Arts and Thoughts

Chapter 1: The World As Pictures

Scholars Programme

There are times when an unfathomable gap separates ambition from its realization; this may well be unsurprising, indeed nothing more than a truism, as the lives of innumerable persons are marked by such temporarily unfulfilled aspirations. So, what is it that is new or remarkable? Well, when appraised in particular circumstances, the very emergence of a gap intervening between intention and its fruition appears somewhat baffling. This is especially so when considering a situation where an ambition is firmly, clearly articulated and accompanied by actions anchored in established procedures undertaken to actualise it.

Ng Eng Teng's entry into the world of art can be framed along these pathways; in this sense, he is propelled into that world along trajectories that are uneven, discontinuous and staggered. In making these claims the aim is not to hoist the beginnings of Eng Teng's artistic life and practice onto inscrutable domains, thereby rendering them out of reach of procedures of accounting or explication; neither is the aim to hint at enigmatic or malevolent forces that are beyond comprehension and outside the constitution of human agencies and actions, conspiring to thwart the realization of his declared ambition. The aim is to point to circumstances that are complex, contingent and volatile; circumstances which do not neatly dovetail into providing a seamless network of causes and effects, leading with untroubled momentum towards a desired destination. The aim is to draw attention to circumstances that can be construed as partly marked by events and consequences which are personal, and as partly characterised by factors that bear upon communities and nations and which define historical conditions. The particular and the general, the individual and the collective criss-cross one another, giving rise to varied, mobile, textured patterns of relationships. The beginnings as well as the development of Eng Teng's art and thoughts can most fruitfully be studied and explicated in relation to parameters such as these.

When asked to recount his earliest thoughts on art and on wishing to pursue an artistic career, Eng Teng offers the following disclosure:

While in standard two, I remember the form teacher asking the boys what they would want to be when grown up; without hesitation I replied: "I want to be an artist." The teacher was surprised and remarked, "An artist is a poor man!" I said, "I realise that."1

Was there instruction in art, and how was it conducted? The reply is telling and unsurprising:

In school we had art/craft classes, but they were nothing extraordinary like in the present day. We did potato-printing, design, and drew still-life subjects to pass examinations. When it came to craft, we were given lumps of plasticine to work and produce whatever we liked. Often we threw balls of plasticine at one another and all over the place. The teacher was not bothered as he would be marking assignments. To him it was a free period to grade papers, and that went on with each craft class. At the end of each class the teacher would get the students to put the plasticine into lumps and return them to a basket to be collected. Before doing that he would come around and identify some works that could be kept as examples and often my works were taken away. One day a zebra figure I produced was taken away for display. Richard Walker, the superintendent of schools for art, came around later and saw the zebra and took it away with him; to me that was very encouraging, the first ever encouragement for my art effort. (Conversation, p. 144.)

The resolve to be an artist crystallised early in his life; that it emerged in conditions that were inhospitable underlines its singularity; that it was cultivated in increasingly adverse and debilitating situations underscores the deep rooted endurance of that resolve. But then it could not have been otherwise. And in these respects Eng Teng is not alone. For that matter, his disclosure and its reception can be read as characterising the unfavourable grounds that those who set out to prepare to practice in the art world had to contend with and ceaselessly negotiate.

Eng Teng's description of lessons or instruction in art conducted in schools does not come as a surprise; it is a story that is told by many, many others. The situation is all too familiar; the teaching and learning of art in schools is conceptualised not so much as an integral component for advancing knowledge and skills, but marginalised as a hobby or vocational engagement, or as a means of providing relief from the serious, arduous tasks of attaining proficiency if not mastery of literacy and numeracy; the time allotted for art invariably degenerated into "the free period", devoted to the pursuit of distractions. At times the prevailing condition was alleviated by the presence of teachers who had particular dispositions towards art or convictions regarding the usefulness or validity of aft as an educational subject; such interventions were exceptional, although they were not without consequences. One such occurrence is recounted by Thomas Yee, a contemporary of Eng Teng; he was enthralled by his art teacher, and his decision to pursue studies in art was largely spurred by this inspirational encounter. He describes the occasion vividly:

I was encouraged by the art teacher, Sim Kwang Teck, a prolific watercolorist; it was he who inspired me to want to paint. He would come into the class and with a couple of strokes of the brush paint a beautiful picture of orchids, and of flowers, as if out of nothing. He was like a magician; suddenly there were beautiful, wondrous images of flowers and arrangements of flowers. And because of this teacher, because of Sim Kwang Teck, we were all very enthusiastic about painting. So then I decided, then and there, that I should pursue art as a career. (Thomas Yeo, p. 24.)

The approach to art education was haphazard; yet it was not entirely devoid of promise. One such source was the chance presence of teachers with interest in art, who were seen as exemplary teachers-cum-practitioners and who did exert considerable [20/21] influence; another was the occasional acknowledgement of artistic aptitude or recognition of creative talent. When the class teacher set aside Eng Teng's rendering of a zebra for Richard Walker's attention, it was an endeavour on the part of the institution to confer not only approval of the activity within a restricted context of a system of education, but also of those products that were seen to possess distinctiveness or quality. Eng Teng was impressed by these moves and saw in them the Very first act of appreciation of his creative endeavour; and undoubtedly this was important. Even as these actions can be applauded, they were not sufficiently rooted either in comprehensive pedagogical strategies or in integrated educational goals in order to provide fertile, continuous grounds for the study of art. In these circumstances Eng Teng, like so many others, developed his ambition with doggedness and determination; and even as the realization of his ambition was largely dependent on his resolution, it could not have materialised solely on that account. In advancing his studies and his practice, the paths that Eng Teng traverses continuously intersect with those of individuals and institutions; these interactive connections were important in the shaping of his thoughts and art. His studies, however, were marked by severe disruptions arising from illness.

On completing his secondary school education in 1953, Eng Teng intended to commence with the study of art; however, he was unsure of educational resources, such as they were, that were available; he was ignorant of the existence of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA). Apparently he had not looked at prospects diligently enough; consequently his intention remained dormant. Instead he enrolled as a trainee-teacher at the Teachers' Training College towards the end of 1953; his tenure was cut short by the diagnosis of tuberculosis. He was admitted into hospital in 1954 for treatment and remained there for seven months; he continued with medical supervision and medication for several years as an outpatient.

Even as the situation was difficult and debilitating, Eng Teng began recuperating grounds for his study of art; he enrolled in evening classes in art organised by the British Council in 1955; instruction in painting and sculpture was conducted by British Military Personnel who were accredited with diplomas in art teaching and design. Among those also registered in these classes was Teo Eng Seng; the two became firm friends.

Although his enlistment in the British Council educational project was brief, Eng Teng gained valuable knowledge of the material basis and constitution of artistic media, especially painting; his recollection is vivid and detailed:

The instruction was very good. They taught you how to prepare your oil paint with different pigments, how to grind pigment and what to add in to make paint; also how to prepare and prime canvases and maisonette boards. You know during that time we were not well off financially and knowing how to produce paints and prepare one's own canvas and materials was very useful. To prime a maisonette board usually needed about ten coats of gesso prime. When each coat had dried, sand paper was used to smoothen the surface before another coat was applied; eventually the surface was like marble. I am very grateful to the British Council for the introductory lessons on how to prepare painting materials. I continued to prepare my own materials even after I went to NAFA.

In class we were even taught the correct way to roll up a painted canvas. As a student we usually used the same stretcher for several other works. Each completed painting will be taken out of a stretcher then rolled with the paint outside instead of inside to prevent cracking. This little knowledge I found very important. (Conversation, p. 145.)

Eng Teng's involvement with the material basis of painting at the foundational level was interrupted when he was a student in NAFA; and the person responsible for this was none other than Cheong Soo Pieng who remarked that such labour was wasteful and urged that all resources be devoted to creativity and the making of art. Eng Teng was affected by this intervention and abided by it. Still, the appreciation of materials, the need to know their constitution and propensity took root and endured; the operative grounds for such engagements widened immensely when he embarked upon ceramic and sculptural activities.

In the collection there are three pictures which were executed during this time, i.e. 1955, and they are the earliest surviving works; two of them feature portraits and the third is devoted to landscape. Together with still life, they constitute the repertoire of picture categories that are preferred and which define his practice of painting. In this regard it is now largely forgotten, and will therefore come as a surprise to many, that Eng Teng's initial education was in painting, and that painting constituted the earliest and foremost medium of artistic production. This is not to say that he was indifferent to or uninterested in any other aspect of creativity; indeed, as early as 1956 he was beginning to deal with three-dimensional forms and conceptions, through self-study. Still, between 1955 and 1962 painting was pre-eminent; it can be seen as defining those years and as marking the first phase of his development.

Sunset Sunset (Fig. 1), Self Portrait (Fig. 2) and Young Woman (Fig. 3) were produced in 1955; they partly exemplify the rudiments of pictorial language garnered from the modest range of instruction available at the British Council, and partly register procedures stitched together from trial and error; not surprisingly, they bear the strains of unsureness or tentativeness. The chief aim is to compose images that are representation ally convincing and which also convey expressive potency or force. In Sunset the latter aim is dominant whereas the representational frame is bandied clumsily. Two disparate schemes are employed; the sky is depicted with broad, fluid strokes which flow and melt into one another; it is a realm in which the iridescent light of the setting sun leaves fiery trails moving laterally across the surface. The cluster of huts situated along the sea is rendered in short strokes set at acute angles, denoting finite, concrete Presences; the sea is presented as a dense layer, opaque and impenetrable. In the middle distance coconut palms rear upwards; their trunks are skeletal, brittle and appear fragile while their foliage is thick and lush, responding to the breeze firmly, confidently. The features described are seen as independent of one another; they are not linked to one another and do not lead to the representational scheme as an integrated construction - which is the principal intention of modern painting dealing with landscape; the tentative state is symptomatic of the beginnings of his practice.

