Paris – Source of inspiration for local artists

Lai Foong Moi.

Until Lai Foong Moi paved the yellowbrick road to the art world of Paris in 1953, few in Malaya/Singapore thought it possible for them to traverse such a path.

Malaya was not even independent yet, and a woman’s place then was in the shadows and in the kitchen. Formal education in Fine Arts too, for a woman, was unheard of; preposterous, even.

But Lai, born in Seremban and educated at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) in Singapore where she later taught after graduating from the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts (ENSBA), defied the odds. She was greatly inspired by her Nafa mentor, the debonair Georgette Chen (nee Chang Liying, 1906-1993), with her sophisticated New York-Shanghai-Paris chic.

Georgette Chen's Ibu Dan Anak.

There were O. Don Peris (1893-1975), Tsang Tsu-Chi (1904-1941) and Kao Fei-Tze before her, to be sure, but their exploits were little known even among the handful of cognoscenti. Peris was in Paris in 1913, and the other two in the 1920s.

Nafa, through the charisma of Georgette and the trail-blazing of Lai, was to become the catalyst and conduit of successive generations of art pilgrims even decades after Singapore became a sovereign entity following its acrimonious 1965 split from Malaysia.

The art-exodus really began from the Georgette -Lai nexus with ENSBA’s Prof Chaplain-Midy, although to be sure, Peris first had an abortive stint in Paris studying under sculptor-painter M. Gereuax in 1913.

The story of Malaysians seeking art tutelage in France – their struggles, impressions and inspirations – is chronicled in a major survey involving 98 works by 32 artists in the French ConneXion exhibition at the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) in KL, which will end on October 31.

It features 81 works dusted out from the NVAG collection, and visitors will see for the first time the entire works of Georgette (five), Lai (six) and the auction-darling Chia Yu-chian (12), apart from three rare painted plates by Cheong Soo-pieng (1917-1983), a work (Berhala Cina) by Nafa founder Lim Hak Tai (1893-1963), a print of Sir William Hayter (1901-1988) and Ponirin Amin’s awardwinning installation, Chess Alibi in Pulau Bidong.

Sir William Hayter.

O. Don Peris.

Ponirin Amin.

Long Thien Shih.

It has also been an opportunity to rehabilitate some works. From the 17 works on loan, the centrepieces are Long Thien Shih’s Last Days of ’68 and four paintings by the unheralded Singapore pioneer Chen Jen Hao (1908-1976).

Paris was the undisputed art capital of the world. On the heels of the Belle Epoch (Beautiful Era) that saw the erection of the Eiffel Tower from the 1889 World Fair, Post-War (WWII) Paris was a vibrant city of romance and intellectual ferment, with Seine-loafing, wine-swilling from sidewalk cafes, Ooh-La-La (Moulin Rouge) and the march of art-isms like Impressionism and Post, Fauvism, Surrealism, Tachism and Cubism. Luminaries in various disciplines defined the time: Sartre, Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Anais Nin, Daghilev, Nijinsky, Coco Chanel, Stravinsky, Le Corbusier, Toulouse-Lautrec, Leger, Giacometti, Matisse, Picasso...

Apart from a portrait of the Anglophile Johor Sultan Sir Ibrahim Abu Bakar, Peris, who has two major works in the NVAG’s holdings, was also tasked with restoring works in the sultan’s collection.

Jen Hao studied at the ENSBA and was a research fellow in the Paris Art Research Institute. His buddy, Liu Kang (1911- 2004), was not formally attached to any institution, but meeting Matisse and Fauvist artist Kees van Dongen had a great impact on Liu Kang’s works.

Chong Siew Ying.

Tan Tong.

