Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Georgette Chen

Self portrait (1934)

Georgette Chen is one of Singapore’s pioneer artists, having founded the Nanyang art. By combining Western influences with Chinese ink painting traditions, they formed the basis of Singapore’s first celebrated and locally conceived art.

Georgette Chen’s Self-Portrait, 1946 is a close up of her neck and face that fills the whole picture plane. She is painted with long, thin arching eyebrows and strikingly piercing eyes, even though her eyes appear to be slightly narrowed. Her chin is up, and her hair is curled elaborately from above her ear and all the way to the back of her head. The prim, yet relaxed lips that are painted crimson complements the rest of her features and her elegant poise, along with the classic mandarin collar of the cheongsam is a grand pairing of gold and black colors. The background is a beige color in varying shades, from which her face stands out strikingly.

Through this portrait, Georgette Chen has portrayed herself as a dignified young lady, who appears to be distant and detached from the viewers. This can be seen from the slightly arching of her head as well as the return of her gaze to the viewers, looking at them from the corners of her eyes. The sharp piercing eyes also reflect a steady determination and a keen sense of purpose. In this way, the artist has successfully engaged the viewers in the personality behind the face.

Georgette Chen also remained faithful to her ideas of portraiture. Painted in a realistic and naturalistic manner, the artist has also included much details and textures; from the reflection of her smooth black hair, to her pale, fair skin, mildly pink at the cheeks. There is also clear articulation of features, such as the curls above her ear and the starched Chinese collar. Minimal lines are used to delineate the contours of her face and hair, with applied colors in meager measure to differentiate the shades of facial complexion from the simple background. The accurate and precise shadings of shadows on the face also give the portrait a three-dimensional quality and add to the realistic element of the painting. Such careful use of visual elements succeeded not only in capturing the likeness but also to heighten the psychological insight to the self portrait.

Georgette Chen have studied art in Western art capitals such as Paris and New York, as well as lived in Shanghai and Hong Kong during the year Self-Portrait, 1946, was painted. Hence, it shows influence from both western as well as eastern art. The colors used in Self-Portrait are mainly beige and black, and are painted with relatively smooth brushstrokes. Meager, varying shades of beige contour her face, as well as the background, which makes the painting look very much like Chinese watercolor paintings which probably influenced this painting as she was living in China then. Her face fills up most of the picture, with little visible background. However, the varying shades of beige used to paint the background do give a sense of space, albeit the fact that the space seems to be very small, as if she painted herself against the wall. The painting reminds one slightly of Paul Cezanne’s works, which uses different shades of the same color to create shadows and highlights and to build up on the object, like Lego blocks. The painting is a mix of influences of eastern and western art, as it is painted in a way strikingly similar to the Chinese ink paintings with Western oil paints.

Portrait of Eugene Chen (1961)

Georgette Chen met her husband, Eugene Chen, who was the then Foreign Minister of the new Chinese republican government, in Paris and in 1930, they were happily married. Thirty-one years her senior, Eugene Chen was a quiet and reserved man, who remained troubled by the happenings in the state, especially during the war. Georgette Chen loved her husband very much and shows deep respect for him. Even when he passed away in 1948, she still remained very fond and was deeply attached to him.

In Portrait of Eugene Chen done by Georgette Chen, she has made her husband as the main subject matter in this painting. In the painting, Eugene Chen is dressed in traditional Chinese costume. This may be purposely arranged so as to dominate his Chinese identity. Eugene Chen is showing traces of aging in this painting. Not only does he have wrinkles on his face, his balding head is as well as the whiteness in the remaining hair is, too, acts as evidences of the aging man. He is holding on to a book in hand, however, from the focus of his eyes, he appears not to be reading the book in his hand. Instead, he seems to be staring into the empty space in front with eyes not in focus, appearing to be in serious and deep thought. At the same time, his right arm is used support himself on the sofa that is he is leaning onto with fingers wrapping around his forehead. Besides just supporting himself, the position of his fingers create the feeling that he is bothered by something at the moment and is having headache thinking about the problem. The background of the painting is almost all filled with the beige color sofa and the plain wall behind it.

This painting is a rather close-up view of Eugene Chen, showing all of his upper body. Georgette Chen has used very minimal lines to delineate the contours of his face, hair, as well as the fabric of his clothing. Little colors are used to differentiate the shades of his facial complexion from the very simple background as well as the sofa that he is leaning on. The serene and sensitive disposition of the artist is expressed in the choice of harmonious colors of the subtle nuances of pink, beige, brown and grayish blue. The painting has picked a rather realistic style although it does not appear ‘photographic’ and consists of visible brushstrokes.

Despite the fact that she is trying to dominate the Chinese tradition and style of this painting, Western influences can be found in the painting as well to a great extent. This is probably due to the artist’s background itself. She was born in Paris in 1907 and moved to China at the age of three but spent her years of education mostly in art schools in Paris and New York. As a result, she was exposed to many of the western artist influences, one of which is actually Paul Cezanne. She has rendered her earlier works with heavy brush stroke and texture.

As a result of her family background, this portrait is very much influenced by styles adopted from the Western movements. However, on top of hat, the painting appears to be painted with thin wash of colors that is a major characteristic of Chinese ink painting. Thus the work itself is a combination of both Chinese and Western elements, typical of a Nanyang style painting.

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