It’s not every day you hear of artists celebrating their 100th birthday. And even rarer than that is an artist still actively working at that age, constantly pushing at their artistry, innovating new styles and spending hours in their studio.
That’s something certainly worth celebrating, and encapsulated in centenarian Singaporean artist Lim Tze Peng, whose new exhibition Soul of Ink: Lim Tze Peng at 100, opened at The Arts House this week. Curated by Low Sze Wee, CEO of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre and the former Director (Curatorial, Collections and Education) of the National Gallery Singapore, the exhibition collects about 20 works Lim Tze Peng produced over the past year, as he continued working through the pandemic in the comfort of his home studio.
Best known for his work with ink, Lim Tze Peng’s long journey as an artist has been nothing short of unusual. He began as a self-taught painter and calligrapher as a student in Chung Cheng High School, before becoming a teacher and eventually, principal of Sin Min School. For the next thirty years, he travelled around Southeast Asia with other Nanyang-school artists, and counts pioneers Lee Man Fong, Cheong Soo Pieng, and Liu Kang, among his mentors.
While he was never formally trained, in 1977, he exhibited a work at the Commonwealth Art Exhibition in England. His entry was initially rejected by the local selection committee for being neither Eastern nor Western, but it was eventually accepted, and unexpectedly won the Special Prize, the only Singaporean work to win a prize at that competition. This gave him the confidence to pursue his artistic dreams, only becoming a full-time artist in 1981 at the age of 60, after retiring as a school principal.
More than twenty years later, at the age of 95 in 2016, Lim Tze Peng became the oldest Singaporean to be awarded the Meritorious Service Medal on Singapore’s National Day, and later still, the Meritorious Service Medal for his contributions to the arts.
Soul of Ink then, represents the immense passion that continues to fuel Mr Lim even today, and his perseverance and willingness to keep going strong, breaking new ground and relentlessly improve his craft at 100 years old.
“In 2020, most of us were working on laptops dreaming of out next holiday,” says curator Low Sze Wee. “But Mr Lim was working hard too. If you visited him in his studio, the first question he’s likely to ask is ‘do you think I’ve improved?’ Most senior artists at his age would be looking back and organising retrospective exhibitions, but Mr Lim would instead always be thinking of his next work, how he can improve, and when he can have his next artistic breakthrough.”
The exhibition may be a small show, but it encapsulates everything Mr Lim stands for in just 20 paintings. The very first painting one sees in the gallery represents not only his skill at calligraphy and abstract art, but also his interest in Chinese culture. Based on the Song dynasty poem Man Jiang Hong, its lyrics are filled with patriotic angst and fervour, something captured in his exaggerated, distorted means of painting it. If one looks closely, one can make out distinct Chinese characters amidst the initial ‘mess’ from afar, emblematic of his self-coined ‘hutuzi’ (literally, ‘anyhow words’), where he paints with feeling, pushing calligraphy into a more visual, abstract composition than pure text alone.
Besides calligraphy, Mr Lim’s ink work also led him to pursue painting landscapes and capturing scenes of everyday life in Singapore. In one section of the exhibition, visitors will see works he painted around 40 years ago, now revisited and given a splash of colour by Mr Lim.
“When he became a full-time artist in 1981, Singapore was also going through a period of rapid redevelopment, where buildings were pulled down, kampungs were demolished, and it was almost as if he was racing against time to capture these scenes.”– Curator Low Sze Wee
“Initially, these were just done without much colour, capturing the building’s structures,” he adds. “But now, 40 years on, sitting in his studio, no longer in front of these scenes, what always comes back to him is the colours of these places, and by adding these bright colours, it is his creative reinterpretation of the past.”
In his later years especially, Mr Lim found it increasingly difficult to work outdoors due to his age, and retreated to his own studio. But this was paradoxically, what might have led to an artistic breakthrough for him, no longer under pressure to complete painting under weather conditions or within a set amount of time.
As a result, he began to use much larger brushes to work on his canvases, and he came to rely on his memory to recreate these monumental, large-scale scenes. In a way, these are more than just paintings – they are stages, providing a window for us to look back on the Singapore of the past, immersing us in entire environments, filled with bold colours to represent their sense of life and vigour.
