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A Wanderer's Legacy

Artistic Origins of Fan Chang Tien’s Nanyang Ink Work

Chow Yian Ping

Editor of “thINKChina”, an e-magazine of the Singapore Press Holding, Former curator at the Singapore Art Museum.

This exhibition shows Fan Chang Tien’s paintings done from his sojourn in Bangkok until his passing in 1987 after he had lived for 31 years in Singapore. It comprises four thematic categories — human figures, landscapes, bamboo and orchid, and flower-and- birds, demonstrating the artist’s conviction as well as exploration in Chinese painting located in the region since he left home in the Chaozhou-Shantou district at age 40 when China was plagued by the turbulence of war.

Shown in this exhibition Fan’s work, which embodies poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal-carving, is exquisitely elegant, succinct and warmly gentle, highlighting the harmonious and integrated relationship between the scholar-artist and Nature. Compared to his contemporaries in Chinese ink art, Fan living in Southeast Asia far away from the creative center of Chinese art, was like an urban recluse, who did not use his brush to express grandeur and magnitude of the subject. He would rather seek to paint and write what came closest to his life and soul in which the painted image was poetry and vice versa.

When compared to Singapore artists of his time, Fan is unlike such Nanyang pioneers as Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Chong Swee. He did not incorporate into his work a great deal of Nanyang subject matter or western painting technique. Instead, he chose to preserve the form of the traditional scholar painting where he expressed in poetry and painting memories as a child from his native land, flowers and birds of the region, forests and valleys of his own visions as well as bamboo groves and orchid shrubs. In them, he sought to express a sense of spontaneity, simplicity, lyricism and gentle resilience.

Founder of Lingdong Style of Painting

Fan was already a painter of renown in Chaoshan where he was actively teaching and exhibiting, working hard to help his peers and young artists in mounting shows and publishing catalogs even with his own finances. After he completed his art studies in Shanghai in the 1930s he returned to Shantou and started the Lingdong style of painting with his artist friends. It was a style that evolved from the Shanghai School and got assimilated in Chaoshan culture injecting new vitality into the local art scene.

During the Sino-Japanese war, Fan was actively painting works to raise funds as a representative of the county government traveling to various parts of Guangdong province, Hong Kong and even Southeast Asia to raise funds. In 1949 misfortune befell Fan’s family resulting in the loss of his loved ones and all his property while he was away in Thailand. This changed his way of looking at life.

Fan became philosophical about fame and fortune as shown in the seal he carved with the phrase “Not one who seeks fame and fortune”.

Collaborative Works From His Times As A Wanderer

Included among paintings that will be exhibited his monochrome ink bamboo which was inscribed by his friend Chang Dai-chien as well as several flower-and-bird pieces jointly painted with his teacher Wang Geyi, and those inscribed by renowned Singapore calligrapher Pan Shou. Collaborative works such as these are a testimony of the mutual appreciation Chinese artists of that generation expressed for each other when they met kindred spirits on their visits abroad at a particularly great moment in time.

In 1950 Chang Dai-chien described Fan’s paintings as “simple, distinguished, gleaming and pure, as wonderfully formed as nature itself!” He praised Fan’s bamboo thus “as though rustling in the breeze that blows from his wrist”. In 1962 Wang Geyi inscribed his comment, “The grace and elegance of your orchid and bamboo rise above the ordinary” and offered him this line: in painting the reality your shifting perspective brings out the true essence of the subject. On his 1981 visit to Singapore Wang attended Fan’s second exhibition where he commented, “Erudite and dedicated to learning, he practices art as though it is Tao, the Way. His flower-and-bird and landscape paintings show fully effortless ink work and brush strokes with a natural flair and style that is spontaneous.”

Tropical Flavour in Flower-and-Bird Paintings

Fan Chang Tien’s flower-and-bird paintings from the 1950s show simplicity in pictorial composition, a faint and tasteful touch in color, and the absence of poetic inscriptions. After gaining Singapore residency in the 1960s, his works began to include common flowers and birds of Singapore. He depicted tropical flowers such as the plantain, hibiscus, and bougainvillea in all their vitality. The mynahs and sparrows, his fondest subjects, are Singapore’s most common birds around. In these works, he shows off random and lively lines accompanied by a poetic inscription being a significant part of his painting.

By the end of the 1970s, Fan’s flower-and-bird studies appear to have taken on a more distinct character than his earlier work. Now he began to depict flowers and birds more as an expression of personal aspirations that came with a detached sense of confidence and insouciance. His mynahs have feathers painted in black layered brushwork which appears as though it is a multi-tone sheen in varying gradations of ink work, looking so life-like and vivacious.

The flowers and birds in Fan’s paintings and poems have come to personify his responses to human affairs that he saw around him. There is one piece entitled Plantain and Mynahs on which Fan inscribed his poem. In this painting, the flock of 15 mynahs gathers under the plantain leaf chattering as though mocking the buffoonery of those who fight over fame and fortune. For Fan, the flower-and-bird genre has transcended from the representational and ideational to the witty and humorous.