Self Portrait

Self Portrait (Fig. 2), 1955, marks the earliest surviving essay on a subject which preoccupies him throughout the fifties and the early 60s. In this regard Eng Teng has produced the most extensive body of pictures devoted to the formation of the self in Singapore; reasons for such a preoccupation will be offered a little later; for the present, interest is on methods entailed in the production of an image. Self Portrait conveys youthfulness, eagerness and uninhibited forthrightness; the subject encounters the viewer directly, on grounds and at levels that are equal. The emphasis is on the head in which physiological and psychological characteristics are delineated in detail; in contrast, the shirt covering the shoulders and upper torso as well as the surface are loosely defined by brushstrokes that are fluid, multidirectional and uninterested in defining specificity. In these regards the head appears into view as a disembodied entity.

Young Woman (Fig. 3), 1955, can be read as a portrait though the viewer is not instructed to identify the model with a named subject through the registration of distinct, specific attributes. This is evident in the depiction of facial features and the direction of the gaze; in the case of the former one is led to consider characterization while in the latter there is purpose and even resolve. The surface around the head and the clothing are treated in ways similar to those in Self Portrait. The chromatic composition in the areas of the face and neck, as well as the brushwork used to delineate these parts, are crude and clumsy; he was struggling with the severe limits of self-study.

Young Woman

In January 1956 Eng Teng enrolled in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and commenced his formal education in art. He was taught drawing by Chua Mia Tee, a graduate of the academy, who was beginning to establish a distinct pictorial method. Eng Teng's studentship, was short-lived because of a recurrent bout of tuberculosis. On the advise of an uncle who was a doctor with a practice in Kuala Trengganu (in the state of Trengganu, Malaya) he moved out of Singapore; he resided with his uncle in the country. He began to recuperate as a consequence of "fresh air, loving kindness, understanding and confidence." (Conversation, p. 147.) The change in physical and psychological environments proved immensely conducive for recovery. He became restless, wishing to return to Singapore and recommence his studies; he could not pursue his interests on the meagre foundations he had accumulated:

I did some drawings and paintings (while in Kuala Trengganu); but they were not satisfactory and it was very frustrating because I lacked technique. I kept on telling my uncle that health-wise I was alright and wanted to finish my art education in Singapore. He was reluctant to let me go but in the end he couldn't persuade me to stay any longer. So in January 1958 I returned to Singapore. (Ibid.)

He did not rejoin the academy immediately after his return; seeking to attain a degree of financial independence, he worked as a trainee-artist with Shaw Brothers Company. He enrolled as a private student with Liu Kang in his studio for weekly instructions on Saturdays. "I started with pastel drawing and did well and very soon promoted myself and told him I wanted to go into oil. Usually he started a student with pastel until he was satisfied with the progress before one could proceed into oil. I suppose I was doing good works, so he allowed me to proceed." (Ibid.)

Studying with Liu Kang had demonstrable consequences; whereas in the pictures produced in 1955 Eng Teng displayed rudimentary knowledge of such components as chromatic co-ordination or relationships, spatial clarity or coherence and formal integrity, now under the tutelage of Liu Kang he advanced along these fronts confidently, purposefully. Remembering the acute frustration arising from his professed lack of technique, remembering the disruption to his education, it comes as no surprise that Eng Teng eagerly responded to systematic instruction.

Girl with Two Apples

Girl with Two Apples, 1958 (Fig. 4), shows some of the advancements along these fronts; aspects of Liu Kang's technique have also been considered and assimilated. The figure assumes a complex posture, seated in a partially cross-legged manner; the disposition of the legs provide it with a wide, stable base. Figure-ground relationship has been measured, adequately designed, so that it appears sited in pictorial space comfortably, hospitably. The apples in the foreground are fully realised; their surfaces, volume and relationship in space are fluently depicted. The scale and placement of the fruits signal two different yet complementary movements -- one recessing to the figure and into the ambient space while the other projecting towards the lower edges of the picture, towards the Viewer.

Mention has been made of Eng Teng's absorption and use of aspects of Liu Kang's pictorial technique. Where are these effects discernible? The most apparent outcome is in the employment of contouring lines, brushed in black in varying lengths and thickness, which serve to contain the formal units that constitute the figure, observe, especially, tile arms and legs where the planes defining these limbs are bordered by black lines. This is a hallmark of Liu Kang's pictorial vocabulary; occasionally here, as in Liu Kang's pictures, these lines shake off their function and assume an autonomy; in doing so they register passages with considerable kinetic interest which, although localised, enliven the entire composition.

The more enduring transfer is to be seen in the consolidation of a sense of weight, exerted by the figure and its environment; here too the technical advancements made by Liu Kang are fertile sources. Liu Kang developed a method of fabrication whereby pigments are applied fastidiously in layers, blending in the process of application on the surface; the surface is consequently transformed into a variegated chromatic plane. In viewing his compositions two interpretations or readings are possible; in one, the brushstrokes and tones appear as congealing into figures with palpable presences; in the other, the planes appear as emitting and absorbing light in ever-changing configurations rations; the two readings tend to converge rather than diverge. Such effects are the outcome of practice and reflection spanning a number of years; aspects of these are visible in Eng Teng's endeavours at this early phase.

The drapery of the figure in Girl with Two Apples is depicted forcefully; folds are carefully arranged in order to generate planes appearing to turn and curve in space. The figure is rooted by gravity firmly, and is amply seated on the ground; by contrast, the floor and walls are treated differently, with the aim of enhancing the luminous values of colour. Properties such as these are developed consistently in subsequent years, although not necessarily accompanied with regular satisfaction. For instance in Woman in White Baju, 1959, the figure as well as its spatial environment are poorly conceived and feebly realised; the brushwork is without direction or purpose.


Sunflowers, c. 1959 (Fig. 5) and Withering Sunflowers, 1959 (Fig. 6), on the other hand, display commendable complexity with regard to their conception and realization; these are two of three pictures devoted to this subject, all of them executed in the same year. Sunflowers is over-ambitious; too many items lead to a congested arrangement. Even so, it is not without interest, especially in the treatment of the flowers; the blooms, leaves and stalks are studied carefully and rendered distinctively; the large leaf bending over the container is folded and then flared, producing a powerful form.

Withering Sunflowers

Withering Sunflowers demonstrates levels of subtlety not encountered in any of the pictures mentioned so far. The table and the wall are rendered as coloured planes, relatively flattened, to appear as providing chromatic atmosphere rather than a containing space. The vase is translucent and composed of colour planes set at angles; the bouquet of sunflowers, collectively and singly, exert a compelling presence; blooms and leaves are executed with attention to formations that are distinct and different. Form and colour are interwoven in order to constitute an integrated composition. The operations of representational and chromatic interests, which were discussed in Girl with Two Apples, are hoisted onto enhanced levels, and in this picture are fluidly interrelated.

Eng Teng recounts that his involvement with three-dimensional practices commenced almost simultaneously with his interest in painting. He received cursory instruction in Sculpture while attending classes offered by the British Council; when he finally began studies at NAFA, towards the end of 1959, he discovered that all teaching was devoted to painting and drawing, with sculpture omitted from the curriculum. Interest in sculpture was sustained and its practice cultivated through self-study; in this regard it is well to remember that even as Eng Teng is reckoned principally as a sculptor, and may well be esteemed as the foremost sculptor in Singapore, the foundations and development of his sculptural practice are anchored in self-study or informal study. This is not to imply that Eng Teng's sculptural World is a hermetically scaled domain if) that it was developed in isolation; no artist emerges in such a circumstance. Self-study involved referring to books. effort "through trial and error, and getting tips from people who did sculpture. From 1959. I had the good fortune to meet Jean Bullock who arrived with her British air force husband, John. We became good friends. I used to get my nieces to pose and we worked together on developing sculptures featuring the head. I was learning and she was reaching me the finer aspects of sculpture making. I also helped her cast works in ciment fondu concrete and in the process began to understand the material. I learnt a lot from her and consider her my teacher. If not for her I would not have been working in ciment fondu." (Conversation, p. 152.)

The aims were two-fold: firstly, to gain sufficient familiarity with materials in order to fabricate and compose forms and, secondly, to foster three-dimensional conceptualisation arising from studying the human figure including parts of the figure. Eng Teng provides a succinct description of these aims, the difficulty entailed in self-study, and a disposition towards three-dimensional activity:

I was interested in three-dimensional form as I found I was particularly good with my hands. To interpret thoughts and ideas, giving them form and concrete presence, I needed to understand materials and appropriate techniques in order to visualise what I had in mind. To sculpt just a head I must be able to interpret in clay and subsequently cast it in more durable material like ciment fondu or metal. My earliest cast was using plaster of paris, learning the difficult way through books. I can still remember vividly what a mess I did with my first cast. From a plasticine model I made the mould with plaster of paris, not realising that I needed to apply a separator; I just poured another lot of plaster mixture into the mould. And of course it did not work. I learnt through trial and error and soon found out why the mould couldn't get out from the cast. I checked out with more books and the progress was very slow. (Conversation, p. 154.)