Mr Lim also had a close relationship with nature, in particular trees. And for Mr Lim, trees always held an interesting parallel to the art of calligraphy. Much like how calligraphy comprises a multitude of strokes, where a single touch on the canvas can result in countless images, trees too are unpredictable as they grow into their own entanglement of wood, branches and leaves. His series of images depicting trees tended to represent how he was able to inject colours to represent the mood of even trees, and elevate the language of art.
As Mr Lim himself puts it: “I have a great love for trees, especially old trees…They show us how we can age with grace and vigour. The wrinkled barks of old trees, their wide branches and the network of roots – nothing is stronger or more beautiful. Just like calligraphy, lyrical yet so full of strength, trees speak the simplest language, the language of life. Just looking at trees makes me happy.”
“Ink is an unforgiving medium, requiring dexterity and control,” says Low Sze Wee. “For Mr Lim, he managed to push ink to a more international audience through his use of abstraction, with Chinese calligraphy as the foundation. Take for example some of these works, which sees him superimposing, extending and shortening the way he paints his characters, bringing out the quality of the visual language rather than text alone.”
“Often, he does this very forcefully, all in one sitting,” Low Sze Wee adds. “And then he contemplates what he’s done, and thinks about what he can do to further abstract it, from adding on top of what he’s written, to adding colour. The final output triggers different emotions as a result.”
“Mr Lim himself says how the main purpose of abstraction is not to tell a story, but to encourage involvement and the imagination of the viewer. If he were to give a title to a work, he would already have instructed the mind towards a certain direction. And perhaps this quote nicely encapsulates what Mr Lim hopes to achieve, where he is still pushing himself in new directions even at the ripe age of 100.”– Curator Low Sze Wee
The exhibition is also co-organised by Woon Tai Ho. Best known as the founder of Channel NewsAsia, Tai Ho is also known for his deep knowledge of the art world, having written a non-fiction book on Cultural Medallion winner and painter Tan Swie Hian (To Paint A Smile), and even a fiction novel about an art prodigy titled Riot Green.
In conjunction with the exhibition, Tai Ho also spent the last year writing a book about Lim Tze Peng. Also titled Soul of Ink, the book is published by homegrown international publisher World Scientific, and is the first comprehensive biographical book on Mr Lim. It traces the beginnings of Lim Tze Peng’s early years, relives the times of controversy over the artist’s innovations in Chinese calligraphy, and celebrates his breakthroughs. Throughout the book, attention is paid to Lim Tze Peng the man, the foundation of everything that is admirable about Lim Tze Peng the artist. It looks at the man behind the art, and how art has given life to him and his family.
“Over several months, I spent almost every Friday with Mr Lim, but mostly, it was just letting him talk and interact with people brought into the room,:” says Tai Ho, on the process of writing the book. “Sometimes I don’t even tell him I’m in the studio, and it ends up being just me watching him paint.”
“Most of the book is really an observation of him researching about his family and friends, and the only part I really interviewed him was a Q&A segment at the end. And in so many ways, this book was an observation of his behaviour and the way he paints.”– Woon Tai Ho, author of Soul of Ink
“I actually left out quite a lot from the book, like his time spent in Bali or when he painted on location, because these are all fairly well-documented, so I mention them but not in detail,” adds Tai Ho. “What I was really interested in was him at 100 years old, and why someone would push himself at this age. I was so fascinated by the spirit of this man, and surprised by how much energy he had compared to the people around him, and how he kept wanting to do more!”
“I’ve actually known Mr Lim for 12 years now, from when I wrote my first book on him (My kampong, my home: conversations with Lim Tze Peng), and I was always fascinated by the man,” says Tai Ho. “When I came back from Myanmar several years after, his neighbours asked me whether I wanted to meet Mr Lim again because he was turning 100.”
“I originally wanted to call the book ‘Rainbow After Dusk’, because at this point in life he’s enjoying his rainbow. but he actually suggested ‘mo hun’, or ‘Soul of Ink’, which I think is a much better title,” Tai Ho continues.
“Over these 12 years, he’s not changed at all, in that he still possesses this same determination, spirit and resilience, even more than when he was 90. It hits me that he is so alive and inspirational; when I asked him if he had a birthday wish, he told me ‘give me a few more years, I can still do more.'”