Bamboo and Orchid Changing within Tradition

In painting landscape and bamboo and orchid, Fan Chang Tien was more concerned with the way of literati tradition where the scholar seeks the idea of the landscape of his mental perception to break free from conventional understanding. His landscape and flower-and-bird paintings are so rooted in the tradition of Chinese painting that even after living in Singapore all these years he would still yearn for the bamboo and orchids he dearly loved in his heart. In his 1979 painting Bamboo and Rock of My Love, he inscribed the poem: Seeking not wealth and position I’m partial to the bamboo, Toiling day and night to keep away worldly evils. Delighted that in my southern home the land is not too remote, I’d be cautious that the profusion of branches become not distractions.”

As for his persistence in painting the bamboo and orchids, he inscribed this poem in his painting Ink Tones of A Thousand Years: “Casually I paint fresh bamboo stems in the old style. Who would notice those inconspicuous orchids in their elegance? Whether this works or not the debate will never stop, Who knows how tough my struggle with the millennial ink tones might be?

Fan’s much-celebrated bamboo and orchid paintings had continuously evolved on the foundation of Zheng Xie and Shi Tao before coming into a manner and style that is uniquely his own. In the 1960s Fan painted the green bamboo stems in faint thin ink so subtle that it belies the feel of strength which characterizes the suppleness of the bamboo; its pictorial focus falls on the leaves spreading across the paper stressing the sharp-edged strokes of the leaves or the long, slender but sinewy orchid leaves that seem to run on inlines now close together and then far apart reflecting mastery of ink brushstroke. It is in such work that Fan’s bamboo and orchids become calligraphy, leading the viewer to appreciate the appeal of ink art through the beauty of the line in the entire pictorial formation.

In the 1970s Fan’s bamboo was often painted alongside rocks. In contrast with the sense of movement of the bamboo leaves, the rock is the being in stillness and the state of changelessness. In presenting these contrasting qualities, Fan made the leaves much livelier with a greater sense of movement than those in the 1960s. Into the 1970s and early 19780s, this experiment in brushstroke reached its zenith so much so that one could almost hear the wind rustling through the leaves. During this period Fan’s way of drawing the bamboo stems differed from before, stressing more on the three-dimensional effect of the stem applying a brushstroke of varied intensities and directions by which the shaded cylindrical roundness was created in one single stroke.

During the mid-1980s Fan’s bamboo and orchid paintings were painted with a more fully ink-soaked brush which produced the drawings that looked softer and less deliberate as opposed to his robust fluttering leaves in the wind of the 1970s. Presumably, this reflected a change in his attitude towards life during the period.

Fan Chang Tien was particular about his application of ink and brush. According to what he himself recorded in his notes on his painting, he says, “Each time I paint I must always stand in a proper posture paying attention even to how I take my steps so that I can maneuver my wrist and elbow with the appropriate force.” [1]

Though keeping his mind on painting and persisting in the traditional art form oblivious to the world outside, Fan still could not help lamenting, “Alas after all that precious ink spent, would I be pitied if what I paint keeps up with the times?” 《墨竹石伴》(Ink Bamboo and Rock,1977)

Reclusive and Tasteful Landscape Painting

Fan Chang Tien did a few paintings of Nanyang subjects after arriving in Singapore. Paintings going back to the 1950s and ‘60s show images of houses on stilts and coconut palms. But these works obviously could not satisfy his scholarly aspirations in the beauty of traditional landscape painting. He stopped painting them after the 1970s and destroyed such painting by fire. The occasional but rare appearance of such works is due to his oversight in misplacing them resulting in his not discovering them in time to destroy them.

In landscape painting, Fan’s works may be traced to the Southern School admired by Dong Qichang, the late Ming painter. The late Chua Ek Kay, a student of Fan’s, said in his analysis of his teacher’s landscape paintings, “Master Fan applied the brushwork of the Four Wangs in terms of technique, absorbed the influence of the Four Monks especially Shi Tao and Kun Can, and created his own style. ”

From his times in Thailand in the 1950s, Fan’s landscape paintings have scenes that are misty and remote with compositions that are concise and clean-cut, and ink tones that are faint and subtle, reflecting fond and deeply felt memories of his native homeland in China. In the 1960s his works showed continuous experimentation with composition and cun (shading) technique producing works of 1964. These examples were painted with obviously heavier strokes and lines forming the mass of mountains to occupy the pictorial space, while the textures and grains of rocks and slope taking up a significant place in the painting. The viewer is led to feel the exuberant spectacle of the landscape in a volatile flux of ink and brush gestures. Marco Hsu, Singapore’s preeminent art historian and critic wrote in a commentary about Fan’s simple and faint shading technique in painting a rocky cliff, “Fan’s use of color is extremely faint and understated, while his brushstroke is extremely light but forceful.” [2]

Fan showed great ease and freedom in his use of line in landscape painting from the 1980s. In the far side, one will discern layers of hills and peaks being separate from the cottage of the recluse, which shows the artist’s inclination of living like a great hermit in the city as well as his confidence in capturing the landscape he had always imagined after some experiment with his ink and brush.

[1] 广州市南方日报,1984年3月4日《淋漓写墨竹,中有赤子心》




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