Teo Han Wue
Independent Curator and Critic
Heaven and earth have great beauty but do not speak, so says the ancient sage ZhuangZi (late 4th century BC). But they do not have to because the beauty of Nature is everywhere and manifests itself as dramatically through the work of artists in the way it has always done for centuries.
For more than a millennium the learned Chinese scholar has always regarded Man’s harmonious relationship with Nature as an ideal in his world view. It was in this spirit that the literati artist sought not only to speak for Nature but also express his own thoughts and aspirations in her many charms through his ink and brush work.
The history of Chinese art abounds with exquisite landscape and flower and bird paintings,which have since Tang and Song dynasties become the main themes as the literati artist’s personal expressions of taste and philosophy. For more than a thousand years, this great tradition has evolved on its own course almost completely uninterrupted until the turn of the 20th century.
In spite of the great impact of the reform movement between the late Qing dynasty and the early Republic period due to the influence of modern Western art, the appeal of the literati tradition remained undiminished and continued to develop well into the modern era. Ink artists from Wu Changshuo and RenBonian to XuBeihong and Lin Fengmian, who have risen to the challenge of Modernism from Europe and succeeded in creating a new art that would reflect the spirit of the times. In Singapore where the first-generation painters came from such an artistic and cultural milieu, and they established in their adopted homeland a remarkable ink practice whose genealogy was extended to a new generation through the students they had taught. Fan Chang Tien of the Shanghai School is an excellent example of this staunch tradition harking back to Wu Changshuo (1844-1927). Having studied in China with masters such as Wang
Fan Chang Tien of the Shanghai School is an excellent example of this staunch tradition harking back to Wu Changshuo (1844-1927). Having studied in China with masters such as Wang Geyi (1897-1988) and Wang Yiting（1867-1938）, disciples of Wu, Fan migrated to Singapore in 1957and led a life much like a reclusive scholar painting and teaching students selectively especially after he retired as a school teacher in 1968.
Highly accomplished in the entire range of subjects of landscape and flower and bird, fish, crabs and prawn as abundantly evident in the four categories of his works in this exhibition, Fan’s versatility and virtuosity are equally borne out by his skills in poetry, calligraphy and seal carving. One cannot, however, help being struck by the predominance of certain subjects in the works selected for the show. They are the bamboo and the mynah, both of which feature prominently in the selection.
Fan’s versatility and virtuosity are equally borne out by his skills in poetry, calligraphy and seal carving.
Mrs Teresa Yao, Fan’s daughter, informs me she had to be judicious in selecting from the huge number of mynah paintings so that the category would not be dominated by her father’s favourite bird. One could sense how he identified with the bird when reading the inscriptions on some of these mynah paintings. His reflections on his painter’s practice are discernible from such lines as “Surroundings are without fanfare to present, is enough to hear sweet singings the bird sent” (Wisteria and Two Mynahs), and “Not to follow the trendy fashion and new modern, no doubt people may think that my work has slackened” (Twin Birds and Camellia).
It is easy to see Fan’s fascination with bamboo as his favourite subject. One is not in the least surprised to find his bamboo paintings over-represented in the exhibition. Fan is said to have been unrivalled in his paintings of bamboo in Singapore. Some commentators go so far as to even suggest that few of his contemporaries in China could do bamboo as well as he did.
Like all literati artists from ancient times Fan loved the bamboo dearly. In the fine scholarly tradition, his interest in the plant that grows easily in most parts of Asia was not merely artistic or academic. He imbibed the virtues that have been firmly embedded in the images of the bamboo. He grew bamboo and orchids at his residence when he was living in Telok Kurau for some time as though these plants would be a constant reminder of the virtues a learned person should live by.
Indeed, he painted them in their elegance to express such scholarly aspirations, which he would further underline with his poems in the accompanying inscriptions. The parallel the artist intended in The Steadfast Bamboo showing the plant standing firmly and handsomely will not be lost on the viewer with these lines:
With sincerity and humility in one’s observation
Do not take to heart uncalled for criticism
Not to harbour self-depreciation or complex
Standing firm for a revelation of truth to expect
Fan raises an interesting question in Bamboo and Rock , a picture of slender bamboo with intricate sprays of leaves:
Bamboo criss-cross in a tangled crush But no stem escapes from my discerning brush. Though the ink stays strong on finest paper, In modern times, will anyone give them favour?
The painting takes the form of a long hanging scroll, which accentuates the slender stems almost swaying around a rock and stretching the entire length of the scroll. The long supple stems hold up the branches and leaves firmly looking all grace and elegance with a vigour matching the sturdiness of the rock below. Contrary to what the poem suggests as a “criss-cross tangled crush”, the intersecting long and short lines conjure up a poetic picture of rhythmic poise and delight.
That, I think, is a good answer to Fan’s question.
Independent curator and critic, TEO HAN WUE
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