His body might have been frail but on canvas, he was a colossus of strength and creative energy.
TAN Tong is one of that rare species of artists in his time and age who single-mindedly led a life of art. His personal life was one of anguish, anxiety and angst, what with the frequent bouts of asthma (which he suffered from since he was seven years old), depression, joint aches and skin problems, but it was his art that kept him going strong.
He was one of the earliest Malaysian French-trained artists after Lai Foong Moi and Chia Yu-Chian; he was also one who imbibed the best of the European art traditions and culture from the 15th century to De Kooning, and was deep into French literature, notably the Romanticism and Symbolism of the 19th century.
In the last two decades, his works crossed new horizons with his Picasso-esque Neo-(de-)Cubism (which was unveiled in his major Homage To Picasso exhibition at Wisma Kebudayaan Soka Gakkai Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, in August 2006). There was also the seamless infusion of Chinese philosophy, culture and history with the I-Ching hexagrams and the nine-square grid of Chinese magic squares (also known as the Golden Section), with elements of Taoist mysticism and Tantric Buddhist space (cosmology).
That is not to say that his works of the earlier three decades were not important. There were his Red and Blue periods (after the colours used); the early European travelogue with collages of stamps and ticket stubs of transportation and performances.
Then there was the Minimalist Chinese scroll format (on rice-paper and then linen) of his Yin-Yang Symphony – soothing sprays of acrylic, great voids, Degasian balletic dancers in amorous clinches with Paris landmarks, and hieroglyphics of Oracle-bone calligraphy in washed-out backdrops. His Tao Of Art may look like the austere “less is more” but to him, Tao is not all nihilism. “Tao is a way, not ‘no way’,” he had been quoted.
His later works were typified by a cold, calcified body of colours that still remained decorative; by a sparing quality in the brushstrokes; a cut-to-the-bone linearity and hard-edged geometry; Matisse-like cutouts; philosophical textual stencils; Chinese heritage motifs; and symbolic Western art pictograms.
Tan Tong was an artist, art lecturer cum administrator (26 years with the Malaysian Institute of Art before he retired as the head of the Department of Art and Design in 2002) and art theoretician (he was known for his incisive analysis of paintings). More, he was an artist’s artist in the eternal quest for the masterpiece.
Born in Kajang, Selangor, in 1942, Tan Tong was only exposed to art when he was in Form Five at the Kajang High School (in 1960). After two years of studying French, he won a one-year scholarship to study at the Ecole Nationale Superieur des Beaux-Arts (ENSBA) in Paris in autumn 1964. When it ended, he supported himself in his studies by working part-time.
But when he left in December 1969, he learnt to his dismay that he was not entitled to any diploma or certificate because he was a foreigner.
He studied through the “Mai 68” student uprising that crippled the French Fifth Republic. But a bright spot in 1967 was his solo show at the Foyer des Artistes Galerie, where he sold six works for a total of 360 francs.
On his return, the fastidious Frank Sullivan, the Kahnweiler of early Malaysian art, gave him a solo at his Samat Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, in 1970 (he gave him another in 1976). In October 1970, Tan Tong was back in Paris, on another French Government scholarship (until June 1971), this time to study the teaching of the French language at Bordeaux University.
Back home in September 1971, Tan Tong decided to re-enrol at the ENSBA in October 1972, this time at his own expense, after securing the mandatory credits, and when he left Paris in 1975, he had diplomas in Painting and in Drawing, to show. To cap a triple triumph, he also won the La Fondation Rocheron Award in 1974, for his year-old Buddha Eye Series works (this repertoire was expanded to Thousand Eyes after a visit to Katmandu in Nepal and the grottoes in Turpan and Xinjiang in China).
In Paris, he made excellent copies of Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque and Turkish Bath from the Louvre, and four copies of Gericault’s horse head, of which only one has survived.
What a fairytale ending it would have been, if not for two separate devastating les afaires du couer (affairs of the heart) – first with a Hong Kong-born girl in the 1970-71 study period, and then with a French girl (1972-75 period). It left Tan Tong hopelessly broken-hearted and perilously sick both times. Back home, he got married but it did not last either.
Of his Paris years, he was to reminisce about the “alley sopping, Seine-loafing, street-worshipping, unexploring the arrondissement, museum and gallery visiting ... “Paris can be an unhappy yet attractive place to live in. It’s where I belong spiritually, in morale and culture. It was where I had spent my happiest days and also my most miserable moments. One can live in a garret without a centime and yet be happy because it’s a tradition to be poor, cold and happy in Paris.”
Tan Tong got to be such a Francophile that he re-learnt his Chinese roots and acculturation, especially the literary classics, through the medium of French. He later visited China, particularly Xi’an and Urumqi and the Dunhuang cave murals, where he discovered Yang Kwei-Fei (716-756), the Chinese Cleopatra of the Tang Dynasty, which he deified in his art as the Chinese Maya and Olympia after Goya and Manet respectively.
The Yang Kwei-Fei icon also morphed from Picasso’s harem of mistresses, particularly the voluptuous Marie-Therese Walter, and with a parallel to his 1963 work of the ancient Chinese beauty Su Daji (as portrayed by Lin Dai in the 1964 movie classic, The Last Woman Of Shang).
In glorifying tainted sex sirens with sordid pasts, Tan Tong seemed to portray them, strangely, more as romantic paragons of vestal virgins.
Tan Tong was to revisit Paris a total of four more times later, the first in 1983 after an eight-year hiatus. He went back again in 1995, 2002 and 2008 – each time for a month, re-romancing the Picasso mystique in a more scientific study and creative way, and the last time, covering a greater area on the Picasso trail – Paris, Antibes, Madrid, Malaga, Barcelona, Florence, Pisa and Switzerland.
It enabled him to deconstruct and re-calibrate Cubism, going for an outside-in and inside-out mechanism and a top sky view, while the more organic Picasso forms were turned into steely origami, in canvases as large as 20m x 13m.
In the last two years, Tan Tong was working intermittently on applying his stunning Neo-Cubism principles on flattened, dematerialised “still lifes”.
In his bifurcated “homage” to Picasso and Yang Kwai-Fei, Tan Tong was studiously applying the Golden Section theories with greater vigour and effect.
“I don’t simply paint my strokes. I count,” he told me. Even the Singaporean pioneer Cheong Soo-Pieng was using the theory, but not with the technical conceit and finesse of Tan Tong.
For his penchant for aesthetic structures, Tan Tong was also an iconoclast. There would be a raffish blemish to “consummate” the painting. As he averred: “A painting is finished when it’s not finished.”
A mini-retrospective at the National Art Gallery’s then Creative Centre in 1990 (the next year, he won a consolation prize for painting in the prestigious Salon Malaysia), and then a quadruple series of exhibitions from 1997 to 1999 of his European study period – all these led to his major Homage To Tan Tong Retrospective at Wisma Kebudayaan SGM in December 2011-January 2012.
Frail and emaciated and pale, he was a walking portrait of Egon Schiele. But on canvas, Tan Tong was a colossus of strength and creative energy with an iron-clad mind to boot.