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Georgette Chen | Singapore’s Pioneer Woman Artist

I have missed writing these exhibition reviews as I realise the last one dates back to 2019! I do love seeing exhibitions full of paintings — and what a great way to be introduced to Singapore’s art history with the spotlight given to Georgette Chen at National Gallery Singapore. It’s so interesting to me that Georgette Chen (1906–1993) was a prominent woman artist in Singapore. As my research centres around women artists and self-portraits (and is never far from my mind…), I was of course fascinated by Chen’s self-portraits! I thought it was nice that the exhibition Georgette Chen: At Home In The World also gave a lot of attention to them.

Very interestingly, Georgette Chen: At Home In The World is bookended with the two self-portraits by Georgette Chen from the museum’s collection! Apart from that, the exhibition roughly follows a chronological order featuring Chen’s works from the various places she lived in: New York, Paris, Shanghai, Penang, and finally Singapore. The exhibition features a very helpful timeline of Chen’s life in the middling section between the exhibition galleries, and it’s also available to view online here.

Self-Portrait: Post-War

All paintings by Georgette Chen, Self Portrait, c. 1946, all paintings are oil on canvas

It does sound like Chen lived a very exciting life in these different cities, although I think it’s also important to note that she lived through four wars (two Chinese revolutions and the two World Wars), and it makes me wonder what state of mind she was in.

The opening self-portrait then seems to me to reflect Chen’s own thoughts on the matter. Based on the timeline, this was painted after the Second World War, and in the few years when Chen travelled across China (before the next Chinese revolution of 1949). The way I see it, it marks the point when Chen (finally) faces the viewer or the lens directly, since her gaze is always averted in the many other photographs of her that I saw in the exhibition. A turning point showing her matured, steely resolve — and a definitive image of the artist for sure.

Singapore

The first half of the exhibition features works from Chen’s time in Malaya and Singapore. Most of the highlights that I captured below are from Chen’s time in Singapore, when she moved here permanently in 1953.

Boats and Old Shophouses, 1960
Singapore Waterfront, c. 1958

I really love seeing Chen’s painted snapshots of an old Singapore. It feels almost familiar, like what we know of Boat Quay and the scenic landscape along the Singapore River — but just from a few decades before.

Still Life (Moon Festival Table), 1962
Satay Boy, 1964-1965
Malay Maiden, 1961

I really liked this portrait of the Malay Maiden because of the layering of the patterned veil over the sitter’s hair and shirt, which I thought was very nicely done.

Girl with Veil (Raiga), 1961, charcoal and pastel on paper
Family Portrait, c. 1954-1955

I remember seeing Family Portrait in NGS’s previous exhibition ‘(Re)collect’ from 2018! I’ll admit that I’d initially thought that it was a self-portrait, but it’s actually a portrait of a close friend and her family.

Sweet Rambutans, c. 1965
Fruits, c. 1965
Tropical Fruits, c. 1969

I feel like Chen seems to be most well-known for her still life paintings featuring fruits. Funnily enough, I learned that Chen was known as a “rambutan specialist” and was even referred to as “basket Chen” thanks to her attention to detail of rambutans and fruit baskets!

Lotus in a Breeze, c. 1970
Lotus Symphony, 1962

These two paintings of lotuses appear to hark back to the traditional motif of lotuses in Chinese paintings. But Chen brings a different take to it by painting them en plein air (meaning outdoors), thanks to her artistic training in Paris. It’s nice to see the image of Lotus Symphony next to the photograph of Chen painting it in her friend’s garden!

East Coast Vendor, 1960
Cascading Orchids, c. 1965
A Pot of Orchids (Dendrobium Bigibbum), c. 1963-1965

The second half of the exhibition goes further back in time, starting with Chen’s years in Paris when she moved there for her artistic training. (Chen’s family had earlier moved to Paris and New York where she attended primary school and high school there.)

Paris

Coast of Brittany, c. 1930
Landscape, c. 1930-1933
Still Life with Cut Apple and Orange, c. 1928-1930, oil on wood panel

I’m not sure if it’s the Parisian connection, but the two landscape paintings above give me French Impressionism vibes! While Still Life with Cut Apple and Orange has a strong Cézanne feel to it… I also love the bamboo frame of this still life, which is so unique and adds another layer of looking!

Shanghai

We then go forward a bit to Chen’s years in Shanghai. The archival materials pictured here show Chen featured on the cover of the Shanghai magazine 良友 The Young Companion (left) and in the newspaper 上海畫報 Shanghai Pictorial (right), both from 1931. I was particularly drawn to the 良友 image because I learned about this magazine in a China Studies class before, and I found it interesting that Chen was on the cover of this magazine popular among young Chinese women in the 1920-1930s, especially in that heyday of Shanghai’s modern era.

Portrait of Eugene Chen, c. 1939-1944

While in Shanghai, Chen and her first husband Eugene Chen were kept under surveillance by the Japanese during the Second World War. The exhibition features a few of Chen’s portraits of her husband while they were confined during this period.

Hakka Family, 1939

Travels Across China

We move forward in time again to the post-war years when Chen travelled around China, first with some water-scapes painted in Suzhou.

Boats in Soochow, c. 1946
Soochow’s Arched Bridge of Sighs, c. 1946
Harbour Scene in Hong Kong, c. 1938-1941

An interlude here with scenes from old Hong Kong and snapshots of New Territories before its redevelopment! These Hong Kong paintings were completed in the years before the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese in 1941, and the Chens’ forced move to Shanghai after.

New Territories, c. 1938-1941
New Territories, Hong Kong II, c. 1938-1941
Temple of Earth (Peking), c. 1945-1949
Cityscape of Beijing, c. 1945-1949

I really liked this section showing Chen’s cityscapes, landscapes and waterscapes of old Chinese cities. Cityscape of Beijing stood out to me with her depiction of the grand palace buildings of the Forbidden City, although they are not well-preserved at the moment of Chen’s painting.

Self-Portrait: When In Paris

Self Portrait, c. 1934

The final work of the exhibition is Chen’s self-portrait from her Paris period — making one last jump back in time to the 1930s. I have to say, this self-portrait looks quite stern, or perhaps she was not fully comfortable capturing her own likeness as I find her sideways glance very subtly slides past the viewer.

It’s interesting to compare this self-portrait with the full-length photograph from the 1930s below, where Chen looks much more at ease posing with a bunch of paintbrushes next to her.

Photograph of Georgette Chen, c. 1930s

After writing this post, I definitely feel like taking another turn at the exhibition to re-look at the works again! It’s one of the better exhibitions at NGS that I’ve seen in a while, and it offers a good introduction to the artist and her various homes around the world. Naturally, more emphasis is placed on her years in Penang and Singapore, although I preferred the second part of the exhibition that looked at Chen’s earlier years in Paris and Shanghai.

I’m liking the focus given to Georgette Chen, a clear example of a significant woman artist who spent the latter half of her life in Singapore (and later became a Singaporean too!). And while I appreciate the exhibition’s approach of centring her work around time and place, I find it interesting that the exhibition didn’t focus as much on the woman question — as in, Chen’s perspectives working as an artist and as a woman.

I mention this because there is a tendency in museum exhibitions of works by female artists to emphasise their achievements despite gender restrictions, or images of female solidarity or feminism, etc. In Chen’s case, it would be quite a different context when considering her status as a woman artist in Singapore, though it would nevertheless be very interesting.

I shall end off here by rating this exhibition 4.5 stars! Definitely worth a visit, and Georgette Chen: At Home In The World runs until 26 September 2021. Have your turn at rating this exhibition below too!

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