Meet the Singapore female artist who was ahead of her time
This self-portrait, painted in 1934, captures Georgette Chen at a time when she began to gain success as an artist in France. (Photos: National Gallery Singapore)

Meet the Singapore female artist who was ahead of her time

It is easy to see why one would have a girl crush on Singapore painter Georgette Chen. Her exceptional life experiences and critical achievements in art, which spanned five decades and three continents, have inspired no less than a musical, a comic book and a docu-drama played by popular TV actor Rui En.

The iconic artist is also the star of a new major exhibition opening 27 Nov at the National Gallery Singapore. Georgette Chen: At Home in the World is the first museum retrospective of Chen’s work in more than 20 years. It promises an intimate encounter with the artist through a rare view of her most significant works, accompanied by a wealth of newly discovered archival materials.

The exhibitioncritically re-examines Chen’s unique contributions to the world of art, and it shines new light on the development of art in Singapore and Southeast Asia. The show also spotlights how she champions cultural diversity and inclusiveness in her art and life, inspiring newfound appreciation for the role she played as a cross-cultural ambassador for art in Singapore and the region.

Here are five fascinating things about the iconic female artist:  

visual art coast of britanny painting by georgette chen

She was a globe-trotting artist

Born in 1906 in Zhejiang, China, to an entrepreneur father with businesses in China, France and the United States, Chen travelled frequently as a child. Her cosmopolitan upbringing influenced her artistic training and practice.

She was raised in Shanghai and taught painting from a young age by Russian artist Victor Podgursky. She studied at art academies in Paris and New York in the 1920s, and in the 1930s and 1940s, her works were selected for annual salon exhibitions in Paris, as well as for solo presentations in Paris, Shanghai and New York.

Besides travelling around the world to hold exhibitions, she also made trips in search of artistic inspiration. She began this practice during her time in France and China, when she would travel the country to paint outdoors. One result is the 1930 painting Coast of Brittany (above), which is included in the Gallery’s exhibition. Chen also made short trips from Singapore to Penang and Kuala Lumpur to visit friends and paint portraits and sceneries.

She was a media darling

Chen was no stranger to being in the public eye. She regularly appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the world, and often in relation to her pursuit of art and her accomplishments as an artist.

She was a cover girl for The Young Companion in 1931. The pictorial magazine, published in Shanghai, focused on topics of interest to urban, cosmopolitan readers, and it was known for featuring women who defined the idea of the “modern girl” on its cover. Chen was also mentioned in French newspapers and journals, which reviewed her works and shows.

visual art vegetable by georgette chen painting

Wars and revolutions could not stop her from making art

Much of Chen’s life was marked by global upheavals, including World War I and II and the Chinese Revolutions of 1911 and 1949, but she remained dedicated to her profession as an artist. For her, art was a way of life, and as an artist, she felt compelled to represent the times she lived in and to offer multiple perspectives of it.

She was married to Eugene Chen, a prominent diplomat in the Republic of China from the early- to mid-20th century. The couple was placed under house arrest in Hong Kong and then under surveillance in Shanghai from the early-1940s until the end of World War II. During this difficult period, she continued making art, focusing on subjects available to her; she painted still lifes of domestic items and portraits of her husband. The painting, Vegetables and Claypot (above), was likely completed during this period. She even held a solo exhibition at the Metropole Hotel in Shanghai in 1943. 

east coast vendor by georgette chen visual art painting

She was a key figure in the development of modern art in Singapore

Chen’s work is often mentioned in the same breath as the emergence of a distinct regional style, characterised by a synthesis of Eastern and Western painting techniques and approaches. This is seen, for example, in the 1960 painting East Coast Vendor (above), which transposes Chen’s mastery and skill in portrait painting, honed from years of Western academic art training, to a tropical setting, with attention paid to the detailed patterning of batik clothes and headscarves worn by the subjects.

Chen was also deeply engaged with the arts community in Singapore. As the representative of the Lee Foundation Fund for the Encouragement of Local Talent in the Fine Arts, Chen supported many artists and art societies by acquiring their works on behalf of the foundation. Among the societies that received Chen’s support is Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya (APAD), an art society for Malay artists. It recognised her contributions by conferring on her the Pingat APAD award, a precursor to the Cultural Medallion.

Georgette Chen Rohani

She was a generous mentor

Chen was employed at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in Singapore from 1954 until her retirement in 1980. She taught drawing and painting part-time so that she could finance her own artistic practice, but her support for her students extended beyond the classroom.

She regularly exchanged letters with her students after their graduation and she also contributed forewords to their exhibition catalogues. Rohani, a student of Chen’s at NAFA, became a lifelong friend and Chen painted a portrait of her in 1960 (above). Chen also corresponded with Rohani – and other Malay friends – in Malay, signing letters with her nickname “Chendana,” a play on her last name and the Malay word for sandalwood, cendana.

Chen also wrote to her contacts in Paris, whom she met while studying there, to help her students gain admission to the renowned art academy École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Students she recommended who were successfully admitted include artists Yeo Hoe Koon, Chia Yu Chian, Lee See Sin and Rahmat Ahmad.  

Plan your visit to the exhibition Georgette Chen: At Home in the World here.

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