A Multifaceted Singaporean Painter Breaks Barriers

Tan Swie Hian in his studio in Singapore with a portrait of Pan Cheng Lui, a newspaper editor. Credit Yap Su-Yin

Tan Swie Hian in his studio in Singapore with a portrait of Pan Cheng Lui, a newspaper editor. Credit Yap Su-Yin

The New York Times

SINGAPORE — Almost 400 years ago, as the Ming dynasty crumbled under the onslaught of the Manchu warriors, a Ming prince became a Buddhist monk to survive. Feigning madness, the exile poured his heartbreak into his ink paintings and came to be known as Bada Shanren, meaning “Mountain Man of the Great Eights.”

When meditating one day in 2013, the Singaporean artist Tan Swie Hian said, he had a vision of this monk. A Buddhist himself, Mr. Tan etched the 17th-century master into the 21st century in about 60 seconds, in a swoosh of Chinese ink on rice paper. “I was in a trance,” said the artist, who is 71 and self-taught.

In November, that painting, “Portrait of Bada Shanren,” fetched 20.7 million renminbi, or about $3.3 million, at a Poly International Auction sale in Beijing, cementing Mr. Tan’s status as the most expensive living artist in Southeast Asia. The artist broke his own record, which was set in 2012 when his oil and acrylic painting “When the Moon Is Orbed” came under the hammer in Beijing for 18.975 million renminbi. It was his first work auctioned in China.

‘‘Portrait of Bada Shanren,’’ by Tan Swie Hian. Credit Tan Swie Hian

‘‘Portrait of Bada Shanren,’’ by Tan Swie Hian. Credit Tan Swie Hian

What makes Mr. Tan’s art special, experts say, is that while he is rooted in classic Chinese arts and literature, he has equally strong links with Western culture — including working in the French Embassy in Singapore for 24 years before turning to art full time. Not unlike Singapore itself, he is poised between two worlds, linked to modernity and tradition. His creations reflect the confluence of East and West, borne from his personal and spiritual philosophy.

Artists, collectors, gallery owners and critics from the region say the fact that a Singaporean artist has broken into the Chinese auction market is significant.

“For a tiny country to have produced an artist of his caliber, recognized internationally, he’s put Singapore firmly on the international cultural map,” said Tan Chai Puan, a Malaysian culture columnist for Lianhe Zaobao, a newspaper in Singapore.

Guo Yuanchao, Poly Auction’s modern and contemporary art consultant, said from Beijing that Chinese collectors were noticing exceptional artists outside China whose works reflect Eastern traditions and cultures. While works by the most famous Chinese artists command much higher prices, the fact that the first auction of Mr. Tan’s ink work in China, also by Poly Auction, saw it selling for a higher price than his oil painting showed the “high recognition Chinese collectors accorded to the master,” Mr. Guo said.

Victoria Huang, who specializes in Chinese paintings at Bonhams in London, called the auction results “phenomenal,” given that Mr. Tan had neither a large base of international buyers nor an established auction history at the time.

Over four decades, Mr. Tan’s art has taken the form of painting, calligraphy, poetry, sculpture and even stage costume design. He’s not represented by galleries, and his works are mostly with a few private collectors, including Tan Tien Chi, who opened the Tan Swie Hian Museum in Singapore in 1993.

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In the closed circles of China’s collectors, Mr. Tan is an artist in the tradition of ancient scholar literati, “steeped in philosophy, incredibly talented not just in painting, but also calligraphy and poetry,” said Ch’ng Poh Tiong, an art collector and ambassador for the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

Born to ethnic Chinese parents in Indonesia, Mr. Tan was educated at the Chinese High School in Singapore, where he was immersed in the Chinese language and literature. After graduating from Nanyang University in 1968 with a degree in English language and literature, he found work as press attaché at the French Embassy in Singapore. There he became fluent in French and ultimately translated the works of the poets Henri Michaux and Jacques Prévert into Chinese. At 44, Mr. Tan became the youngest and only Southeast Asian artist to be elected as a member-correspondent to the Academy of Fine Arts of the Institute of France.

Mr. Tan recalled how his colleagues at the embassy had encouraged his artistic pursuits, buying all of the works from his debut solo exhibition, in 1973. Eventually, “when I was 49 and had enough savings to sustain my stomach, my human dignity and my creative freedom,” he said, he left the embassy to devote himself to art full time.

Using the metaphor of brushes to represent the East and West, Mr. Tan says he wields both brushes simultaneously. “It’s there in everything I do,” he said.

In his “Portrait of Bada Shanren,” for instance, the “composition comes from Western masters’ works like Matisse’s ‘Window,”’ Mr. Tan said. “The brushstrokes,” he added, “remind one of not only Liang Kai of Song dynasty but also Antonio Saura, the portraitist of modern Spain.”

Pan Cheng Lui, the editor of Shin Min Daily News in Singapore, has covered Mr. Tan for decades. Noting his many international accolades Mr. Pan said, “His art is not simply Eastern, Western or Southeast Asian, but universal.”

Mr. Tan considers himself a son of the 1960s: He had translated Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception” into Chinese, enjoyed the music of Jimi Hendrix and read Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha.” A decade ago, he was among 20 renowned artists (and the only Southeast Asian artist) invited to collaborate in a charity exhibition with Nelson Mandela. Mr. Tan paired images of Mandela’s shackled hands with a Buddhist “No fear” hand-sign. The work complemented Mr. Mandela’s sketch of two clenched fists breaking their chains, and both pieces were exhibited in 2005 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Mr. Tan’s independent character did not always fit well with the conformity of Singapore. Ho Sou Ping, founder of the artcommune gallery here, remembered that Mr. Tan was at loggerheads with some local artists about 20 years ago.

“His strong personality is like the durian,” Mr. Ho said, referring to the fruit with a robust aroma and flavor. “You either like it or you don’t.”

As wide ranging as Mr. Tan’s influences are, his roots remain in his Buddhist faith. He said that he experienced a spiritual awakening in 1973 and that the meditative mood had never left him.

“Art is my craft, but a footnote to this great philosophical system,” said the artist, who meditates daily. “So my art is never gloomy.”

He added: “Art could be the rainbow that leads to the ultimate great white light and the universe.”

Over the years, Mr. Tan’s trademark shock of wavy black hair has thinned. Still, with his chubby cheeks, he reminds one of a cherubic child. He paints barefoot by night on the floor of his art studio in a former school in the eastern part of Singapore. His painting uniform is often a T-shirt over well-worn bermudas.

Barely had the spotlight dimmed from his recent successes in China, and he was back in his studio, preparing for a 2016 exhibition in Singapore of his journals and works inspired by them. Experimenting with Chinese brushes on newspaper, he is also producing 10 portraits of his literary, artistic and spiritual models.

Mr. Tan envisions the show as “an anatomy of a free mind.” If his creations have Chinese, Western, Southeast Asian and sometimes Indian elements, he said, it is because he casts all conventions aside: “Unfettered, everything is possible.”

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