Miss Vogue In the collection is one of the earliest sculpted works by Eng Teng; titled Miss Vogue, 1957 (Fig. 7), it features a female figure, depicted at bust length, and carved in high relief. It can be viewed as a production emerging from the procedure described by Eng Teng. The principal interest is in crystallising a sufficiently convincing projection of the figure as a sculpted form, employing a variety of relief techniques. The head and breasts are propelled onto the foremost planes while the neck is recessed to the extent that its function is considerably diminished. The facial features are modelled forcefully, creating a variety of cast shadows which can be read as proposing multiple viewing points. The hair is used as a framing device, as it falls down the cheeks and along the neck; its projection is, however, neutralised by the surfaces extending beyond it, and on which appear wavy lines in low relief. The relationship between these components and the passages entailed in moving from one to the other is not clear. Notwithstanding these inconsistencies which point to insufficiently developed sculptural thinking, Miss Vogue marked Eng Teng's debut into the public sphere; it was submitted to and accepted for display in the 10th Singapore Art Society annual exhibition in 1959.

1959 signals a watershed year; in addition to his initiation into the arena of exhibitions, it was a year when his involvement in sculpture was enhanced by the arrival of Jean Bullock. The merit of such advancements have to be measured against the limited circumstances in which sculpture was practised -- limitations regarding the availability of suitable materials, the lack of supporting or requisite technologies as well as the near-absence of models or precedents that could spur fresh thinking. Recognising the nature of prevailing constraints, Bullock nevertheless provided valuable instruction in the understanding and creative use of materials, including new ones such as ciment fondu concrete, attention was also paid to conceptual and formal values which were approached systematically and with consideration. All of these were immensely beneficial for Eng Teng, as he had to advance his interest in sculpture independently of institutional support.

Aboriginal Woman Singapore Girl Even as Bullock's presence and experience were stimulating, advancement was gradual; the moderate pace of movement is discernible in Aboriginal Woman, 1960 (Fig. 8), and Singapore Girl, 1960/61 (Fig. 9). Aboriginal Woman is conceived in the round; that is to say, it has been composed to generate fresh viewing interests from successive aspects, and what is presented with changing viewing points is satisfactory. Nevertheless it has, as when one encounters a well-considered sculpture, a strongly constructed frontal presence; the principal of dominant volumes, mass and bulk are appreciable, advantageously, from this position. The figure stands confidently, assertively; the forceful articulation of the bare torso is matched by the vitality of the drapery encasing the lower portion. The deeply gouged navel can be read as the dynamic centre of the image; from it planes diverge towards the edges, curve around them to imply movements leading to changing aspects and different viewing interests; such movements connect forms with space, thereby underlining the inference and experience of three-dimensional presences. In this work Eng Teng displays his grasp of some of the salient concepts entailed in sculptural composition; in this regard it marks an advancement from Miss Vogue.

Aboriginal Woman emphasises gravity and weight; the form is firmly rooted to a clearly defined ground, i.e. its pedestal, which is integrated with the figure. Singapore Girl, on the other hand, surges upward and appears to wrest itself free from the bounds of gravity. The arms and torso come into view, fully formed, akin to a chrysalis undergoing transformation; the head is lowered, poised introspectively, as if listening to and watching the process of metamorphosis. The passages linking the formal units that make up the figure, some of which are cylindrical while others are convex and concave, are fluid and subtle. Even though the image is damaged, what survives demonstrates Eng Teng's ability to transform a coarse variety of clay sufficiently into assuming intelligible sculptural form.

The most consequential stop taken by Eng Teng in 1959 was in seeking admission to NAFA; a move in this direction in 1956 was interrupted by illness. He approached the principal, Lim Hak Tai, and persuaded him to be allowed to enrol in the second year of studies; he completed the course of studies at the academy in 1961.

The curriculum, which was flexible in many aspects, was nevertheless resolutely anchored in the study of drawing which was a required subject at all the three levels of the programme. Drawing was esteemed as fundamental for the acquisition of skills enabling the development and execution of paintings; drawing was also revered as the indispensable methodology for stimulating or generating creative thinking, whereby works of art with significance and meaning are produced. At the academy, art was defined in terms of painting.

This requirement was developed principally through the study of the figure - the figure not as presented by a model in the studio (i.e. life drawing), but as plaster-cast reproductions of masterworks selected from Greek, Roman and Renaissance histories of art. Consciously and unconsciously, in seeing and studying these objects, students were impressed by their art historical and Cultural imprints which were projected as having universal appeal and validity. In these circumstances there was little or no scope for seeing the figure and registering it in terms of particular psychological situations or cultural contexts.

The human body, especially manifested in the form of the nude, as an aesthetic conception of fundamental importance is particular to the European artistic tradition; it is an ideal supported by anthropocentric (variously translated and elaborated as humanistic) systems of value in which the human being is esteemed as the measure of all conceivable dimensions. Contrary to general understandings this is not an ideal that is universally upheld or advocated. This is not to say that the human figure is exclusive to just the one tradition; it is featured in many traditions. However, its representation is framed or shaped by particular cultural ideals or contexts. It is in this sense that figure drawing and surreptitious attempts at drawing from life, at NAFA, can be appreciated. Eng Teng recalls the coy efforts in dealing with the model in the studio:

We were desperate for life drawing in NAFA but were not allowed; the nearest we had was when a European lady volunteered to pose in a bikini, reclining and facing the wall; we only painted her back view. And imagine, we had to close all doors and windows." (Conversation, p. 155.)

The experience recounted here is not exceptional or singular; even as the figure appears prominently in the works of many artists in Singapore, its representation is riven with problems along a number of fronts. The situation is by no means recent but reaches back into the early phases of artistic practice, thinking and reception. For instance when Le Mayeur, the Belgian artist who in a long residency in Bali produced a distinct repertoire of figuration which proved to be extremely influential amongst artists in Southeast Asia, presented an exhibition of his pictures in Singapore in 1938, Chen Chong Swee openly admired the vitality expressed in the compositions and then recalls an incident with implications related to consideration of the figure in life and art; it is rewarding to read his recollection in detail:

Figures dominated his Bali paintings. His works, be they sketches done in light colours or bright-coloured oil paintings, showed that they were inspired by the clear and tropical sunlight. His brightly-clad energetic and graceful dancers, dancing to the beat of drums and bells, or his weaving women, kneeling beside the loom weaving sarong cloth, fully demonstrated the tranquil and fine life of the Balinese. The painting partner (who later became his wife) he brought along, attired in traditional Balinese costumes, was on hand to receive guests. She offered herself bare-breasted for photographs. This created quite a stir in Singapore. (Chen Chong Swee, p. 14.)

There is little doubt that the body and its representation is a charged or 'loaded' subject, bringing into relief the complex fabric of social values as well as the limits of sexual propriety. Studies of the figure in all its ramifications will undoubtedly illuminate ways by which these values and limits determine representation and shape its reception; such studies can also shed light on how artists probe into the nature of dominant values and stretch or breach prevailing limits. For the present occasion discussion of these matters will devolve around Eng Teng's art and thoughts.

Reclining Figure in Bikini Reclining Figure in Bikini (Fig. 11) is the outcome of the encounter with a life model in the studio recounted above; although it is not dated, it can confidently be assigned to that period of his pupilage at NAFA. The rear view is a complex pictorial proposition; it presents the major components of the figure -- i.e. head, torso, upper limbs, buttocks and lower limbs - as clearly articulated entities whose structures, while distinct, are linked to one another by means of intricate transitional passages. In this picture Eng Tong demonstrates understanding of these aspects, although not consistently or rigorously. Yes, the principal profiles of the figure are connected smoothly and give rise to fluid readings spanning its entire length; yet there are units and relationships that are not clear. For instance the left thigh is barely defined, and there is no indication of the whereabouts of the right arm. On the other hand, the left hand and the insteps of both feet are clearly articulated and resolutely constructed. Even though the grounds for developing interest with the figure were limited, Eng Teng persisted with his preoccupation and produced an appreciable number of pictures in which the human figure was presented in a number of circumstances. It was during his short sojourn at Farnham School of Art in Surrey, England (1963-64) that the study of the figure attained a sustained and satisfactory level.

Besides drawing the figure (principally from plaster-cast statuary), there also were studies devoted to still life and sketching outdoors. The aim of using still life arrangements is to cultivate acuity of seeing and develop methods for stable pictorial composition. Objects are selected and placed on a table in order to induce close, sustained looking in a controlled environment and with a view towards satisfying aesthetic goals; these have to be transformed into pictorial form and demonstrate purposeful relationship with one another and with the picture surface. The world of still life is a world of certainties which are displayed so as to emphasise their material constitution. The two pictures featuring sunflowers, which have been discussed earlier, generate readings along these lines, although to limited degrees; as Eng Teng develops his visual language in the academy, he produces compositions which permit deeper readings.

Sketching outdoors is undertaken to facilitate rapid, fluid co-ordination of seeing and execution; unlike still life compositions which take place in selective, even prescribed circumstances, working outdoors presents countless possibilities, and for this reason can be daunting. What elements are to be selected and how are they to be set down, fixed and connected are matters of vital importance. The speed with which these decisions are made are in turn registered by the graphic elements employed. In viewing the ensuing pictures or poring over the marks that add up to a picture, attributes such as spontaneity, freshness, kinetic force and rhythm, brevity as well as surprising or unexpected flourishes, are esteemed highly and cherished.

In developing facility in these areas, Eng Teng produced pictures featuring landscape, figures -- including portraits and self portraits -- and genre scenes; he travelled extensively in Singapore and Malaya, seeking subjects that could be suitably transformed into pictorial form and content. The method of drawing was one which was favoured in the academy and methodically cultivated by students enrolled in it; in comparing the studies undertaken by them, remarkable similarities surface, pointing to shared, authorised approaches. The method is derived from aspects of the linear language of Chinese pictorial tradition; an aspect that was highly valued in the academy was the sinuous movement of lines across the picture ground. In order to actualise this properly, lines were derived from the single edge of things; the interest was not so much in conceptualising intelligible enclosures, nor plastic volume nor tonal gradations. The interest was tilted in the direction of fluidity and elegance; things derived from or observed in the visible world were prised from permanent or solid grounds, configured as linear entities that were seen to be continually shifting in their relationships or arrangements. These are, of course, extremely cultivated methods of making art as well as conceptualising the world; it is not implied that Eng Teng had attained these vaunted levels at this phase. Bearing in mind that his efforts were undertaken while he was a student, it will not be surprising that they are stamped with degrees of tentativeness; a handful, however, demonstrates conviction and confidence.

