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Art What!: Georgette Chen – At Home In The World at National Gallery Singapore

Screenshot 2020-11-21 at 9.00.02 AM

Often considered one of Singapore’s most influential and important artists, Georgette Chen receives a solo exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore, with 69 prominent works and 74 archival materials this November. Titled Georgette Chen: At Home in the World, the exhibition marks the first major retrospective of Georgette Chen’s work in two decades, and sheds light on her lesser known (but still critical) contributions to the development of Singapore’s then-nascent artistic community. In conjunction with the Gallery’s 5th anniversary commemoration and its theme of inspiring inclusiveness, the exhibition also highlights Chen’s sensitivity towards the nuances of Singapore’s diverse culture, in which she paid particular attention to the importance of language in understanding culture.

Gallery view of Georgette Chen: At Home In The World

Visitors will get the rare opportunity to encounter Chen’s prolific body of work, which spans the breadth of her practice from her time in China, France, the USA, Malaysia and Singapore. From seldom-seen works from her early period in France, to her exemplary still-life paintings, the exhibition will trace the development of her artistic techniques and style throughout her career. Alongside her works, newly-discovered archival materials from the National Collection, and other public and private collections in Singapore and China will also be displayed for the first time, including newspaper articles and family photographs that give visitors a rare glimpse into Chen’s life including her childhood years. The contextualisation of her works through the archival materials provides greater insights into Chen’s growth as a professional artist, as well as her contributions to Singapore and Southeast Asian art and art history.

“Georgette Chen holds a very special place in Singapore’s art history. Being the first female artist to have achieved such international acclaim, the impact she has had on the development of visual arts in Singapore continues to influence generations of local artists,” says Dr. Eugene Tan, Director of National Gallery Singapore. “As one of the largest custodians of Chen’s works, we are gratified to have been able to mount this latest retrospective on one of Singapore’s foremost modern artists. We hope Chen’s dedicated pursuit of a creative existence will inspire visitors to better understand our society, culture and the world we live in through art.”

Chen first met Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1931 when she and Eugene Chen were travelling from Europe to Shanghai via Malaya. After she settled in Singapore, the Tunku, who became the first Prime Minister of Malaya, commissioned her to paint his portrait. In 1956, Chen had a solo exhibition at the British Council in Kuala Lumpur under the patronage of the Tunku. This image shows Chen greeting the Tunku and his wife Tun Sharifah Rodziah Barakbah, at the exhibition.

Jointly curated by Lim Shujuan, Sam I-shan and Teo Hui Min, with research support from Cai Heng, the exhibition will lead visitors on an intimate tour of Chen’s life, giving them a perspective of Chen’s world through her art, in the paintings she made of the landscapes she travelled in, and the portraits of the people around her. Chen’s personal observations of the world around her, captured in her diary entries and letters to friends, will also be on display for visitors to read, highlighting the influence her travels had towards her art.

“Plans for a Georgette Chen exhibition were already underway almost 3 years ago, with the team coming together as a confluence of research interests focusing mostly on Singapore art in early to mid 20th century,” says co-curator Teo Hui Min. “The aim was to continue her story besides her work in our long term displays of Singapore art, in preparation, we had to do plenty of groundwork, from visiting very specific places in China, to even reading every single one of Chen’s letters to find leads and gain more information from public and private collectors.”

Georgette Chen. Rohani. 1963. Oil on canvas, 66.0 x 55.0 cm. Gift of the artist’s estate. Collection of National Gallery Singapore.

The exhibition will also spotlight Chen’s significant contributions to the Singapore artistic community as an artist, educator, mentor and arts administrator. Key works and personal documents from pivotal exhibitions that established her reputation as an artist will be on display, such as selected paintings and the catalogue from her first solo exhibition in Singapore in 1953. Visitors will also discover Chen’s extensive involvement in the development of Singapore’s art scene. Documents from her time as a teacher at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and her work as an administrator with the Lee Foundation Fund evoke newfound appreciation of Chen for her invaluable support of local artists and art societies as a champion of Singapore art.

“In terms of the arrangement of the exhibition, we initially tried to arrange the works chronologically or by genre, but found that neither worked by themselves,” adds Hui Min. “What really helped was the inclusion of the archival narrative, which grounds the paintings and gives context. By themselves, visitors are free to appreciate the paintings as they are for what they represent, but the archival then gives another layer to the story, should they wish to go further.”

Georgette Chen. Malay Wedding. 1962. Oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm. Collection of National Museum of Singapore.

Organised across nine thematic sections, the exhibition takes visitors on a journey through Chen’s life and artistic practice, featuring her most significant paintings accompanied by five showcases featuring letters, photographs, documents and newspaper articles that will offer visitors a deeper appreciation of her works. A comprehensive timeline of Chen’s life and career milestones will also be displayed at Level 4 City Hall Foyer, to help visitors understand how her artistic practice was impacted and influenced by key events in world history and her personal life.

Entries from Georgette Chen’s diary, 11 to 14 August 1935. Collection of National Gallery Singapore Library & Archive. Gift of Lee Foundation.

Our selection always stems from a research perspective, and one thing we did when it opened was a thesis statement and develop research from there, and address the thesis based on what the artwork and archival material was telling us,” says Hui Min, on the selection of Chen’s works featured. “So by the end of the time we were confirming the artwork list, different considerations come into play like space size orientation of the painting, can they be stacked together, all this comes together towards the later part, but in the selection process, to choose the best examples to tell the story we wanted to tell. Every exhibition has a particular perspective, it’s not the only perspective, but to present a specific way of reading Chen’s narrative.”

