My interest in art began only after my marriage in the early 1960s, through the gentle influence of my wife who has always shown a discerning taste in both visual and performing arts, as well as in the beautiful creations of mother nature. This has had a beneficial impact on me and gradually increased my interest in the arts.
In school, art was my weakest subject, and I dreaded and hated it because of my lack of visible progress compared with many of my classmates. I secretly admired and envied those who with a few strokes of the pencil or brush could comfortably compose an impressive image or object and I had often wishfully hoped that their artistic skills could somehow rub off on me! Ironically, more than five decades later, during which time my crop of thick and black hair has long turned grey and thin, art appreciation is now an essential part of my life, without which it would certainly be robbed of its richness. If any of my old school chums should chance to read this article I dare say that they would be tickled pink, because the very thought of my becoming a collector of paintings must seem to them as remote a possibility as the launching of a ship without a bottom.
My path to art collecting started only after we had moved into our own new house in the late ’60s. With our basic needs taken care of, we believed that a couple of good quality paintings would certainly enhance the ambiance of our new home, besides giving us endless enjoyment. We visited art galleries, attended art exhibitions and read art books in order to have a better grasp of the local art scene. Through the introductions of our arty friends, we also visited several artists’ studios in order to gain a first-hand insight into their creative genius.
My wife and I agreed that, with our limited financial resources, we should, as a start, concentrate wholly on the works of local artists on grounds that they were more affordable compared with foreign artists and more “intimate” to us. Also, they would need all the support they could get in order to stay active and to scale new heights. With my earlier impetuous experiences and lack of sound artistic judgment when making my first purchases of antique Chinese ceramics still fresh in our minds, we were in no hurry to strike our first acquisitions of paintings until the pieces that we both really liked came along so that we would not regret buying them later.
In the ’60s and part of the ’70s, Singapore’s art scene was still in its early stages of development as not many Singaporeans could either afford or had the inclinations to spend their disposable income on purchasing paintings or other art works which most would consider luxuries they could well do without. The Government was then more concerned with the country’s economic survival and job creation after achieving full independence under very difficult circumstances, and supporting the arts meaningfully was, understandably, not on its priority list. Against this background, it was not easy, to put it very mildly, for full-time or active artists to make a decent living in pursuit of their chosen profession. To me, an active artist is one who paints regularly, whose works are on sale at galleries and who participates in art exhibitions at least once a year. It is therefore not surprising that there were only a very small number of full-time or active artists here during these two decades. Even the most well-known and accomplished of them all had to have a full-time job, mostly as art teachers, and carried out their painting activities, including getting their works ready for an art exhibition, outside the normal work hours. Despite earning a modest income, they would not give up the life of an artist for other more lucrative jobs because of their passion for the art.
Fortunately for these core practising artists and the development of art in Singapore, there was a small band of individual art lovers and corporate art supporters who would regularly purchase their works in order to help them stay afloat and to forge ahead. They included successful entrepreneurs, like Loke Wan Tho, Tan Tsze Chor and Yeo Khee Lin, professional people, business executives and academics, large corporations, including banks, oil companies and multinational firms, as well as the expatriate and diplomatic communities. Without their continuing patronage, the growth of the Singapore art would have been seriously curtailed. Art is indeed a calling that many creative young men and women may believe it to be a fascinating and intellectually satisfying career as it would free them from the mundane office routines. In reality, however, it is very demanding and only the most dedicated and talented among them can succeed with resultant financial rewards and fame. This is true of artists in all countries, including the developed ones, and particularly more so in the developing countries like Singapore during that era.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing full-time artists in Singapore, a promising young SIngaporean artist by the name of Thomas Yeo, who had earlier graduated from a London art college and who had gained some working experience in the United Kingdom as an art teacher and had participated in art exhibitions there and elsewhere, was planning to return to his native Singapore bent on earning his living as a full-time artist right away. When he confided his intentions to his former London college lecturer, the latter strongly urged him to desist from such an ill-conceived adventure. He then advised him to take a full-time job first, like teaching art, and pursue his own artistic creations in his spare time. This was what the overwhelming majority of art graduates in the United Kingdom would embark upon after graduation in order to survive economically before attempting to become a whole time artist later. He reminded Yeo that there were some 100,000 artists in the UK longing to become full-time ones, but, in reality, only a handful of the most outstanding among them would eventually make this viable. Such was the stark facts of life for artists anywhere then and even now. Yeo, while mindful of the sound advice of his former teacher, nevertheless decided to fulfill his ambition of practising art professionally from the beginning despite the odds against him succeeding were formidable.
Upon his return to Singapore in 1968, Yeo took the plunge immediately. Before the year ended, he was already staging a solo exhibition at the National Library Exhibition Hall, a popular and one of the few art exhibition venues then available here. More subsequent solo exhibitions followed in the ensuing years. His one-man shows were well-received by the art-loving Singapore public and my wife and I were among those who were captivated by his dream-like and lyrical landscape paintings, with their pleasing and vaguely familiar pastoral scenes, enhanced by effective and harmonising mix of vibrant but soothing colours, which were refreshingly aesthetic to the eyes and other senses. In short, Yeo had created quite a unique style which was instantly recognisable and difficult for lesser artists to emulate it convincingly. From landscape paintings, Yeo later simultaneously specialised in abstract collages, also with considerable success. He was a prolific artist and had held numerous solo and group exhibitions at regular intervals from the late ’60s to the present day in different parts of the world, both within and beyond the shores of Asia. He became one of the leading Singaporean artists when the ’70s ended. His works are in many private and public collections around the world. By 1984, only 16 years after he first set himself up as a professional artist, he was awarded the Cultural Medallion by the Singapore Government, the state’s highest arts accolade for artists and other arts practitioners. Yeo, now 72, is as active as ever in the pursuit of his beloved esoteric calling. Like all accomplished artists, he modestly believes that his best works will eventually emerge with time.
