Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Liu Kang---Nanyang style

Life by the River (1975)

Liu Kang belongs to a group of artists known as the Nanyang artists. This group of artists gained notoriety in the 1950s and after for the ‘breakaway’ styles from the more conventional forms of art at that time. They combined Western styles and influences with Asian traditions and subject matter. Most notably, they formed the basis of Singapore’s first celebrated and locally conceived art.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Liu Kang painted the painting ‘Life by the River’ a typical painting done in the Nanyang style. The painting depicts a regional village scene by the river, bustling with activities: a family of six playing happily in the foreground, two villagers chatting on the bridge to the left, while two women bathed and two other fed the ducks by the river to the right. The prosperous nature of green trees and bushes also add to the vibrancy of the village. The scene is filled with the excitement and fun of a villager’s life.

Much balance and harmony can be seen in this brightly colored painting. The yellow, gently curving bridge on the left, for example, echoes the blue river on the right, leading the viewer’s attention into the distance, while the family of six in the foreground is counter balanced by the two sampan boats in the river on the right. The row of houses on stilts in the background is also neatly arranged. In this way, symmetry is achieved in the composition and thus making the artwork pleasing to the viewer’s eyes.

The figures and objects in the painting are simplified and reduced to its bare essentials such that minimal details can be seen. Flat colors are also applied boldly in large areas, showing much resemblance to the post-Impressionist, Gauguin’s, style. The faces of the villagers for example are merely one patch of beige. One is unable to identify their features such as their eyes, nose and mouth. The greenery around the villagers is also just patches of green with a few strokes of light brown to suggest the branches of the trees.

However, much emphasis is placed on the activities of the villagers as well as the atmosphere of the scene as a whole. The figures in the painting are ‘fluid’ with carefully recorded gestures, showing much movement and activity in the village. The colors used are also bright and non-naturalistic, from the pure blue of the river waters to the purplish browns of the ground. This, together with the simple treatment to the subject matter, evokes in the viewers a free, native, happy and cheerful feeling capturing the essence of rural life, which is the ultimate goal of the artist.

Depth in the painting is achieved more by the arrangement of shapes than by perspective and color and tones. This allowed the viewers’ eyes to travel instead of fixing on one point in the distance.
Influences from the Western, Eastern and Asian art techniques can be seen from the painting.

The bold outlines of the figures and the houses in the background shows the similarities from the Chinese ink paintings while the rather apparent division of spaces into separate perspectives suggests the ‘moving perspectives’ common in Chinese art. The white outlines of some of the figures also remain from his earlier paintings, which derives its inspiration from the Indonesian Batik Art. The flat and bold use of bright colors also reminds us of the Post-Impressionist, Gauguin as well as the Fauvist, Matisse. 

Artist and the Model (1954)

Artist and the Model is another good example of Liu Kang’s Nanyang style repertoire where he integrates the influences of Chinese landscape painting into a western Post-Impressionist painting style. The subject matter, inspired from the Bali trip in 1952, is also very regional as it portrays a native Balinese woman. Other items also suggest regional culture, such as the rattan made chair and the mountainous backdrop.

In this painting, Liu Kang depicted Chen Wen Hsi, another pioneer artist, studying intently and engrossed in painting a calm and relaxed Balinese woman who is posing for him. This scene is set in the outdoors, as suggested by the background of flatly colored blue mountains and white clouds in a distance. Between them stands a small table on which lays a set of red teacups and a teapot filled with water, while they sat comfortably on rattan chairs.

Liu Kang’s attention to details in this painting is remarkable, having meticulously added a little red bag of materials behind the artist’s chair as well as the extra roll of paper beside him. However, less attention is paid to the minute details of individual objects and figures. The figures of Chen Wen Hsi, the model, the greenery surrounding them as well as the background of mountains and clouds are simplified and reduced to their bare essentials, having eliminated the extra details he deems unnecessary in the painting.

The atmosphere of the scene depicted is very relaxed and cheery. This can be proven by the relaxed expressions on the artist and the model’s face. It is also evident from the posture of the model, resting her head comfortably on one hand, while letting her other hand lay on her lap. The bright colors of blues, greens, oranges and yellows also add to the harmonious and cheery tone in the painting. The flat application of bright colors, together with the simplified forms gives the painting a cartoon-like appearance, adding a whimsical note to the anecdote.

The figures and forms in the painting are outlined boldly in white, suggestive of a batik-inspired influence. The flat application of bright, arbitrary colors, on the other hand, reminds us of the Post-Impressionist, Gauguin and the Fauvist, Matisse. The rather apparent division of spaces into separate perspectives also suggests the ‘moving perspectives’ common in Chinese art.


  1. Hi I'm doing an art project and I need to know how the tenth trip up to huangshan has the nanyang artist style. Does anyone know?

  2. Hi, We are working on a project for Woodgrove Primary School on their NE Art Cavern Wall Mural. We would like to seek for your permission of 2 artworks for educational purposes. Thank you for your kind attention & we look forward to your favourable reply. Please feel free to contact us should you need further clarification at / 6221 8554. Thanks, Cynthia