Pattern on the Hill and Floating House on Pahang River Pattern on the Hill and Floating House on Pahang River, 1960 (Fig. 12), exemplify two distinct interests; in the former Eng Teng sketches in a view from a distance. A cluster of trees marks the middleground, with steeply inclined boulders piled high one on another leading to a range of mountains in the background; in the foreground cultivated tracks running parallel to one another move towards the trees. Lines are employed to designate the different entities; they are sufficiently varied in order to indicate their positions relative to one another in a compositional scheme. The lines appear as levitating and interweaving in unspecified grounds. Floating House on Pahang River is, on the other hand, a rendering of an object observed at close range, although it is set at a distance; the intensity of the scrutiny is demonstrated chiefly by the abundance of details which serve to make the boat, its use and inhabitant appreciably specific or concrete. Such effects are possible because of the phrasing of lines which produce bundles or clusters, arranged at intervals; in reading them the eye seeks coherence and secures an image that is tangible. The interest in specificity is countervailed by the indeterminate environment in which the house-boat is sited; indeed, the two conditions are juxtaposed uneasily.

Sketch of Kampong II In Sketch of Kampong I (Fig. 13) and Sketch of Kampong II (Fig. 14), both dated 1961, the imagery is amplified while the repertoire of drawing is varied. By the 1950s the kampong or the village was crystallised as a dominant image in the category of landscape painting in Singapore. At a symbolic level it appealed as a pastoral haven, an alternative to the city, in which the inhabitants are envisioned as having forged a harmonious, untroubled relationship with the environment; nature and human beings were integrated. At a cultural level the kampong was apprehended as a pattern of settlement and life that was unique and indigenous to the region of Southeast Asia; by appropriating it as an image suitable for pictorial requirements, artists in the 1950s were conscious of creating an iconography which was distinctive and identifiable with a region. At a formal level it proposed challenges along a number of fronts such as dealing with the properties of light, the material constitution of things, and complexities involved in representingSketch of Kampong I a habitat with the aim of securing a sense of the picturesque. For Eng Teng, as for others who studied at NAFA and who subsequently developed practices as artists, landscape with a kampong was an integral part of received pictorial vocabulary and symbolism; the transmission of these components of visual language was facilitated by the presence of a number of artists who formulated them in the academy, as teachers. More on this a little later.

In Sketch of Kampong I (Fig. 13) the image is centred; the thatched, wooden house is the most prominent entity. It is framed by two gnarled trees in the foreground towards the right hand corner and a young coconut palm which is placed in the middleground towards the left edge of the picture. Lines are principally employed to provide edges to things, thereby contouring and giving them a minimal semblance of separateness. To convey interiority, lines are laid close to one another, converting units of the surface into dense pockets into which all, tight has been absorbed. These pockets generate depth and weight in a sketch dominated by wiry, undulating lines which resist gravity. Similar effects are visible in Sketch of Kampong II (Fig. 14); spatial recession is enhanced by the staggered positioning of coconut palms which mark a graduated movement into pictorial space. Two figures are seen in the middleground absorbed in conversation.

Pier and Houseboat In Pier and Houseboat, 1961 (Fig. 15), and Kampong Mosque, c, 1960-61 (Fig. 16), attempts are made to vary interest in composition. In the former, the scheme is aligned vertically and at an oblique angle to the picture plane; the effect is to enhance the velocity of movement, especially over the pier; when the boat is reached, movement comes to a settled conclusion, in the sense that the boat accommodates, absorbs all that preceded in the fore-and-middle grounds. This method of composing landscape was advanced by Cheong Soo Pieng in the 1950s; it was a radical way of synthesising aspects derived from the design of hanging (vertical) scrolls and of the easel picture. Soo Pieng developed the scheme in a number of connected pictures featuring a variety of landscape imagery; Kampong Mosqueit was extremely influential although its history and scope have not been studied seriously. Pier and Houseboat marks Eng Teng's interpretation of Soo Pieng's method; by and large he has remained faithful to Soo Pieng's method; the principal distinctive marks are registered by the dimension and function of lines. In Kampong Mosque (Fig. 16) lines assume heightened delicacy; Eng Teng coaxes them to gather into patterns suggesting foliage. Lines are also used for descriptive purposes; this function is especially vivid in the rendering of the facade of the mosque in which the dome, pillars, minarets and ancillary arches ire clearly distinguished and subtly related.

Musicians for Wayang Kulit II For Eng Teng the scope of drawing is chiefly set within these parameters; pictures are distinguished by the emphasis given to aspects within such limitations. Variations are also apparent in the amplification or reduction of subject matter. Earlier mention was made to genre and figure compositions. Musicians for Wayang Kulit II, c. 1960 (Fig. 17), and Fruit Vendors, c. 1960 (Fig. 18), belong to the former category; they further exemplify his interest in consolidating things that are seen, but with sparing means. In Fruit Vendors, lines are used economically yet effectively; figures are contoured precisely and positioned adequately; the piles of fruit conform to delicate intersections of curved lines. Fruit VendorsAs a representation of a potentially intense, interactive human engagement -- as any market transaction turns out to be - this picture appears limpid, even transparent, completely cleansed of the density arising from close contact and intercourse. In Musicians for Wayang Kulit, even as lines are employed to define edges, Eng Teng also demonstrates interest in details; this is especially visible in the disposition of the bodies, each distinguished by actions entailed in playing different musical instruments.

Gathering Corn

Multiple figures lead to issues relating to composition; these can, at times, be dealt with loosely, informally and, at other times, purposefully or deliberately. In Gathering Corn, 1961 (Fig. 19), and Husking Corn, 1961 (Fig. 20), figures are delineated in order to articulate specific actions; these figures are carefully placed in distinct picture planes so as to simulate movement in space. These aims are convincingly, consistently realised in Husking Corn; by varying view points of figures and staggering their positions on the surface, a dynamic movement into pictorial space is generated. In order to reinforce planar recession, a bag is left opened in the background; the edges of the opening glide smoothly towards the figures in the far distance, functioning as a bridging device connecting one plane with another.

Husking Corn

The term genre is used to refer to art which is valued for its subject matter and in this general sense it may be applicable to a wide range of art works. In its restricted usage it usually points to art featuring scenes from daily life; approached with this expectation the pictures discussed above may legitimately be categorised as genre. But there is more. At a deeper level, genre works represent scenes derived from daily life in particular social situations or conditions; that is to say, they allegorise or explicitly convey human relationships and engagements in political, social, psychological, spiritual and sexual grounds. At this level genre gains significance and profundity precisely from the specific, concrete ways by which human beings and their environments are juxtaposed or interwoven, ways by which one is construed as affecting the other.

Two Indian Girls

Such interconnections are not evident in these pictures, where the chief interests are in developing formal aspects of drawing and representation; neither are they present in Two Indian Girls, 1960 (Fig. 21), and Modern Kelantanese Beauties, 1960 (fig. 22), - except for cursory if not stereotypical registrations. In the former the title underlines ethnic affiliations and cultural affirmations; yet the imagery traces, tentatively, vestiges of attire which do not match expectations. There is little regard for providing or constructing contexts that can suitably detail, augment, cultural and ethnic identities. Similar observations can be levelled at Modern Kelantanese Beauties, although the figures can be viewed as projecting varying states of self-consciousness, especially in wanting to advance individual presences.

Modern Kelantan Beauties

These remarks are made in order to ascertain the scope of Eng Teng's interests in dealing with picture categories at particular phases in his artistic development; they are not made with the aim of mapping general tendencies that prevail at all times. The years 1960-61 were years of studentship; they were years when Eng Teng consolidated methods of drawing and painting learnt at the academy. They were also years when he set about probing, stretching the conceptual and formal limits which mark the commencement of his studies and practice; these occurred parallelly with his efforts at consolidating received procedures.

Sail Boats

For instance in the drawings cited above, the approach to drawing is confined to delineating objects along their edges and contouring shapes; in these pictures the relationship between form and ground, or figure and ground, remains undefined, undetermined. Cast in the light of this account, Sail Boats, c. 1960-61 (Fig. 23), must appear surprising; the mode of execution is fluid, ample, integrated and departs significantly from the restrained use of drawing discussed earlier. Painterly and linear properties are interwoven effectively, subtly. Variations in ink tones generate movement across as well as into the surface; these variations also serve to secure the location of the depicted elements or things on the picture surface. All these signal an appreciable widening of the formal employment of the medium.


Matchmaker, 1960 (Fig. 24), is distinguished from those genre Pictures mentioned above by a greater, if not explicit, interest in the purpose and outcome of human interaction. Two female figures are seated on a bench; the older of the two places an arm around the other, draws her close, looks at and speaks with her intently. The listener reciprocates the attentiveness by inclining her head in the direction of the speaker and assumes an absorbed attitude. The physical and psychological proximity underlines the seriousness and private nature Of the transaction. Eng Teng expands the scope of drawing by utilising a variety of lines in order to render the figures as concrete and tangible; he also individualises gestures and expressions so as to give the occasion a heightened particularity,

Concreteness, individuality and particularity are germane to portraiture and self portraiture. As picture categories they do not appear to feature prominently or consistently in the works of artists in Singapore with, of course, some exceptions; among the most distinguished of these was Georgette Chen. This is not to imply that artists here are indifferent to concerns or problems arising from projecting the self and the other and, therefore, in the construction of identities; they are, although these are largely approached through oblique statements and Strategies. In these circumstances it is significant to encounter a range of pictures by Eng Teng devoted to portraits, including self portraits; involvement with these categories point to a need to define, ascertain the self, as well as those who constitute a community for the artist. Occasionally he undertakes commissions for portraits; by and large, however, these pictures are prompted by his interest in the formation of images of persons who are related to him familially, professionally and socially. His preoccupation with portraiture which appeared in his earliest efforts was sustained in the first phase of his development, i.e. 1959-61, and in the early years of his studentship in England, i.e. 1962-64; it is largely abandoned, appearing occasionally, and has resurfaced recently (1995 to the present).

