GEORGETTE CHEN (1907-1992)
GEORGETTE CHEN (1907-1992)
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GEORGETTE CHEN (1907-1992)

Still Life (Mid Autumn Festival)

81 x 54 cm. (31 7⁄8 x 21 1⁄4 in.)
Private Collection, Asia


Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department


Recognised for her masterful skill in painting as well as her fascinating biography, which lends great depth and character to her works, Georgette Chen is undisputedly acknowledged as an outstanding personality within modern Asian art. Many of her works are held in institutional or private collections, and not often seen in the market. This season, Christie’s is pleased to present Still Life (Mid Autumn Festival), a rare work of exceptional quality that depicts one of Chen’s beloved subjects of mooncakes and lanterns, both items found during the Mid-Autumn festival and widely celebrated across Asia.

The daughter of a progressive yet patriotic Chinese family, a young avant-garde painter in Paris, wife of an emissary, as well as an, artist, teacher and inspiration in a recently-independent Singapore, Chen’s life was one marked by cosmopolitanism. There are differing accounts of her birth, with some sources stating she was born in Paris, while others citing her birthplace as Zhejiang, China. What is certain is that, having come from an affluent family, her childhood was a nomadic one, spent between France, China and the United States. Chen returned to Paris at the age of twenty to study art, and during this period she was invited to exhibit at the Salon d’Automne in 1930, which was recognised to be one of the leading modernist salons at the time, and an early indicator of Chen’s artistic talents. It was in this same year that the artist married Eugene Chen, a Trinidad-born diplomat, whose independent spirit and sense of adventure would become a strong influence on Chen’s life. He encouraged her to travel and develop her interest in painting, as opposed to taking on a more conventional domestic role expected of women of the time. Chen would spend two decades living in Europe, Shanghai and Hong Kong, before eventually moving to Southeast Asia, first to Penang, Malaysia, and eventually settling in Singapore until her death in 1992. This period of stability towards the end of her life allowed her artistic legacy to achieve the recognition that a perambulate existence could not offer. During her time in Singapore, Chen taught part-time at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and was an active participant in the burgeoning modern art scene.

Despite being associated with the pioneer group of artists of the Nanyang style, Chen had a predilection to styles and techniques of the Western Impressionists, which was unlike many of her peers at NAFA who merged formal elements of Eastern and Western techniques in their work. Indeed, Chen still very much abided by the French salon style of her formative training, applying them as a filter to a wide range of local subject matter she encountered in a way that was completely distinct. Chen was very much influenced by the work of French Modern master, Paul Cézanne, who incorporated visual devices such as subtle distortions to achieve pictorial balance, as well as colour blocking through modulation, as exemplified in paintings such as Still Life with Cherub. In a similar vein, Still Life (Mid-Autumn Festival) demonstrates Chen’s experimental use of multiple viewpoints in a single composition, whereby the food items on the table are painted on a top-down tangent, while the suspended objects such as the lantern and pomelo are painted as if being viewed from a bottom-up angle. The result of this compositional technique is that each element only exists in relation to the other, allowing them to be distilled into their most essential of forms. Taken in turn with her use of complementary and contrasting colours in bold expressive brushstrokes to delineate the forms, the resulting product is a complex yet completely harmonious work imbued with a strong sense of dynamism.

Although Chen painted a wide variety of subject matter across her artistic career, including portraits and landscapes, she is most widely endorsed as a still life painter par excellence. Consistently depicting elements and scenes from everyday life, Chen’s commitment to illustrating each object with such virtuosity, can be traced to her receptivity toward the rich and diverse environments she encountered throughout her life – the amalgamation of this attitude alongside the various sources of inspiration during her travels and the plethora of cultures, imbuing her canvases with the spirit and emotions that these forms represent and not merely a two-dimensional re-presentation of objects. From the delicate warm peach-toned orchids suspended from wooden baskets, to the diaphanous lanterns fashioned into various auspicious animals used in the observance of the mid-autumn festival, Chen’s virtuosic visual representations of Southeast Asian material culture achieve an intense evocation of the sentimental nature of these objects. Traditionally, used to capture a slice of life during a specific period and place, there is a documentary nature that still life painting has always had that makes it so significant; the everyday is elevated into the realm of the artistic, worthy of study, appreciation and remembrance. In the Western canon of art history, still life paintings were of distinctly European subjects, with the genre flourishing greatly in the Dutch Republic in the 1600s exemplified by works such as Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s Still-Life, Breakfast with Champaign Glass and Pipe. In contrast to the moralising quality these paintings had, Chen’s decision to depict these mundane objects had a more sentimental, but nonetheless important significance. Each item in the present lot is imbued with deep symbolism: the pomelo suspended from a net representing family harmony, the goldfish lantern a symbol of abundance and wealth, and mooncakes an artefact of myth, tradition and unity. These items represented a growing ambivalence between the rapid modernisation in 20th century Southeast Asia, and the simultaneous disintegration of cultural traditions increasingly deemed as irrelevant and archaic; for artists such as Chen, “there existed an on-going tension between longing for the past, with attempts at rooting [themselves] in the present” (Daniel Tham ed., A Changed World: Singapore Art 1950s to 1970s, Dialogues between Szan Tan and Daniel Tham 2013, p. 23). Thus, Still Life (Mid-Autumn Festival) can be seen as a way to immortalise these small cultural acts of remembrance, such as painting on a lantern or the craft of making mooncakes that were on the verge of extinction.

One of the few Southeast Asian female artists of the twentieth-century to achieve this level of success, Chen’s late still lifes are considered some of her finest paintings. In the appreciation of a rare work such as the present lot, one can observe its significance as a culmination of decades of Chen’s artistic training and development. From the delicately balanced compositions, to the use of perspective to showcase the traditional delicacies, as well as the fine handling of colour and excellent draughtsmanship, Still Life (Mid-Autumn Festival) is a true masterpiece and leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind of Chen’s contributions to the historical landscape of Asian modern art.

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