Chen’s move to Malaya in 1951 was initially meant to be temporary, but she found fertile inspiration in Penang’s tropical climate, lush greenery and immense variety of brightly coloured fruits. She filled her artworks with the people, landscapes and motifs of her surroundings in Malaya, fondly describing the region as a “land of perpetual summer” that allowed her to thrive creatively. The artworks Chen painted during this period demonstrate the refinement of her artistic technique, and signify a period of creative growth and inspiration.

Georgette Chen. Vegetables and Claypot. c. 1940-1945. Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm. Collection of National Gallery Singapore.

Travel was an important part of Chen’s artistic process, which she frequently undertook in order to find inspiration. A special section focuses on the artworks produced during Chen’s month-long road trip to the east coast of Malaysia in 1960. The paintings mark an important shift in her compositional approach, which saw her experimenting with combining portraiture and en plein air (outdoor) landscape painting, and illustrates Chen’s lifelong commitment to improving her craft.

Chen considered everyday subjects that were otherwise considered unremarkable to hold a sense of dynamism and novelty, and sought to capture this unique energy through her art. This section features artworks that exemplify her artistic vision of finding beauty in everyday life, such as her still-life paintings of tropical fruits, moon cakes and other local foods that were indicative of the geographical location and time period she was living in.

Georgette Chen. Hakka Family. 1939. Oil on Canvas, 162 x 130 cm. Private Collection.

Despite challenging times, Chen continued to paint and focused her attention on subjects available to her while working indoors, highlighting her persistent dedication to her art even during a period of upheaval and conflict. Visitors will also have the exceptional opportunity to view Chen’s monumental Hakka Family, which will be exhibited for the first time in public since 1997. Hakka Family was a work that stood out and spoke to me, especially sitting there and appreciating it in front of us. The details are astounding, and it felt good just to get a rare glimpse of the coloured version of this painting the curators finally got hold of.

Looking at the painting’s subjects, it’s interesting how all four of them are squeezed into a single room, each one doing their own thing. The mother may be busy nursing the baby, yet her gaze remains fixed on her second daughter, making sure that her older sister is taking care of her, and represents the close knit families of yesteryear. The cement flooring shows the simplicity of life back then, while we also noticed the beautiful details of the wooden chairs the children are seated in, and how they’re the type that can be folded up and stowed away for convenience, for the sake of optimising space. A clay pot is placed at the side, where the rice is, and what looks like a makeshift ladle used to scoop it out. Even in their dressing, we enjoyed the detail that went into the depiction of their braided hair to keep the heat off their heads, the clogs on their feet, and the jade bangle on the mother’s wrist (important for any Hakka family). What’s also interesting is how there is such a strong female energy in this painting, in contrast the the series of paintings depicting Eugene Chen (Georgette Chen’s husband), just adjacent to Hakka Family.

Portraits of Eugene Chen

“Something we were always aware of wanting to create were the moments of reflection between works, and one of the best places to sit down for that is probably in front of her two lotus paintings, which gives you a very meditative, soothing space to absorb the work and observe the details,” says Hui Min. “Also, you’d probably want to take a look at the Hakka Family painting, which is so rich, and within this exhibition is an exceptionally rare opportunity to see the painting by itself. Because it’s never been published in colour, we were blown away the first time we came across it like this, and it just sprung to life.”

Having lived and worked in many countries, Chen was particularly sensitive to the importance of language in order to understand a culture. Her proficiency in English, French, Mandarin and conversational Malay was instrumental in her forming close relationships with the artistic community in Singapore, and in hosting international guests on behalf of various institutions such as NAFA. In the spirit of the Gallery’s 5th anniversary theme of bridging divides and finding common ground through art, the Gallery will be launching a new immersive multilingual audio tour in conjunction with the exhibition for audiences with different mother tongues to better understand the exhibition and gain a deeper appreciation of her works. Audio tours will be available in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil and can be accessed on the Gallery Explorer app and SoundCloud, as well as complementary public programmes to deepen audiences’ appreciation of Chen’s art.

Looking back again at the exhibition’s title and typeface, we noticed how the ‘Chen’ resembled Georgette Chen’s actual signature, the same way she’d always sign off on them when she finishes a painting. A beautiful typeface, the words are also nicely arranged by the team who designed it, fitting nicely together, as if the title itself were a painting, each word finding its place ‘at home in the world’.

“It has always been our decision to focus on her professional career versus her personal life, and there’s almost already a cult of personality around Georgette as this mysterious enigmatic figure, and popularised by shows we produced too,” Hui Min concludes. “But now having been open for 5 years, been able to test some ideas of pushing the boundaries of certain established narratives, what is it about Georgette that makes her important to Singapore’s art history. Of course, no exhibition can ever give you a full answer as to who an artist is, and even during the whole process, we kept coming up with even more questions as we went along, which is what made it so interesting. But hopefully, visitors also take the time to ponder over how all these different aspects of someone’s life later come to affect certain decisions, approaches and work.”

Photos courtesy of National Gallery Singapore

Georgette Chen: At Home In The World runs from 27th November 2020 to 26th September 2021. For more information, visit their website here

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