Self PortraitSelf Portrait, 1961 (Fig. 25), is a markedly settled presentation when compared with the 1955 composition. Eng Teng the subject looks at the viewer with a measured, reflective gaze, momentarily diverted from an earlier preoccupation. His features, upper torso and arm are firmly articulated, pointing to a sense of contained strength and resolve. These characteristics can only be discernible if the language employed is sufficiently cultivated to induce or provoke subtle yet deep readings, in this regard there is an appreciable widening of the scope of drawing. Eng Teng uses cross-hatching, clustering and thickening as devices for denoting volume, especially in the depiction of the arm; shading is utilised to delineate planes articulating the complex structure of the cheeks and neck. Attention is also paid to the relationship between the figure and the ground by creating cast shadows around the head, shoulder and the arm of the chair.

Georgette Chen Philip Such readings are possible when an artist's facility with the medium is expansive; the extent to which Eng Teng had advanced his capacity can be measured by comparing this self portrait with the portraits of Georgette Chen, 1960 (Fig. 26), and Philip, c. 1960-61 (Fig. 27); in them, the scope of drawing is relatively restricted and similar in reach to that observed in sketches of landscape cited earlier. The interest in these portraits is far more in the named subjects than in their complex or ample pictorial realizations. And for Eng Teng no one person is as revered or esteemed as Georgette Chen; she was his teacher, and an influential one at that, he was enthralled at the prospect of being taught by her and to be in her presence. "I had heard about her; I had seen her paintings in exhibitions when I was younger. In 1956, when I first joined NAFA, I was taught drawing by Chua Mia Tee, a graduate from NAFA and who was teaching the first year class, Georgette Chen was teaching the final year students in the main building; during intervals, I would peer through the window and watch Mdm Chen with awe. I knew she was a great artist. I wished to be taught by her one day." (Conversation, p. 150.) When he re-enrolled in 1959 he was taught by her. "She spoke Mandarin, English, French and Malay -- all fluently. I was thrilled to be in her class." (Ibid.) He admired her as an artist; he considered her "a quiet artist" in the sense that she was painstaking, methodical and meticulous. "There was much sensitivity and quality in her works. Her colours were very rich in tones and shades; a precise and accurate painter, she would mix her colours very accurately on the palette and each stroke she put on canvas counted. I observed her when she taught oil painting in other classes." (Conversation, p. 152.) Georgette Chen's influence extended beyond the realms of pedagogy and of art; throughout her life she was an intellectual and spiritual mentor, a guru, to Eng Teng; and no doubt to others as well.

This is the only portrait of Georgette Chen by Eng Teng; it was produced while he was a student at the academy. She is presented seated on a stool, absorbed in sketching; care has been taken to register a degree of resemblance, even within the sparing use of drawing elements, especially in the face and attire. The location is not specified; she is, however, situated at a distance, scrupulously avoiding any intimation of familiarity. This can be construed as a means of maintaining a sense of decorum, if not respect (fuelled by status/authority), intervening between the subject and the artist, as well as the subject and the viewer.

Philip is a portrait of a cousin of Eng Teng; the subject is presented in a close-up position; the head is tilted upwards and maintains a three-quarters view point. Compared with Georgette Chen, this is an informal, intimate presentation. In the case of the former, the subject is depicted as a full figure, seated and immersed in its own activity and thoughts; here it is shown as a partial figure, chiefly to satisfy the gaze of the beholder. In order to satisfy scrutiny, and sustain it, Eng Teng provides details reinforcing psychological interest and physical presence. Similar traits are observable in Wan Soon Kam, 1961 (Fig. 28), a contemporary, and an established artist in the medium of watercolour; presented as a partial figure, the subject tilts its head towards the right but meets the viewer's gaze directly.

Seah Kim Joo By any reckoning Seah Kim Joo, 1959 (Fig. 29), must rank as an audacious interpretation of portraiture; it marks a radical departure from the customary approach to this picture category in the story of art in Singapore. A fellow-student in the academy, Kim Joo proceeded to create works that were hailed as innovative along conceptual and formal grounds in the late 1960s and early 1970s: in the mid 1970s he stopped practicing and turned his attention to managing an art/antique gallery. In this picture he is shown seated on a stool, facing the easel with brush held in his right hand; what is presented is his rear view, in its entirety. Such an exposition upturns the conventions governing portraiture which, nominally, set out to provide a purposeful record of individual appearance; and appearance is most satisfactorily presented by the frontal aspect, with the emphasis on the face. In selecting to show the rear view, Eng Teng is not aiming at erasing, defiling or undermining the identity or persona of the subject; the decision was prompted by two considerations.

Firstly, Kim Jon was a gangling young man, who towered over everyone else; the furniture in the academy was inadequate for accommodating his height, and when he occupied a stool he appeared to spill over and in all directions. This gave rise to mirth; it must also have given rise to interesting visual possibilities. I suggest that Eng Teng seized upon such a possibility; in encountering Kim Jon seated and working in front of his easel from the rear, he immediately realised he was in the presence of a subject that could lead to a picture of immense interest. And he has produced one such picture.

Secondly, rather than employ conventional means for creating a portrait. Eng Teng has elected to emphasise the notion of self, register a semblance of identity, through the activity or making of art; in other words, Kim Joo as the subject of this picture is presented as an artist, explicitly and solely engaged in the active dimension of his practice. Who and what the subject is, is specified by the nature of the particular activity and, of course, by being named. The figure is shown in a vigorously seated posture and with forceful action. The striped patterns on the shirt and trousers serve to enhance linear extensions. In terms of conveying an activity undertaken by an individual, and in terms of specifying a pictorial habitat, this is an accomplished and fully realized composition.

The portraits discussed above, with the exception of Philip, are images of artists or of students of art; in the case of Georgette Chen and Seah Kim Joo, they are representations of artists at work. And it is with the last mentioned aspect that I wish to conclude discussion of Eng Teng's drawings for the moment. The artist engaged in making art is a subject that is featured in the works of a number of artists in Singapore; in this regard, Liu Kang's Artist and Model, 1954, is arguably the most renowned production exemplifying this theme. However, as an art historical topic it has not been sufficiently studied in order to permit generalisations regarding its prevalence or pertinence.15 Be that as it may, recent research into the lives and works of artists who emerged in the 1960s indicates that interest in their artistic environment as subject for pictures was high. and sustained during their studentship and the early years of their practice. Thomas Yeo, for instance, produced drawings featuring Gog Sing Hoot sketching outdoors and Lim Yew Kuan painting in the studios at Chelsea School of Art in London; there are other instances. Evidently, Eng Tong and Yeo were enthralled by the world of art and the creative process sufficiently to create pictures commemorating their responses; in doing so they were seeking to honour their affiliation with it and their association with teachers and fellow students-cum-artists. These pictures can be read as symbols of validation, whereby the decision to embark upon the study and subsequent practice of art are endorsed by demonstrating the professionalism entailed in that practice, and by extolling the status of those who are esteemed within the world of art. In these respects, these pictures mark varied schemes in the construction of the self, they are advanced, in part, by scrutinising who and what one is and, in part, by dealing with others in terms of relationships which are continually examined and reconfigured. These preoccupations, which constitute fertile grounds for cultivating approaches to drawing, resurface when Eng Teng turns his attention to painting.

The paintings in the collection were produced during four sustained years, 1959-1963; of course, they are not only confined to considerations arising from portraiture. They feature landscape, still life and a range of figurative subjects; a handful of them are preceded by drawings in which compositions are sketched. These categories define the scope of Eng Teng's involvement with painting, a scope which is comparable to that of any other artist practicing at that time; they also map the parameters of the tradition of the easel picture as these are developed and articulated in diverse contexts of modernism. In this regard, the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts offered a model that was distinct and one which was moulded by historical circumstances attending its establishment. Not surprisingly, Eng Teng's approach to painting was shaped by this; formal instruction was the most direct way of transmitting values upheld by this model.

This model was driven by two goals, namely; (a) developing requisite skills enabling the transcription of visible reality with conviction and purpose; hence the emphasis on drawing and composition; (b) cultivating aesthetic dimensions of the medium in order to convey expressive resonances and communicate symbolic meaning. (Kwok Kian Chow, p. 23-24.) While the first goal is customarily attained through formal instruction, the second is realised, chiefly, by means of creative production and critical reflection, as well as poring over exemplary Works of art. Regarding the latter, Eng Teng's acknowledgement of Georgette Chen's influence has been cited; in discussing his efforts prior to enrolling at NAFA, the impact of Liu Kang on his early pictures has been described. Chen Wen Hsi was also a source of inspiration; his presence and effect were forceful. "He painted both in the Chinese medium and in oil; but I like his oils more because the compositions were big, lively and quite abstract using swift Chinese painting strokes. He was a vigorous artist." (Conversation, p. 152.)

