BEYOND THE TRADITIONAL
Man Life & Style
Feb. - Mar. 1989 BY KELLY CHOPARD
participated in 32 art exhibitions, 13 of which were one-man shows. His
works are exhibited in several countries and found in museum collections and
government organizations. Hotels and banks have commissioned him to do work
for them. Topping the list of this extraordinary man's achievements is
probably the Glass Hotel in Singapore which ordered 1,000 paintings. Even
the Emir of oil-rich Bahrain owns an original in his private collection.
several countries and well-known Singapore Art Impresario, Delia Butcher,
unanimously agree that he may one day be hailed as one of the finest Chinese
brush painters of the century.
belongs to 37-year- old Singapore artist James Tan, an exponent of the
Lingnan School of art. It has been said many times that he has perfected the
technique of venturing beyond the traditional yet keeping the valued
technique of the brush strokes in traditional Chinese paintings.
School is characterized by being freer than traditional Chinese painting. It
allows the artist to infuse his own feelings, interpretation of
subject-matter and emotions into the painting. It does not demand a dogmatic
approach in terms of technique or style.
Because of this
one can trace the growth of the artist, notice his mood at a particular
period and study the influences he has been exposed to as the years pass.
art, it encourages the artist to interpret the subject in his own way.
Unlike the traditional Chinese school, which leaves the background white,
Lingnan artists wash the back-ground to create a mood. Another difference is
that it relies less on brush-work and so permits the artist freedom to
explore, create and innovate.
School developed in southern China shortly after the Qing dynasty came to an
end in 1911. The initiators of this movement were "three Masters" who were
art graduates from Japan. They lived in a period of revolutionary fervors
set ablaze by Dr Sun Yat-Sen when the influx of western thought and culture
was at its height. It is there-fore not surprising that changes took place
in the artistic field.
Lingnan art is
a marriage between East and West. It employs traditional Chinese brushwork,
combines this with western artistic techniques and incorporate-rates some
elements from the Geshan school of Japanese art.
It was born in
an area in the Guang-dong province and it was some time be-fore traditional
artists accepted this revolutionary style.
done in the Lingnan style are appreciated and much-sought after not only by
Chinese art lovers but by art enthusiasts everywhere.
James Tan finds
that anyone can identify with Lingnan art because it in-corporate both
worlds and can there-fore fit into any decor.
James Tan after
graduating from the Singapore Academy of Art took a correspondence course in
painting from the famed master of the Lingnan School. Professor Au
Ho-Nine. "It wasn't easy. Each month he sent me eight samples of art to
copy, with instructions like, first you paint the branches, then the
flowers, followed by the birds," James recalled.
Then in 1973 he
got his big break. He met a Chinese artist living in the States who invited
him over to be his helper. James suddenly found himself painting furiously
to forget how home-sick he was.
to pay off as he had enough paintings to participate in exhibitions in a
country that was becoming increasingly interested in China. The exposure was
good and James found himself even teaching art.
met one of his former pupils from the States, Florence Spiering, a charming
grey-haired matron visiting Singapore who said, "I used to travel 60 miles
once a week for my art lessons. I wasn't the only one. All sorts of people
came including bankers, businessmen and ladies of leisure. People were
fascinated by the number of paintings James produced and wondered at how he
found time to teach as well. We loved his art and we loved learning from
no different now that he's back in Singapore. He manages to combine paining,
me business 01 selling his work, traveling abroad to make exhibition
arrangements and teach be-tween 60-80 pupils.
James still finds time to help the less fortunate. Recently he did 10
special paintings for the National Kidney Foundation which were reproduced
into lunar New Year cards. The first thing you notice when you realistic and
exude a feeling of serenity. Colours are muted yet fresh. Another trademark
is that a subject is never alone in a scenic setting. This apparently
reflects the artist's philosophy.
"I feel that to
really appreciate beauty one must share it with someone, that's why I guess
I tend to project this in my work," he mused. A prolific artist needs to
expose him-self to the world in order to get ideas and inspiration.
"I visit beautiful places because when I see beauty I drink
it in and somehow they find their way into the paintings," he explained.
Looking at the multitude of finished, partly completed and framed paintings
is mind boggling. One wonders how one person can produce so much so fast,
without sacrificing quality.
"Oh I am very strict about quality. I destroy anything that
is not good," James assured me with a laugh, pointing to a huge basket of
At a recent exhibition I viewed over 100 paintings and
marveled at his ability to portray action in his work. Fishes appear to
swim, birds seem to glide, rivers wind their way lazily down gentle mountain
slopes. People when present seem, like us, to view the captivating scene
This ability, says James, comes from studying nature and man
carefully. One would say that his mind's eye is almost a camera. He is able
to paint an evocative picture in words. His description of the awesome
Himalayas, the wonders of the Grand Canyon, the view from the Great Wall and
cherry blossom time in Japan make us almost 'see' the scene so it's
understandable that he is able to put these mind pictures on paper so
If one were to analyze the reason for James' success one
would say that his art has a basic universal appeal. It is an honest
representation of life. There is no pretension. It is easily understood and
The paintings are a comfortable blend of East and West. He
has managed to evolve a style that is contemporary yet elements of
traditional Chinese in-fluencies are always present. If I were asked to
describe the work of James Tan in one word, that word would be harmony.
But the artist himself is not satisfied. He admits that he
is continuously experimenting. "The Lingnan style allows me to improvise so
I keep trying to achieve the ultimate," he said.
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