Kwok Kian Chow

This document is part of a joint project of the Singapore Art Museum and the Honours Core Curriculum, National University of Singapore. This image and accompanying text appears here with the kind permission of the Singapore Art Museum.

Scholars Programme

Visual arts as we know it today is an individualistic practice. The artist may draw his or her inspiration and reference from various sources but the creation and execution of the work is an individual act, It is within the larger context of the visual arts culture (industry, scholarship, market, aesthetic values, exhibition . . . ) that this act interplays, granting it layers of meaning. This process is different from the performing arts where a theatrical or musical work is the result of team effort. Similarly, visual arts is different from traditional craft which emphasises collective work or at least shares collective processes and designs.

At one level, we could say that visual arts is a Western-derived practice, because, historically, the practice of painting and sculpture in this part of the world had a definite Western origin. Yet, in the Singapore context where there had been a strong presence of Chinese migrant culture, it should also be mentioned that, according to ancient texts individual creativity in China can be traced to the fourth century (Max Loehr p. 16). At another level, personal expression is universal where brushes and paints are but channels for individual enunciation.

The purpose of this book is to provide an outline history of visual arts in Singapore from about the beginning of the twentieth century to the present. The earlier religious art, colonial architecture and craft practices all rightly form part of the artistic heritage of Singapore. However, for clarity of theme and concept, this book limits itself to visual arts created by individuals in the mediums of painting and sculpture. In the course of artistic development, newer mediums such as installation and performance became popular, but the fundamental idiom remains as individualistic expression.

This book is a synthesis of the author's articles and conference papers on Singapore art published between 1991 and 1995, the full listing of which is in the appended list of references. This work also contains discussions on art works in the Singapore Art Museum catalogue researched by Susie Koay, Joanna Lee, Ahmad Mashadi and Chen Onn Mei.

It is often argued that history should not be perceived as a linear development because at any one point of time, there would have been multiple dynamics operating at numerous levels. Neither should art history be seen as a history of styles and formal influences. However, in documenting the development of Singapore art, where only a single historical survey in monograph has been published (Ma Ge), it is deemed necessary to rely on a loosely chronological framework to systematically introduce selected artists and their works. As the purpose is to highlight many historical and aesthetic themes and issues, the inclusion of artists and works are not meant to be comprehensive or judgemental. In this respect, it is also significant to state that the works illustrated are drawn almost entirely from the Singapore Art Museum collection.

One important theme of this survey concerns the emergence of modern art in Singapore. The term "modern" in the sense of the contemporaneous refers to works of art which a viewer considers to represent a departure from the past. This identification involves both a conception of the past and a conception of the present, and these notions naturally vary from person to person. It is often these divisions or differences which are most interesting and, in the course of this study, some of the shifting meanings of the term "modern" will be discussed.

At this point three prevalent definitions of "modern" should be stated. Firstly, to recapitulate, "moderm" means the sense of the emergence of art as an independent and individualistic practice. It is a departure from the earlier monumental religious and public sculpture and architecture, as well as craft traditions.

Secondly, "modern" can be defined as an identifiable high point in the course of the entire twentieth century development. This height for Singapore comes neatly at the mid-point of the century -- the 1950s. Here, "modern art" takes on the meaning of a point of maturity in the half-century when the environment, stimulations and innovative efforts came into a right mix to bring forth a distinct flourishing of artistic innovation in Singapore. An earlier tension between Chinese nationalism and Nanyang regionalism had been resolved after the Second World War making way for new impetus for innovation. Many seminal works by important Singapore pioneer artists such as Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng were created during this period.

Thirdly, "modern" as used by the Modern Art Society in the 1960s referred to a departure from the mainstream Chinese migrant art which, by then, had developed into a convention known by the term "Nanyang School". A related meaning of "modern" became popular in the 1970s to indicate the formalistic aspects of art or "abstract art" which was then being discussed in relation to internationalism and multiculturalism.

In terms of a "modern" infrastructure for the visual arts, it is revealing that before the 1950s, there was no art gallery in Singapore which functioned as a focus for art activities and the art market. Some art works were bought and sold prior to 1950, but the physical manifestations of an art market -- commercial galleries, exhibitions with works for sale, art promoters, art patrons and art events linked to a relatively constant venue - were absent until then.

If these new components qualify Singapore art from the 1950s onward to be identified as "modern", it is then important to state that they differ from the main driving forces of modernism in Western art. In the West, it was the break down of support to artists from the church, the state, and the aristocratic elite that caused artists to become independent in the emerging capitalist market.

It is clear then, that while the history of Western art serves as an important reference for a study of Singapore's modern art history, Singapore art is not derivative of any international art trends. In one sense, the history of Singapore art can be viewed as an interplay between art practice and the evolution of an infrastructure for the visual arts, but this book will also show the other specific historical circumstances which stimulated and interacted with aesthetic articulation and artistic innovation in Singapore.

Shortly after the founding of Singapore in 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles wrote to a friend about his rationale of colonial rule in relation to education and the arts:

By collecting the traditions of the country and affording the means of instruction to all who visit our stations, we shall give an additional inducement to general intercourse... And shall we, who have been favoured among other nations, refuse to encourage the growth of intellectual improvement or rather shall we not consider it one of our first duties to afford the means of education to surrounding countries, and thus render our stations not only the seats of commerce but of literature and arts? [Alex Josey p. 20]

Noble words, but the first art instructor from England would not arrive until more than a century later in 1923. Unlike the French who established the I'École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine in Hanoi in 1925, and the Dutch who started an art department in the University of Indonesia (the forerunner of the Bandung Institute of Technology Faculty of Fine Arts and Design), the British did not set up an art academy in the Malayan peninsula or Singapore, This situation was in distinct contrast even with British India where art education and practice were institutionalised from the mid-nineteenth century, such that by the 1890s, the British had actively participated in the forging of the "Oriental School" in Indian art.


Alex Josey. Singapore: Its Past, Present and Future. University of Queensland Press, 1980.

Max Loehr. The Great Painter of China. New York Harper & Row, 1980.

Ma Ge. Malaiya yishu jianshi. Singapore: Nanyang Publishing Company, 1963.

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Last updated: May 2000