Eng Teng respected them as teachers and as artists; he viewed their works with admiration yet critically. Towering above them, however, was Cheong Soo Pieng; his persona was surrounded by an aura which was unmatched, unrivalled. He was the most watched and imitated artist in Singapore; students at the academy attest to Soo Pieng's mighty presence and overwhelming influence, without exception. In describing the master at work, Eng Teng can hardly control his sense of awe:

I was taught by Cheong Soo Pieng in the use of the oil medium for a period of time. He had a studio at NAFA at that time and I loved to watch him paint; usually he would paint when he was not teaching but sometimes even when he should be teaching. There he sat in his reclining deck chair, smoking, looking at and scrutinising his painting; occasionally he would get up and apply a stroke or two and go back to his reclining chair to smoke and contemplate. I would stand there quietly; he was aware that somebody was standing at the door but would not acknowledge the presence so as his thought was not distracted. It was interesting watching him paint, how he went about solving problems. Of course I could hardly understand the process or method; I only saw him get up occasionally, put a dot here and a line there. (Conversation, p. 149.)

The account is matched, almost identically, with that provided by Thomas Yeo.19 Eng Teng is uninhibited in conferring supreme status on him and in endorsing his impact on the art world in Singapore:

Cheong Soo Pieng to me was the greatest. We looked forward to seeing his new works every year in the Singapore Art Society Exhibition. You can be sure there would be something new and interesting from him each year. As a result, in the following year, you would see a few following him in terms of style, images or colours; something of Soo Pieng. (Conversation, p. 152.)

The importance of Soo Pieng is further underlined by Michael Sullivan, an art historian who critically examined the works of artists in Singapore in the latter half of the 1950s; in doing so he singled out Soo Pieng and associated his impact with comparable forces in the art history of the world:

Soo Pieng's influence on the younger painters of Singapore has been powerful and direct, -- perhaps too direct. His angular figures, formalised portraits, and expressionistic use of colour are the mark of a highly sophisticated painter the very consistency of whose style has given rise to a school of young painters who copy his forms and colours just as the painters of Paris have copied Picasso and Braque. (Cheong Soo Pieng, unpaginated.)

All of this is heady stuff, although no less compelling for all that. Still, much has to be done to subject these declarations or assertions to methodical study, whereby influences are mapped Over space and time, whereby works registering stages of absorption and transformation are identified and analysed.

Still Life with Red Fish and Leeks Still Life with Red Fish and Leeks Soo Pieng's influence on Eng Teng is explicitly observable in a number of paintings; in them formal aspects are selected, at times re-employed and at other times transformed to suit different and particular aims. In Still Life with Red Fish Head and Leeks, c. 1959 (Fig. 30), Eng Teng uses planar devices advanced by Soo Pieng in order to emphasise the dynamic relationship of shapes; this is gained at the expense of the projection of illusory space in which depicted things are situated. The outcome is a composition that appears flattened; but it is a composition which generates considerable interest. The fish head, the container, table top and leek have been dismantled and rearranged, generating fresh combinations that are intriguing; the resulting composition does not congeal into any single, settled reading but is continually altering its configurations. Eng Teng has grasped the principles underlying Soo Pieng's interpretation of Cubism, and is employing them purposefully and intelligently. Similar objectives are discernible in Still Life with Fish and Leeks, 1959 (Fig. 31), although interest in registering verisimilitude is pronounced, giving rise to unresolved passages. These are most apparent in the awkward placement of the fish on the table-cloth and the positioning of the thicker of the two leeks.

Still Life with Bananas and Other Fruits Still Life with Rambutans and Durians Still Life with Bananas and Other Fruits, 1959 (Fig. 32), and Still Life with Rambutans and Durians, c. 1959 (Fig. 33), demonstrate the appeal of yet another aspect of Soo Pieng's compositional scheme; here it is the siting of tangible entities in unspecified or dematerialised habitats. In the former the comb of bananas and a cut fruit appear as placed on a sufficiently stable ground; the remainder of the picture hovers in indeterminate conditions as the Surface which could, nominally, function as a ground has been rendered translucent, deprived of any tangible substance. The contrasting relationship between the world as made up of substantial things and the habitat as dissolving into insubstantial state is given heightened resonance in Still Life with Rambutans and Durians. Any intimation of a ground -- in still life pictures the referent is a table top -- is completely erased; there is, instead, a plane suffused in white light which is set vertically and parallel to the picture surface. The depicted objects are not diminished by the absence of a supporting ground; they display their material existence forcefully and are rooted in an internal gravity, As in Figs. 34 and 35, here too, Eng Teng deals with a scheme formulated by Soo Pieng not by merely imitating it but by considering its advantages for his purpose, hence it is possible to read it at some depth along formal and symbolic fronts.

Still Life with Apples, Oranges and Mangoes In the Kitchen Eng Teng is not only dependent on the study of precedents to advance his practice; there are works which clearly signal independent thinking and realization. Within the category of still life, compositions titled Still Life with Apples, Oranges and Mangoes (Fig. 34), 1960, and In the Kitchen, 1960 (Fig. 35), are distinguished by the clear, forceful treatment of formal properties. in the former, representational and abstract interests are concretely manifested and integrated. The cane basket, which is placed on its side in order to display its interior, is exploited fully; the intricate basketry has been transformed into an entity with compelling architectonic force. The outcome is a brilliant demonstration of a sustained fusion of constructive and luminous properties of the medium; the basket appears as a container of limitless capacity and endurance. The fruits, table top as well as the surface environment arc similarly treated. The composition is an exemplary creation in which distinctiveness and integration are crystallised vigorously, yet discreetly.

In In the Kitchen, on the other hand, the abiding interest is in the creation of a representational matrix; this is undertaken in order to mange, display, a number of things which will permit sustained looking at their material/formal constitution as well as their relationship to one another, These interrelated concerns lead us to the core Of Still life Pictures, especially as they are developed in the context of the tradition of the easel picture, A wide, shallow basket containing fruits and vegetables is placed on a circular table; a variety of things are distributed on the table. The viewpoint enables unimpeded visual access to the presentation. Towards the right corner appears a chair with its back towards the beholder; a bottle is carefully placed towards the further edge of the table, corresponding with the principal support of the chair. Together they mark the dominant vertical axis which counters the lateral and diagonal movements generated by the fruits and vegetables. This is a picture whose composition has been carefully measured and executed; depicted things, pictorial habitats and movement are represented precisely. They are also related to one another fluidly, subtly.

Still life crystallises a special mode of pictorial representation and embodies particular world views. As a picture category it was developed chiefly to satisfy painterly aims and celebrate worldly values; objects are chosen, arranged and displayed in order to fulfil these aims. It is evident that Eng Teng's treatment of this picture category springs from an understanding of these premises; consequently the pictures he produces largely endorse them while, at times, they also widen the premises as they are expressed in the art history of Singapore.

Kampong Scene In the paintings of landscape a number of interests and approaches are disclosed; some of them are unsurprising while others are novel. For instance there are pictures which feature the Singapore River, villages and rural life, and activities related to maritime settlements; in composing them Eng Teng employs the dominant landscape conventions established by artists who were among his teachers in the academy. Even as the subject matter in such compositions is unremarkable, the manipulation of the medium is distinct and relatively unorthodox. For instance in Kampong Scene, c.1960-61 (Fig. 36), the depicted objects and the viewpoint are familiar enough; however the forms are painted crisply and they crowd, jostle one another for accommodation in pictorial space. They leap into view declaring their material basis or existence. These features mark or point to significant departures from the prevailing aesthetic drive which was directed towards creating untroubled, idyllic images of nature; in Eng Teng's picture there are intimations of disequilibrium.

Alexandra Brickwoods These hints assume concrete manifestations partly by the treatment of the medium and partly by a combination of personal and social circumstances. Among the more marked images of landscape are those dealing with violent change, forces of destruction and the consequences of urbanism. Interest in issues such as these were absent or by-passed in the drawings; the situation is different in his paintings. Alexandra Brickworks, 1959 (Fig. 37), for instance, is an infrequent depiction of industrial landscape. The earthforms, which have been quarried to exhaustion, appear as brutally exposed wounds; the belching chimneys discolour the sky. In the middle distance two figures, blackened by grime and dwarfed by the wasteland, are busy gathering and transporting material which will be processed in the kiln and manufactured as bricks.22 This picture was produced a few months before Eng Teng enrolled in NAFA; whi e the content is projected wit sufficient force, the technical facility is relatively raw and uneven; the compositions executed in 1960 and 1961, emerging from his studies in the academy, demonstrate command of the medium and ability to vary its application to suit changing, different intentions.

End of History End of History, 1961 (Fig. 38), vividly exhibits these enhanced abilities; the picture has a subtitle, namely: Demolition of Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Eng Teng's designation of the demolition (and subsequent rebuilding) of this landmark as marking the end of history is a poignant reminder of the consequences of the wilful removal of the physical fabric of human settlements, the erasure of memory sunders connections with place and time, irrevocably. Consequently, the sense of belonging, of rootedness is diminished. Repercussions along these lines are now felt deeply if somewhat mutely. This picture can be read as addressing concerns such as these, and doing so more than thirty years ago!

The remains of the building, which are visible through and to the rear of the monumental gateway, represent a bombed site. Craggy edges outline the broken but still erect walls; the adjacent building is affected by the destruction as its surface is scarred and pitted. A withered tree appears, its branches drooping just above the roof of the gateway. The sky hangs low and heavily. The dominant blue tones imbue the presentation with a heavy, wounded, brooding mood. These sustained readings are possible because of the purposeful, expressive use of the medium; the architectural elements are delineated clearly and their connection to the event or occasion is convincing and eloquent. Colours are modulated evenly, and are interwoven with the depicted objects.

