Arts & Culture

Exhibiting the life and art of Georgette Chen in At Home in the World

Georgette Chen retrospective exhibition featuring rare archival materials and seldom-seen works.

Words by
b-side staff

Text by Hera

Georgette Chen is recognised today as a pioneering Singapore artist whose artistic legacy is often discussed alongside the development of Nanyang Art. Her biographical life and artistic achievements have been narrated as television docudrama, musical and graphic novel. In particular her 1946 self-portrait has become an icon of her artistic practice, a motif frequently featured in marketing material and merchandising.

My first encounter with Georgette Chen’s paintings was during a trip with my Junior College classmates to the then Singapore Art Museum which held the permanent exhibit of local artists. Her small-scale enigmatic self-portrait completed in 1946, one year after the end of World War II, was one of the highlights amongst the permanent display. Even as a teenager who was unaware of her exceptional life experiences and her contributions to the world of art, the portrait stood out amongst the company of other Nanyang Art paintings as a feminine image imbued with agency. There is confidence in her uncompromising gaze and liveliness in the pulsating hues juxtaposed to depict her complexion—shades of cream, light blue-green shadows and rouge highlights; her assertive brushwork describes the immaculate curl of her coiffure and a pair of neatly arched brows. The work conveys the potency of self-portrait as an act of self-expression and self-fashioning. Today, the painting is part of National Gallery Singapore’s permanent collection and is currently on display in Georgette Chen: At Home in the World.

Georgette Chen. Self Portrait. c. 1946. Oil on canvas, Object Dimensions: 22.5 x 17.5 cm
Frame measure: 62.5 x 57.5 cm. Collection of National Gallery Singapore.
Image credit: Hera

At Home in the World is Chen’s latest large-scale survey exhibition held at the National Gallery Singapore between 27 November 2020 – 26 September 2021. Shown in the exhibition are 69 works and several showcases of fascinating archival material, generously spread between Level 4 Gallery and Wu Guanzhong Gallery. At the end of Level 4 Gallery, the exhibition features an earlier, less renowned self-portrait completed in 1934 as a finale. 

Georgette Chen. Self Portrait. c. 1934. Oil on canvas, Object Dimensions: 35 x 27 cm
Frame measure: 75 x 67 cm. Collection of National Gallery Singapore.
Image credit: National Gallery Singapore

Executed in shorter, tentative strokes, the 1934 self-portrait was created at a time when Chen was starting to gain success as an artist in France. In 1930, she was included in the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1930, that was also the year she married Eugene Chen. Compared to the 1946 self-portrait, it alludes more to the process of looking, observing and exploring while putting paint to canvas. This seems to be the tenor adapted by the curators, who continue to explore Georgette Chen’s positioning beyond her earlier canonizations within the frame of “Nanyang Art” as a national and regional pictorial style. In At Home in the World, the curators place significant focus not just in her mature works created in Penang and Singapore, but also earlier paintings from her years in France and China. 

An important painting produced from this period is Hakka Family, completed in 1939 during the onset of the Sino-Japanese war. The work is a large format allegory of familial relations between a working-class mother and her children as well as the pair of young sisters. An elaborately composed mise-en-scène, the figures are arranged into a triangle. Labour is symbolised by a hanging draping hat, used by Hakka women for working outdoors, as well as a leaning flat bamboo pole which was used for carrying burdens across one’s shoulders. The simple bamboo furniture and dirt floor further indicate the family’s modest living condition.

View of exhibition showing Hakka Family by Georgette Chen, 1939. Oil on canvas, 162 x 130 cm. Private Collection.
Image credit: National Gallery Singapore

Chen often paints from observation, her early work reflects her frequent travels between France, China and New York. Her father Zhang Jing Jiang financed Sun Yat Sen’s Xin Hai Revolution of 1911 and her first husband Eugene Chen was the first foreign minister of Sun Yat Sen’s government, they were both significant political figures that contributed to the course of China’s revolutionary history. However, amidst the tumultuous and monumental period of national awakening, Chen’s favourite motifs were scenes of the everyday, such as the people and objects around her, instead of grand or heroic subject matters. 

Displayed in a showcase within the exhibition, is her 1943 essay written for a Shanghai newspaper, Chen wrote in Mandarin about her fondness of depicting the lives of the common people, “People’s lives are vivacious, fresh and spirited.” Chen also asserts her motivation to create artworks based on the reality that she sees, rather than from imagination, “I paint what I see, whether it be a landscape or a figure”. She selects and captures the quotidian beauty—her affectionate portraits of Eugene Chen in domestic settings, an easily overlooked corner of the Forbidden Palace and its lively reflection upon the drain water… scenes and modes of seeing conventionally deemed less important are brought into focus upon her canvas. 

A generation earlier in Paris, Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt were the trailblazers in transcribing the modern female experience on the painterly canvas, delineating their spheres of activities, zones of inclusions and exclusions. In a similar way, Chen’s paintings provide an insight to her perspective as well as the places and events she encountered throughout her exceptional life journey in a period where the role of women in society is being redefined.

Georgette Chen. Cityscape of Beijing. c. 1945-1949, Oil on canvas. Collection of Fukuoka Asian Art Museum.
Image credit: Hera

Georgette Chen: At Home in the World is showing at the National Gallery of Singapore from 27 November 2020 until 26 September 2021.

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