The Singapore art scene became more vibrant from the ’80s onwards and this has continued unabated until the present time, following the great leap forward of its expanding economy which has propelled this tiny island Republic into a First World country, with a per capital GDP that has now surpassed many other developed nations. As Singaporeans are now better educated, more affluent and more attuned to art and its sublime beauty, more art galleries , art museums, professional artists and art patrons have risen significantly. From only a handful of professional artists in the earlier decades, the number of practising artists, both full-time and active, are reckoned to have been increased to about 100 today. The most successful among them are now earning a comfortable income, own cars and properties and regularly travel overseas both for work or pleasure. Several have become household names too, and highly respected by their peers and the community.
Over the years, we have enjoyed purchasing a number of paintings by both the established and the promising artists in different media. These have withstood the test of time because their aesthetic charm and appeal are far from skin deep and they have and will continue to add value to our life. I would like to single out the following artists for special mention, as they have become our personal friends. One of our earliest acquisitions was an unusual oil painting by Choo Keng Kwang. When we showed interest in two of his works, he patiently and painstakingly enlightened us on the finer points and the subtle differences between the two paintings. We finally picked Riverside (dated 1972), a semi-abstract piece, as we were impressed by its harmony of colour and lyrical feel. Choo’s paintings command high prices today and are keenly collected both locally and abroad.
The late Chen Wen Hsi was already widely-known for his Chinese brush and finger paintings when he opened his own art gallery in the early ’70s. We became one of his instant admirers and could be seen at his gallery regularly at weekends. Our eldest son later joined his art class held at his home. He invited us to see his “private zoo”, with its gibbons, squirrels and a variety of birds. He would observe their movements and moods closely in order to enhance his creations. He is justifiably renowned for his depictions of gibbons and squirrels. We purchased quite a number of his works over more than a decade. We received these from his own hands and with his personal recommendations or endorsement. He was conferred an honourary Doctorate degree by the National University of Singapore in recognition of his contributions to art in Singapore, among other national honours.
Cheong Soo Pieng is unquestionably one of the most versatile and accomplished artists that Singapore has ever produced. He is equally adept in both Chinese and Western art forms. Among his most ardent supporters was movie tycoon and art connoisseur, Loke Wan Tho, whose untimely death in 1965 had robbed Singapore of one of its most illustrious art patrons. We managed to acquire two of Cheong’s works: Bathing by the Riverside (1961) in Chinese ink and colour and Sarawak River (1962) in acrylic. He advised us to buy one of his important oil paintings but, to our lingering regret, we did not do so as it was well beyond our budget. Sadly, Cheong passed away in the prime of his career in the 1980s and was a great loss to the art in Singapore.
We chanced upon a charming water colour painting by a medical doctor cum artist, Earl Lu, at a charity painting exhibition. We were fascinated by the blue roses in this painting as we had never seen one of our favourite flowers being captured in this hue before. His paintings sold very well at that exhibition as they were good and very reasonably priced and there were only a couple of them left. We bought it. Years later we got to know Dr Lu quite well as we were both active members of the Southeast Asian Ceramic Society. His wife ran an antique shop at the Tanglin Shopping Centre in the “70s and I had purchased a number of Chinese ceramic pieces from her. I later found out from Earl that these pieces came from his own large collection of Chinese and Southeast Asian ceramics. He donated a substantial part of his collections to local museums. He died a few years ago and was mourned by his many friends here and abroad.
I became acquainted with Thomas Yeo in the ’80s in the course of work. I was a member of an art advisory committee of which he was the chairman. My wife and I later established a firm friendship with him and his charming wife, Margaret, that has continued to the present time. As we got on well, Thomas invited us to his apartment to view his latest works. A master abstractionist, he is famed for his landscape paintings and collages, and have successfully created an inimitable style all his own. Needless to say, we were completely bowled over by his innovative and masterful works. With his expert help, and over cups of aromatic coffee and snacks made by his wife, we were delighted to become the proud owners of two of his catalogued works, a landscape painting dated 1987 and a collage done the following year.
Among the several younger talented artists, we took a liking to Christine Mak’s works. Her specialties are Chinese brush paintings and those done in Western mixed media. She studied under the late Chao Shao-An, a leading exponent of China’s Lingnan School of painting. Her works have gained popularity with both individual and corporate collectors. We have two of her works: Lotus Joy (1991) and Countryside (1994), both Chinese brush paintings. Her style is elegant and subtly conveys a gentle flow of tranquility and poetic charm.
As Singaporeans are now well-educated and very well-off, they will increasingly turn to art collecting as a means to upgrade their quality of life. The economic value and prestige of the Singapore art pieces will likewise be uplifted with time, if the experiences of the other developed countries are anything to go by. For those of you who are blessed with discerning eyes, and with financial resources to match, this is a good time to pick up works by local artists of your choice as they are still relatively affordable. If you make the right selections, they will give you continuous enjoyment like those now adorning our home have given us all these years.
Happy art hunting!
Lam Pin Foo