The tenor and impact of a picture such as this are far removed from the consoling, near-paradisiac compositions by earlier artists; for that matter, this picture can be viewed as a departure from, if not a rejection of, the prevailing world views and operations. In this regard, Eng Teng was not alone. From about the middle of the 1950s, a handful of artists were driven by a sense of urgency leading to intense concerns with realism in ways that were explicit and immediate. Turning away from the insistence on formal rectitude and involvement with symbolist values, younger artists aligned artistic activity and thinking with the task of defining, constructing a new nation, a nation that was. to emerge from the bondage of colonialism. These aspirations and movements affected all communities along all conceivable fronts. The geo-political map of the proposed new nation was drawn and re-drawn, attended with partisan debates and open, civil conflict. The effects on the art world were pressed into assuming overtly ideological positions in certain instances, the most prominent registrations being made by the Chinese High School Art Association and the Equatorial Group, who called for "the promotion of patriotism with relevant subject matter and form" and to "uphold national dignity and to help in our nation building." (Kwok Kian Chow, p. 72.)

Of course not every artist seeking to develop different approaches and advance fresh values subscribed to such Overt espousals of political and social relevance for art. But the winds of change, so diverse and contentious, affected those who were attempting to chart alternate pathways. Eng Teng responded to the prevailing volatile situations; his images of landscape can be read as being shaped by these responses.

Fire After the Fire I In 1961 the settlement at Bukit Ho Swee was razed by fire, causing enormous damage and hardship; it sparked the first attempts at designing new patterns of public housing in Singapore. Eng Teng devoted three pictures to that tragic event, all of which are in the collection; two of them are illustrated here. Fire, 1961 (Fig. 39), depicts the conflagration at its height while After the Fire 1, 1961 (Fig; 40), deals with the aftermath. The intensity of the blaze, its destructive force and the overwhelming effects are vividly conveyed in Fire; care is taken to site the fire in precise locations in the cluster of buildings, thereby enhancing the actuality of the imagery. It is also an occasion for Eng Teng to display his prowess with the medium, especially in simulating reality with all the bravura he can command.

After the Fire 1, not surprisingly, imparts a contrary note; whereas the former crackles and emits scorching heat, here it is hushed, quiet, deathly. In conception and execution it bears similarities to End of History. A burnt tree, whose upper branches are outside the picture frame, provides a stark entry into the scene; in the foreground burnt remains are piled chaotically. The middle ground is staked by another charred, blackened tree; walls are all that remain of buildings. In the background a dense cluster of facades appear to stand sentinel over the parched remnants. Light breaks through the murky blue sky, making visible the scale of destruction. Eng Teng employs the medium sparingly in order to consolidate a bleak, desolate landscape.

View From Bukit Timah Hill In discussing these pictures the aim is not to cast a pall over Eng Teng's approach to landscape painting; the intention is to underline pronounced accents in the interpretation of nature or landscape. While some of the compositions symbolise destruction, violence and desolation, there also are representations which impart a sense of grandeur, a sense of unfolding panorama; they are, however, infrequent. In this regard View from Bukit Timah Hill, 1961 (Fig. 41), is an exemplary production even as it is an exceptional picture in the landscape category; it is preceded by a sketch bearing the same title, Fig. 42, c. 1961.

Positioning himself on a high vantage point, Eng Teng proposes a vertiginous entry into the epic landscape; in the foreground is an escarpment placed along the right edge of the picture and which descends in staggered terraces towards the bottom left corner. A deep valley parallels this diagonal thrust and presents a sunken middteground; in the background hill ranges are aligned parallel to one another and to the picture surface, recessing in overlapping planes into the far distance. The horizon is high and the sky is pushed towards occupying a narrow band towards the top; even so it resonates with a deep, compelling tone of blue.

View From Bukit Timah Hill The sketch (Fig. 42) is produced from a different position; the valley is seen from a frontal aspect with the escarpment flaring symmetrically and moving laterally towards the edges. Eng Teng pays attention to rock formations, sketching them as if they are hewn blocks piled one an top of the other. The valley slips gradually into the middleground, tilts upwards and makes way for the hill ranges in the background. Notwithstanding differences, there are enough connections to regard the drawing as a sketch for the painting; major decisions were made in shifting from one to the other.

In the painting Eng Teng foregoes symmetry and opts for a dynamic composition in which diagonal and horizontal axes demarcate changing orientations and prompt alternating movements. Whereas the escarpment is denuded of all vegetation, the valley and distant hills, by contrast, appear as verdant and fecund, These are hallmarks of a sophisticated employment of the medium. At the conceptual and formal levels this work is exemplary because it is subtle and complex~ it is exceptional because it is expansive and thought provoking.

The majority of the paintings in the collection feature the human figure; they can be considered as dealing with the following interrelated or overlapping categories, namely: genre representations, portraits and self portraits. As with his approach to landscape, in these instances as well, Eng Teng looks at available models, uses and transforms them and also moves away from prevailing methods or conventions and strikes out on his own. It is tempting to cast these movements as a progressive curve, conforming to a notion of development or evolution along a linear chronological track; that is to say, envisaging Eng Teng beginning from a state of dependency (dealing with precedents) and then, over a period of time, shifting to an independent stance. It is tempting because such a projection adheres to art historical conventions whereby histories of artists and art are mapped along time-lines having specific commencements and destinations, traversing the terrain without deviation or interruption. A historical frame for Eng Teng's practice cannot be constructed along these expectations.

Preparing Rice Flour Preparing Rice Flour, 1960 (Fig. 43), is a work that has been carefully designed; figures and implements are situated precisely to localise space and to simulate movement. The seated figure in the background concludes the advancement of bodies from the foreground into the pictorial habitat which is articulated clearly. The figures are prominent and marked; they are convincingly shown as actively engaged. In viewing a number of pictures in a related manner, it appears that Eng Teng has created a distinct figure type; this is especially the case with female figures. Observe the kinship that surfaces between the figures in this picture and those in At Rest, Open Air Market and Girl with Orchid; the physiology and drapery display shared characteristics. They are alert and self-assured; physically and psychologically their presences are assertive.

Mending Nets In Mending Nets, 1961 (Fig. 44), Eng Teng employs a scheme devised by Soo Pieng; its chief feature is the acute angle at which the picture plane is tilted, vertically. Depicted objects placed along such a plane do recede into space; they recede not along mathematically measured projections but along a mobile axis that curves and swings towards the top edge of the picture, simulating a dynamic movement inwards. As a method of representing space it can be construed as an alternative to the perspectival order prevalent in European pictorial tradition; it was an approach advanced by Soo Pieng in the middle of the 1950s, an approach which was stimulated by the ordering systems found in Chinese vertical/hanging scroll paintings; it proved to be an effective, formative method that was adopted and imitated by many artists in Singapore. Eng Teng employs it purposefully.

This picture was produced after Preparing Rice Flour; whereas the former is a composition arising largely from his own creative thinking, here, a year later, he turns to a model developed by one of his teachers. Does this, necessarily, mark a regressive step? To answer in the affirmative is to subscribe to an over-determined notion of history. 1960 and 1961 were years when Eng Teng was intensely involved in cultivating the foundations of painting; the academy where he was a student was not only the premier art institution but the venue where the principal artists in Singapore developed their own practice. As a venue it was a fertile ground for the cross-fertilisation of ideas and procedures; the environment was exhilarating. Eng Teng responded enthusiastically and with an open mind; yet he was discriminating and purposeful. This is not surprising as he was a mature student when he enrolled (at the age of 25), having suffered severe ill-health, and also having studied the rudiments of painting and sculpture from diverse sources. His pupilage in the academy, during which time he produced the paintings under discussion, was characterised by independent endeavours as well as studying dominant, appealing precedents; as approaches they were not realised in a sequential or determining order.

The genre pictures discussed above symbolise varying states of well-being and productive engagement; the figures are youthful, vibrant and are shown having interactive connections with their habitat. These pictures can be read as depicting optimistic, even idealised, situations; this marks one approach. Another points to contrary circumstances; circumstances in which poverty, abandonment, frailty of the aged and the handicapped, violent death and the toll of unremitting labour prevail. These pictures demonstrate Eng Teng's willingness to assume positions of close proximity with his subjects, thereby enabling him to observe closely; in this regard he does not flinch from dealing with the dark side of the human condition. Even as he moves in close, he also distances himself from the subjects in order to prevent sentimental attitudes from creeping in and from adopting judgemental stances. The potency or impact of these images is fermented largely by delicately negotiating the narrow terrain separating proximity from distance.

Old Age An elderly female figure resting against a wooden table is depicted in Old Age, 1960 (Fig. 45); she holds an unfurled umbrella in her right hand, sheltering her head. The dominant colour is an inky blue employed for her drapery and the umbrella; it is a tone that is opaque. Her face and hands are shrunken and gnarled; they are carefully detailed and represent the effect of age on the body, unsparingly. The surface around her is glowing with warmth and a mellow light; but this is a sphere unrelated to the figure. The opacity of the blue isolates the figure from her environment; indeed, it renders her impervious to any other connections. She is absorbed in her own preoccupations; the beholder encounters her from a distance -- a distance that is never diminished.

Blind Woman In Blind Woman, c. 1960 (Fig. 46), Eng Teng pitches the interest in realism at unprecedented levels; the face and its features are distorted by anguish and alienation. The lines contouring the jaw and the neck are jagged and at times discontinuous; the cheek bones protrude while the cheeks are sallow and hollow. Yet the subject retains dignity and decorum, indicated by the scarf that is carefully arranged to cover the head as is required by Muslim women. As in Old Age, here too Eng Teng presents the subject at close range; as in that picture, in Blind Woman the figure fills the picture surface, pushing other interests into assuming diminished interest. These two pictures are not portraits in the legal sense; that is to say, the subjects are not named. Yet, their appearances are markedly individual; their features are detailed and specific; their expressions are singular and personalised. Viewed with these attributes, Old Age and Blind Woman approach the conditions of portraiture, notwithstanding their titles.