In the bold spirit of Lai, Chong Siew Ying, a farmer’s daughter, struck out for art studies in France in 1991, sustaining herself with part-time work as an au pair. She is now a major artist known for her grand human landscapes and her laughing self-portraits like the Female Yue Min-jun. Preceding her was Toh Choo Kee (former head of Kuala Lumpur College of Art’s Fine Arts Department) in 1978-1979 (Caen) and 1981-1984 (ENSBA), and Tan Pek Cheng, wife of Loo Foh Sang, in 1965 after her Nafa baptism of fire.

Other women artists who studied in Paris were Chua Chay Hwa (wife of Yeo Eng Hin), ace photographer Diana Lui and Minstrel Kuik, the Malaysian winner of the UOB Painting of the Year 2014.

After Lai, Chia (1936-1992) and Yeo Hoe Koon studied in Paris in 1959 with Chia, who did not study at Nafa, having been the first in the Straits Settlement to be awarded a French scholarship.

Apart from Jen Hao and Liu Kang, many others from Johor also made the Nafa-Paris art rigmarole because of the proximity to Singapore. They include (all Singaporeans) Lu Chong Min (1933- 1994), Dr Lai Kui Fang, Tan Teng Kee, Chan Chu Chai@Soon Kean and Lee Ta Pai.

Other Singaporeans were Wee Kong Chai, Ng Yat Chuan, Lee See Sin, Wee Beng Chong, Yves Fay, Koh Lee Lee, Sunyee (1919-2009), Yeo Kim Seng, Chua Le Kuan, Li Chong Chuan, Yeo Hui Chian and Teo Peng Seng, who was brutally murdered in his Paris suburban home in April 2014.

Abdul Latiff Mohidin.

The 1960s saw Malaysians flocking to Paris in droves, the most notable being the “Empat SeKawan” Tan Tong (1942- 2013), Tew Nai Tong (1936-2013), Long Thien Shih and Loo Foh Sang – who all impacted Malaysian art in their own individual big way on their return (Loo only returned for good in 1988 after staying in Paris for 22 years).

Tan Tong delved into Chinese ink erotica and abstract and Neo De-Cubism apart from Chinese mysticism and numerology; Tew is regarded as the Last Matinee Hero of the Nanyang Style with his distinct figure-types; Long is fecundly inventive in dealing with contemporary environmental issues; and Loo excels with his printmaking repertoire.

Sulaiman Esa.

Juhari Said.

Hayter’s Atelier 17 (now renamed Atelier Centrepoint) had personally trained Long and Loo, besides Abdul Mansoor Ibrahim. Others who have gone through the atelier’s portals, mostly informally, include Abdul Latiff Mohidin, Ponirin, Sulaiman Esa and Juhari Said.

In the 1970s, the main stalwarts in Paris were “Apple King” Lim Kim Hai, the now Toronto-based Chew Kiat Lim, Tan Hui Chong and Ng Bee, the impresario of the Sasaran International Arts Festival.

Notable Malaysian French art students in the 1980s were Yeo Eng Hin and Chan Sai Weng (animation). From the 1990s Chong Choon Kin studied at three institutions in Paris, while others like Ng Hon Loong, Soh Boon Kiong and Richard Wong Chin Kim took up specific art courses. Another, Ken Yang, who started basing himself in Paris in 2002, was given a major exhibition at the NVAG in October 2013-February 2014.

The works from Peris to Choon Kin tellingly reflect the art tutelage, trends and place, and people depicted with certain combination of colours and compositions or media.

The Paris connection may not be as popular today. Times change, along with tastes and circumstances with the ascendancy of the English language in the Internet Age, the shift to New Media and multimedia and the plethora of art-study options all over the world, especially in China, and including art residencies, art biennales and dedicated international art projects.

But Paris still conjures the timeless romance of its artistic reputation and pedigree, and its image as a great fount of creative inspirations and impulses.

Ooi Kok Chuen has written 88 books and catalogues on art. He is a recipient of the Australian Cultural Award 1991 and Goethe-Institut Fellowship 1989, and a two-time National Art Gallery Art-Writer of the Year (2003, 2008).

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