Fan Chang Tien
1907, Jieyang, China - 1987, Singapore
Fan Chang Tien 范昌乾 graduated from the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts and the Changming Art Academy, both in Shanghai, under the tutelage of Shanghai School (haipai 海派) masters such as Wang Geyi, Wang Zhen (Yiting), Pan Tianshou, and Zhu Wenyun. This allowed Fan to draw from the direct lineage of the great haipai master Wu Changshuo, who modernised literati ink paintings for the cosmopolitan inhabitants of Shanghai. While in China, Fan counterpointed the modernist expressions of the Lingnan School 岭南 (which drew inspiration from Nihonga, a Japanese national painting movement that incorporated facets of Western modernist painting) with what he termed the Lingdong School 岭东, with Lingdong referring to the Teochew region. This was formalised in 1931 with the founding of the Yitao Painting Society and Yinghuang Art School by Fan and other Teochew artists.
Fan migrated to Bangkok, Thailand to teach in 1947, then to Singapore in 1956, with the Chinese Civil War preventing his return to China. Establishing himself in a studio in Balestier Road, Fan taught ink painting free of charge. Some of his notable students included Nai Swee Leng, Lim Kay Hiong, Tan Oe Pang, Henri Chen Kezhan, Lim Cher Eng, and Chua Ek Kay. Many of his students were involved in the Hwa Han Art Society, established in 1973 with Fan as head advisor. Being a link between the haipai tradition in China and the burgeoning art scene in Singapore, Fan’s role was essential in providing Singaporean artists an alternative mode of modernist ink painting that, though with an entwined heritage, was ultimately different from that taught in NAFA.
Being in the direct lineage of the Shanghai school led Fan to emphasise the literati aspects of the haipai tradition, most importantly in the assemblage of meanings provided within a piece of artwork through the four components of poetry, calligraphy, painting, and seal-carving. In particular, his self-composed poems, which make full use of the metaphorical meanings of flora and fauna entrenched in Chinese literary culture, set him apart from other ink painters in Singapore. It was also within this textuality that Fan made sense of his Nanyang environs. While other artists such as Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Chong Swee represented the Nanyang in the image (as did Fan for a short period), Fan’s method was closer to Chen Wen Hsi's, in the sense that they both translated the bird-and-flower genre (huaniao 花鸟) to the flora and fauna of the Nanyang; instead of kampongs, Fan painted mynahs. His poems often reflect this, drawing on the tradition of diasporic poets such as Khoo Seok Wan in using classical poetic forms, language, and metaphors to make sense of his lived environment.
Fan’s painting style bears the strong imprint of haipai influence, especially notable in the ‘boneless’ xieyi 写意 brushstrokes (with colours executed without outlines and in bold, gestural strokes) used to form his subject. His application of colours, which emphasises single swathes of colour rather than creating colour gradations, is antithetical to the Lingnan School. Also important to Fan was the myriad tonality of the black ink and this aspect is especially outstanding in his monochrome bamboo and orchid works, which look back to the ink revolutions undertaken by the mid-Qing ‘eccentrics’ (such as Zheng Banqiao, Huang Shen, and Jin Nong) working in the Jiangnan region.
The art of Fan Chang Tien stands as an alternative modernity in Singaporean art, greatly diversifying the ink practices of his own generation and that of his students. In 1989, the National Museum Art Gallery held a retrospective exhibition to celebrate his artistry. This was followed by a donation of 50 artworks by the artist’s family to the National Museum in 1993. Today, Fan’s legacy is assured, and his paintings regularly exhibited in the National Gallery.
1989 A Retrospective Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore.
1998 His Art and Passion, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore.
2014 The Literati Artist, the Arts House, Singapore.
2016 Master of Ink Painting, the Arts House, Singapore.
2017 Fan Chang Tien and His School of Ink Artists, Chui Huay Lim Teochew Club, Singapore.
2019 Homecoming of a Heritage, China International Cultural Exchange Center, Beijing.
2020 Fan Chang Tien: The Timeless Ink Heritage, artcommune gallery, Singapore.