Life is Hard Life is Hard, 1960 (Fig. 47), depicts a female figure carrying a stack of wood on her back; the weight twists and contorts her body, as she balances the load with her hands and spreads it over her entire back. Her face is barely visible while her legs quiver under the strain of her burden. The painting is preceded by a study (Fig. 48), c. 1960; the form appears to be realised in its entirety. Whereas in the drawing Eng Teng delineates the figure and the activity clearly and in detail, in the painting particulars are suppressed or avoided in order to heighten expressive properties. Hence the lower limbs lose their definition but gain kinetic qualities which enhance the tenor of the subject. For Eng Teng social and psychological issues are of vital concern; they are the fountainheads of a large body of his works.

Life is Hard Portraits are purposeful representations of individual appearances., it is in the registration or projection of individuality that these pictures are prized, Yet it is not a matter of merely configuring a descriptive resemblance of an individual or satisfying expectations of kinship between the portrait image and the subject. Portraits also reach into psychological and social dimensions; they do so by affirming such connections or by denying them. In the case of the latter, for instance, a portrait image can be so dense, so saturated with the denoted personality that it makes little or no concessions to sociability; the self reigns supreme and erases all else out. Eng Teng does not secure these exclusive realms in his treatment of portraiture.

Potrait of K. Akiyama The portrait pictures, including self portraits, are produced from a need to define the self and the other; in the case of the latter the designation is characterised chiefly by members of his family and, occasionally, friends. There also are commissioned productions, which imply that Eng Teng's facility was known and sufficiently esteemed; Portrait of K. Akiyama, 1960 (Fig. 49), is the outcome of one such contractual obligation. The subject is seated, presented in profile, draped in a kimono and holds a fan. The facial features are modelled in detail and project an individual countenance conveying an assertive, confident person. The major painterly resources are devoted to the drapery; the fabric is patterned with floral motifs. The folds over the arm and leg are rendered with the aim of raising their volume; they have been realised convincingly. The impact of Georgette Chen on Eng Teng is seen directly in the method of depicting the drapery; the brushwork and the colour scheme used in this passage are also derived from Chen's technical repertoire.

Gay Poh Kim In Gay Poh Kim, 1960 (Fig. 50), Eng Teng employs aspects of Georgette Chen's compositional scheme rigorously and with fresh purpose. The interest in the fabric, its details and textures are characteristic of Chen's preoccupations; the manner of draping the subject, the intimate and formative relationship between attire and the figure are also features cultivated and established as pictorial conventions by Chen. Eng Teng employs them advantageously. The transparent attire covers the upper part of the body comfortably; the sleeve over the left arm is animated by a variety of folds which coil around the lender limb. The hibiscus flower on the fabric of the sarong leaps forcefully into view. The chromatic scheme serves to integrate the figure with its habitat. The figure is presented in three-quarters view and placed at a discrete distance, as befitting a formal portrait.

Portrait of Eng Thoe Portrait of Hock Im In Portrait of Eng Thoe, c. 1960-61 (Fig. 51), and Portrait Of Hock Im, c. 1960-61 (Fig. 52), Eng Teng deals with members of his family: the former is a depiction of a sister while the latter is that of a niece. The subjects convey markedly different presences; the image of Hock Im appears apprehensive. In the other composition Eng Thoe is confident and assured; by folding her arms she signals a guarded, protective stance, distancing herself from any close or direct contact. Even as the attitudes are interpreted as complex and unsettling, as images they are presented at close range implying states of proximity. These shifting circumstances point to the volatile grounds on which portraits are produced, precipitated by the anxious encounter between the artist and the subject; they also suggest the intricate nature of relationships binding members of a family, as well as social connections. The painterly techniques employed in these two compositions exemplify some of those variable attributes. In Portrait of Eng Thoe, the subject assumes a firm, concrete stance; the figure is composed by thick lines and broken brushstrokes which forcefully project its physical existence. Contrasted with its sense of actuality is the ambiguous, unspecified treatment of its habitat; any endeavour to discern specificity in the environment is subverted or suppressed. A disjuncture emerges between the subject and its environment, which returns our consideration to the changeable circumstances in which portraits are created. The construction or formation of an individual appearance or identity does not spring from given or settled premises; on the contrary, the grounds for representation have to be staked out repeatedly and the operations arising from them have to be reexamined.

The circumstances in which self portraits are created are no less scrupulous or demanding. Eng Teng has produced a connected series of pictures featuring the self, in his drawings and paintings; his earliest attempts have already been discussed. These works collectively mark a Sustained endeavour to scrutinise the self, construct images of the self and then encounter the public or beholder with the images. They consolidate an intense phase of unsparing self-examination by any artist in Singapore, especially at a critical, formative stage of her/his development. The paintings produced between 1960-1962, with the exception of one, are dark, brooding, explicitly desperate and disturbing; they emerge from a need to inspect and record his physical existence as well as his psychological being with utmost integrity at a time of distress and uncertainty.

Self Portrait Self Portrait, 1960 (Fig. 53), is exceptional in that it is an image which conveys confidence and assertiveness; the beholder is more than welcome to gaze at the self deeply and at length. What is more, the subject addresses the beholder directly, extrovertly; he assumes an active, conversational posture, and appears to come out of the picture into actual space. Reciprocity between the subject and the viewer is possible because of the certainty of circumstances, certainty demonstrated by the surrounding objects signaling his preoccupation and intended profession, namely: art and artist. There appear a scroll painting bearing Eng Teng's signature in Chinese and a relief sculpture (also by him) in plaster directly behind his head; towards the right is the edge of an easel picture; together they signal the range and versatility of the subject's artistic engagement. The image is precisely, clearly articulated, with bounding, continuous lines shaping its features and body; the environment is specific and accessible. The subject and habitat are integrated.

Dramatically altered conditions prevail in Self Portrait, 1961 (Fig. 54); the subject appears in a sleeveless vest, in direct contrast to the attire featured in Fig, 53. The preferred apparel signals a deliberate divestment, and therefore denial. of sociability.

Self Portrait In Self Portrait (Fig. 54), the subject is presented at close range and in a state of heightened distress. Although it is available to the gaze of the beholder, the subject does not reciprocate that interest or engagement; instead, it looks into the distance with its own preoccupations, The brushwork is agitated and brusque; the pigments are mixed murkily. These give rise to a figure that is gaunt, sallow; physically it is wasted and psychologically it is tormented.

Self Portrait As in the previous picture, Self Portrait, 1962 (Fig. 55), is intensely probing and confessional; convergent interests are amplified with comprehensive, sustained exploitation of the medium. The subject is presented with a pronounced frontal aspect, addressing the beholder directly. While the gaze is firm and purposeful, all else slips and slides into extremely volatile states, defying definition and description. The process of disintegration commences in the region of the face; the forehead, cheeks and neck are brushed with thick, loose strokes. The process is accelerated in the area of the torso where any functional designation of colour and brushmark are almost foresaken; the procedure reaches a frenzied pace in the delineation of the environment or the surrounding surface. The subject is on the verge of coming apart; it manages to retain a foothold as an existent entity or being through its contact with or address to the beholder which is reduced to the gaze. The endeavour to construct an image or notion of the self is severely threatened, even undermined,

Eng Teng dates this picture precisely -- September 9, 1962 -- in the manner of recording a moment in all its particularity, as in a document. On March 15 of that year he journeyed to England to embark upon the third and final phase of his education. While he faced the prospect enthusiastically, he was also riven by trepidation; this picture which was executed while in England conveys the uncertain, at times tense and contrary, states in which he envisages a notion of the self and of being.

It is the case that living in new places involves starting anew, adjusting to unfamiliar circumstances and unexpected obligations; eventualities such as these are unavoidable, constituting defining conditions for migrating and sojourning. It might be added that returning to and accommodating what appears familiar but now seen with different eyes can be equally unsettling. Eng Teng came back to Singapore intending to commence his artistic practice; the aim, however, was difficult to realize and sustain. Ceramic art or studio pottery was unknown here, and the reaction of the public was muted. His financial resources were being depleted; he was unable to secure employment related to his academic qualifications and interest. In desperation after four years since his return, he joined the International Planned Parenthood (IPPF) as a visual aids officer.

Self Portrait In the midst of circumstances such as these, he produced an image of the self, Self Portrait, c, 1967 (Fig. 56), as in the images composed prior to his departure to England and as featured in Fig. 55, is unsparing in its forthrightness. The subject appears in a sleeveless vest, signaling a divestment, and therefore, denial of sociability. It is situated at the lower half of the surface, and is presented in three-quarters view, the gaze is oblique, almost furtive. The image appears as if it might slip out of view, heightening the condition of indeterminacy. Directly behind the head is a craggy mountain, and above that, a dense partial sphere. The sky is painted in fiery orange, pointing to an atmosphere that is turbulent and volatile. While these elements are puzzling as independent entities, their configuration hints at enigmatic situations Or relationships where the outcome is uncertain and unpredictable; the subject is an inextricable part of this network.


Sabapathy, T.K. Thomas Yeo. A Retrospective, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 1997.

Kwok Kian Chow, 'Chen Chong Swee: His Thoughts' in Chen Chong Swee. His Thoughts. His Arts, National Museum, Singapore, 1993.

Kwok Kian Chew, Channels and Confluences. A History of Singapore Art, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 1996.

Cheng Soo Pieng, Straits Commercial Art Co. Singapore, 1956.

Kwok Kian Chow, Channels and Confluences.

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Last updated: 11 January 2001