Literati Spirit in Nanyang : The Landscape and Figure Paintings of Fan Chang Tien

In conjunction with Singapore Art Week 2024, artcommune proudly presents this new exhibition focussing on the landscape and figure paintings of Singapore pioneer artist, Fan Chang Tien (1907, Jieyang, China – 1987, Singapore). After migrating to Singapore in 1957, Fan dedicated much of his life to art and helped nurture a new generation of local ink artists. Amongst his notable students are Nai Swee Leng, Lim Kay Hiong, Tan Oe Pang, Henri Chen Kezhan, Lim Cher Eng, and Chua Ek Kay. As a conduit between the haipai tradition in China and the burgeoning art scene in Singapore, Fan was essential in providing Singaporean artists an alternative mode of modernist ink expression in the early Singapore art scene. The exhibition features 16 ink works that were mostly completed in the period of 1960s-1980s.  The body of work illuminates Fan’s cultivation of an authentic literati spirit through his practice as well as training of younger artists in Nanyang. 

Fan Chang Tien is most famed for his paintings of Orchid and Bamboo. During his lifetime, he was lauded as the ‘king of Bamboo’ in the Chinese art circle. Yet Fan was also a well-rounded Shanghai school artist who sought to express himself through a diverse range of subject matters. After several years of effort, and with support from the artist’s family, we managed to gather this exquisite selection of landscapes and figures, among which many measure large in scale or exhibit rare themes. These wonderful masterpieces are rarely on exhibit or seen by the public. Fan’s figure paintings are especially rare and will prove significant for the collectors of his work. 

The history of Chinese landscape painting spans thousands of years and is regarded as a sacred tradition by literati painters. For the literati, Chinese painting facilitates the expression of inner worlds and feelings, with a philosophical emphasis on self-reflection and purification of the soul. The ideal state or expression exemplifies the harmony between nature and man. Thematic expositions frequently focus on a life detached from the worldly desires of fame and fortune, with one content with peace and solitude in the mountains or forest. They often articulate values that align with strands of Taoism and Buddhism. The genre of Chinese landscape painting has thus been exalted throughout the centuries for such artistic conceptions. 

Fan’s ink expression was modelled and built upon the Chinese landscape traditions established by the ‘Four Wangs’ of the early Qing period. Additionally, he searched beyond the Shanghai school style of Wu Changshuo – which conveys the bold, majestic grandeur of a landscape often at the expense of minute and delicate details – by developing a personal landscape style that successfully combines and balances the tensions between majestic and delicate elements.  

 

About the Artist

Fan Chang Tien 范昌乾 (1907, Jieyang, China – 1987, Singapore) graduated from the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts and the Changming Art Academy, both in Shanghai, under the tutelage of Shanghai School (haipai海派) masters such as Wang Geyi, Wang Zhen (Yiting), Pan Tianshou, and Zhu Wenyun. This allowed Fan to draw a direct lineage to the great haipai master Wu Changshuo, who modernised literati ink paintings for the cosmopolitan inhabitants of Shanghai. 

Fan migrated to Bangkok, Thailand to teach in 1947, then to Singapore in 1956, with the Chinese Civil War preventing his return to China. Establishing himself in a studio in Balestier Road, Fan taught ink painting free of charge. Many of his students were involved in the Hwa Han Art Society, established in 1973 with Fan as head advisor. 

Being part of the Teochew intellectual community led Fan to emphasise the literati aspects of the haipai tradition, most importantly in the assemblage of meanings provided within a piece of artwork through the four components of poetry, calligraphy, painting, and seal-carving. In particular, his self-composed poems, making full use of the metaphorical meanings of flora and fauna entrenched in Chinese literary culture, set him apart from other ink painters in Singapore. It is also within this textuality that Fan made sense of his Nanyang environs. 

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