From his months of observation, Tai Ho has even noticed how Mr Lim doesn’t eat very much anymore. “It’s almost metaphorical, where he’s always just a little bit hungry to do more, and hungry for the day, because every day is important to him,” says Tai Ho. “When you walk into his studio, you forget that he’s 100 years old. Yes, he walks very slowly, but when he dips his brush into the paint, something in him comes out when the ink hits the paper. That’s what you call the soul of ink.”
“What makes him so different from other artists is how he is both calligrapher and painter, and innovative in both areas. He transforms this revered art form into hutuzi, muddles it, something many people would never do to calligraphy. Naturally, it drew criticism, and people laughed at him in Singapore when it first came out. But then the Chinese people in China loved it, and even invited him to China. Now, hutuzi is considered his most innovative art form, and we have to give him credit for evolving his artistry to such an extent.”– Woon Tai Ho, author of Soul of Ink
While his ‘hutuzi’ may seem ‘easy’ to imitate, Tai Ho mentions how Mr Lim thinks young artists should still start with the basics, and focus on naturalism before evolving their art form. “Picasso began as a naturalist who evolved in doing cubism, and Mondrian painting beautiful landscapes before his style shifted towards stark architectural abstracts,” says Tai Ho. “You have to allow yourself time to see how naturalism evolves into your own language. It doesn’t just happen overnight, and for Mr Lim, it took him decades to finally reach this stage. His work comes in phases, and he never forgets the past.”
And on what people will takeaway when they read the book? Tai Ho has this to say:
“When people read this book, what they’ll learn about him will be the wisdom of being a human being. He says that before becoming a good artist, you have to first be a good person. And while observing him, he’s always had the mindset of ‘if you don’t have something good to say, then don’t say anything.” And that’s something he stays true to over the many months of observing him. All he does is think about how his painting can be improved, and he’s just such an honourable and admirable man.”– Woon Tai Ho, author of Soul of Ink
Both the book and exhibition were formally launched on 15th June, graced by guest-of-honour Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore. Said PM Lee at the opening: “In 2014, I opened the Lim Tze Peng Art Gallery at Chung Cheng High School. Mr Lim’s alma mater had set up the gallery to house over 100 of his best works, that he had donated. These masterpieces now inspire the students, and future generations of 2 artists.”
“So when Tai Ho invited me to launch “Soul of Ink: Lim Tze Peng at 100” – his book about Mr Lim’s life story and works, I was deeply honoured to accept. His life’s work captures the atmosphere of the changing times, as our country developed and urbanised. It opens a window into our nation’s soul, while enriching our heritage, and helping to form an emerging national cultural identity,” PM Lee continues.
“This is exactly what art can do – to link generations past, present and future, to express our creative responses to our circumstances, and articulate our dreams and aspirations, and at the same time, remind us that our future paths are our own to blaze.”– Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
“Just like how Mr Lim pioneered his own path. His works were undeniably rooted in Chinese Art, from the materials, to the style of painting and writing. But the spirit of his art is neither Eastern nor Western. It is Singaporean,” says PM Lee. “Mr Lim has inspired new generations of local artists, each with their own unique styles, but all distinctively Singaporean. Piece by piece, each new artwork contributes to our collective identity, our sense of national identity and pride. As Mr Lim said, “Everybody contributes differently, I am born for art and my contribution is in art. You can live to 200 years, [but] it will be a short life, if you haven’t made a meaningful contribution.”
“We need passionate individuals like Tai Ho. Their efforts in nurturing the arts, supporting our local artists, writing about them, and promoting awareness and appreciation of their achievements are just as important in keeping the Arts vibrant and growing in Singapore.”– Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
In looking back on his practice, Lim Tze Peng once said: “There are people who like my past, prefer that I don’t change… They don’t understand what I paint now. It doesn’t matter. It is not possible for everyone to see what I see. And honestly, it doesn’t matter if they never do. I am painting feelings now.”
From the book, exhibition, and impact he’s had on the people around him, it is crystal clear that Mr Lim is remaining steadfast in his art and his vision, and that it is a drive powerful enough to keep him going for years to come. It is inevitable that given a few more years, he will continue to innovate even further, and before we know it, see yet another exhibition of new work in no time at all.
Soul of Ink: Lim Tze Peng at 100 is open to the public at The Arts House from 15th to 30th June 2021, 11am to 8pm. (10am to 2pm only on 30th June) Admission is free but registration is required. To register, visit the website here