her work and teach in countries including China, Japan, the US and Belgium.  Sometimes she travels alone, relying on the kindness of strangers, sometimes with students or friends.

Family and friends have been key players in her professional recover, she says.  Her sisters transcribe her writings in Chinese.  She has published 12 books.  Fellow artists offer professional support and assistance.  Visual artist Koh Nguang How, 46, first met Chng in 1986.  He helped her transport paper and clay models to Thailand for casting in bronze and ferried them back for her Metamorphosis exhibition at Fort Canning Arts Centre in 1996.

In 2006, when she expressed a desire to exhibit works created from “kim chiam” (dried lily buds), he brought in live plants from Genting Highlands to allow her to gain a greater appreciation of the material.  He dismisses all this as “technical assistance”, emphasising that the original ideas and final work are Chng’s alone.  “It is important for people to know that she creates the work herself.  Sometimes she needs assistance but do not underestimate her,” he says.

He hopes, she will be recognised as a sculptor and artist beyond printmaking, pointing out the huge body of work she has created since losing her sight.  He says: “Looking at her work from her student days to now, I am more impressed because this artist just does not give up.”  Equally admiring is Chng’s former student Juan Wong, 37, who studied under her at Lasalle.  “She is very approachable and friendly, and always willing to share and help the needy,” says Wong.

Chng has no room for self-pity in her life.  Since 1988, her hands have made up for her eyes.  Her work table is littered with leather she has snipped into tiny fish, animal and human forms, no bigger than a finger.  Delicate details such as fins, eyes and manes are clearly visible.  Sometimes she may cut right through the material and destroy a piece that is nearly finished but she just shrugs and moves on:  “You have to learn to accept things.”

This year, she plans to hold an exhibition of mixed-media works on the theme Who Am I? Who Are You? Where is the Heart?  It stems from a game students and friends often play with her, standing before her and asking her to guess who they are.  “It is a joke but for a lot of us, we know only our appearance, we do not know our true selves or true capacity,” she explains.

She enjoys challenging her own boundaries, from experimenting with various textures of clay for sculpture or prints, to taking trips on her own.  She retains the sense of adventure that saw her through her student days, when she worked as a chambermaid in hotels, in the post office sorting mail, and as a short-order cook in a take-out shop to make ends meet.

She now gets her kicks from travelling, to places as remote as north Pakistan or as near as Melbourne, where she will travel this month to visit a student.  “I will look around, have new experiences and meet interesting people,” she says excitedly.  The people she meets on her journeys are a delight and source of inspiration.  Street children she taught in Cambodia in 2008, for example, led her to create a work on the Khmer Rouge genocide.

She admits that in unfamiliar locations, she is likely to fall into drains, be bumped about by crowds or even be cheated, but she would rather focus on the good experiences.  “There are a lot of good and kind people.  I have met many angels – passers-by who take me to places or ask if I need help.  Maybe this time, I will even meet Mr Right,” she adds with a smile.

Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670)

Giovanna Garzoni was an Italian painter who was prominent in Europe during the Baroque period. Garzoni started her career painting religious, mythological, and allegorical subjects but became famous for her works with tempera and watercolour of botanical subjects.

The artist rose to prominence due to her precision and balance with space and realism of her subjects.  Garzoni was often called the Chaste Giovanna due to her vow to remain a virgin.  Garzoni was also notable for being one of the few women who opted to travel throughout Europe and receive an education during the 17th century instead of settling down and starting a family. Scholars have speculated Garzoni may have been influenced by fellow botanical painter Jacopo Ligozzi although details about Garzoni’s training are widely unknown.

Giovanna Garzoni was born in 1600 in Ascoli Piceno in the Marche district of Italy to Giacomo Garzoni and Isabetta Gaia.  Both of Garzoni’s parents were of Venetian origin and are believed to have come from a long line of Venetian painters but this item is often disputed.  Historians have widely speculated that Garzoni started off her career as an apprentice under her uncle sometime before 1615.  Garzoni also had a brother, Mattio whom she would travel with throughout her career as an artist.

In 1630 Garzoni along with her brother Mattio, left Venice for Naples where she worked for the Spanish viceroy. Garzoni remained in Naples for one year until she moved to Rome in 1631. Garzoni’s stay in Rome was short lived and reached Turin in 1632 and lived there until 1637. A few years later in 1640, Garzoni arrived in Paris and stayed there until 1642 when she went to Rome. Garzoni travelled back and forth from Rome to Florence until 1651 where her client was the prominent Medici Family.  After serving the Medici Court, Garzoni decided to settle in Rome in 1651 where she worked for the Florentine Court.

It is believed by historians that Garzoni never married but several others have claimed the artist was once married to Venetian portrait painter Tiberio Tinelli in 1622.  However the marriage was short lived due to Garzoni’s vow of chastity and as a result Tinelli and Garzoni separated in 1624. Garzoni’s marriage to Tinelli was ended by annulment rather than divorce because they two never consummated their marriage.

Garzoni died in Rome in February of 1670 at the age of 70. Today, Garzoni’s tomb remains at the Church of Santa Martina.

Plate with White Beans:

Plate with White Beans was one of the many pieces the Medici Family commissioned Garzoni to paint. The piece depicts a dish containing ripe beans and has been noted for the amount of detail the artist put into the piece, even marking points of decay on the beans. The painting was created some time between 1650-1662 and is now located in Florence at the Galleria Palatina.

Fgure 1 Giovanna Garzoni.  Plate with White Beans, ca 1650-1622.  Gouache on parchment.  Galleria Paletina, Florence.

Cherries on a Plate, Broad Beans, and Bumblebee:

The painting is another example of Garzoni’s many tempera pieces. Garzoni created this piece around 1665 and dedicated it to the prominent Medici family of Florence. The piece is now located in Florence at the Galleria Palatina.


Still Life with a Basket of Fruit, a Vase with Carnations and Shells on a Table:

This gouache on vellum piece is one of the 20 still-life miniatures that Garzoni produced for the Medici family from the years 1650-1662. The piece depicts carnations, conch shells, as well as a basket of fruit. Due to her work for the Medici Court, Garzoni became a favourite within the Florentine court for her depictions of nature and botanical subjects. The piece is now located in the Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay Collection in Washington, DC.

Plate of Figs:

The year of creation varies from 1661 to 1662. The painting is believed to be part of a 20-piece collection on vellum by Garzoni that all depict miniatures of fruit. There have been several sightings of the piece being reproduced for Garzoni often duplicated her pieces for various clients. The piece is part of the Graham Arader III Collection in New York.




Image By Jase Lim

A Travelling Family

I saw this sculpture inside the Flower Dome at Garden by the Bay. It is a gift from Singapore Changi Airport to Garden By The Bay at Marina Bay, Singapore.

‘La Famille de voyageurs’ (A Travelling Family) depicts a travelling family as the title informed us. Bruno Catalano cites his experience as a sailor as central to his inspiration.  His eye-catching works, with their hollowed bodies, give a sense of transiency.  Moving and changing as one shift one’s perspective on the sculpture.  When the emptiness of the body merged with the surroundings, one no longer see it as an art form or sculpture but an image or mirage?

Bruno Catalano is a French Sculptor who was originally from Morocco and the third and last child of a Sicilian family. In 1970, the Catalano family left Morocco for France. Bruno Catalano first works were compact and conventional but the later series become increasingly expressive.  In 2004 a flaw in one of his characters – a depiction of Cyrano – prompted him to dig and hollow out the chest.  A new path of work ensues.