The French have always inspired art. Have a quick read of art history and you’ll know exactly why.
Some of the greatest artists – through the generations – have come from France. The list is a long one. However, if you’re familiar with artists like Renoir, Cezanne, Monet and Gauguin, right to people like Marc Chagall and Marcel Duchamp, you’ll understand the French imprint when it comes to art.
In terms of pop culture, names such as Moebius and street artist Blek Le Rat might be of interest.
It is no wonder, then, that international artists flock to France to learn their craft. It is a necessary pilgrimage of sorts. Through the decades, local artists have also been making these artistic journeys. That’s the backdrop of Kuala Lumpur’s National Visual Arts Gallery’s French ConneXxion exhibition which is designed with a multi-generational slant, featuring Malaysian and Singaporean artists trained in France.
The exhibition, on till Oct 31, is a historical sweep of the art, life and times of these artists, dating from 1910 to present day. All of them are connected with some form of French art school training – some studied and lived there for years, some spent a few months furthering their craft, while others have made Paris their work base.
The prominent art schools, institutions and galleries in which these artists studied and trained include Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts de Paris, Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs, the University of Bordeaux, Caen University, University of Paris and also the legendary Atelier 17 studio in Paris.
French Connexion, which is guest-curated by veteran art critic Ooi Kok Chuen, features 98 works – some historically significant – by 32 artists defining various styles, periods and subjects.
The National Visual Arts Gallery’s (NVAG) dusted 81 works for its own collection. The remaining works were loaned from private collections here.
“The exhibition is an opportunity to tap into the numerous related works of Malaysian/Singaporean artists who studied – formally and informally – in France or had significant exposure there,” says Ooi, before pointing out that not all the works were necessarily done in France.
“I believe it is important to look at the works in the collection in a new perspective, context or aggregated in a specific thematic focus like this,” he adds.
As visitors slowly take in the French Connexion exhibition, they will find the real attraction of this show is its historic works.
“I loved the backstories of how the post-Merdeka artists went to Paris to learn from the best schools there. The older works – especially the oils – were really impressive. They were the highlights for me, despite not being too ‘French’ in flavour,” says Thiya Arifin, mid-30s, an exhibition and events consultant, who recently visited the show at NVAG.
On the homegrown front, Johor-born Chia Yu Chian (1936-1991) was one of the early artists from Malaya to gain a French government scholarship to study art in Paris at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts de Paris, from 1959-1961.
His vibrant hues in works like Petition Writer (1977, oil on canvas) and Election Fever (1978, oil on canvas) are bound to catch the eye, while Paris (oil paint, 1961) is his homage to the French capital. Elsewhere, Lai Foong Moi (1931-1995), who was the first Malaysian-born woman artist to study art in Paris, is remembered fondly with her piece Samsui Worker (oil paint, 1967).
Of course, any French-related show cannot do without Tan Tong (1942-2013), who was one of the earliest French-trained Malaysian artists after Lai Foong Moi and Chia Yu Chian.
“Tan Tong’s For Picasso – Antibes was done after his 2008 trip to Antibes solely to visit the Picasso Museum there, which was the former Chateau Grimaldi,” says Ooi.
“It is littered with stylised ‘cut-out’ tokens of all things Picasso, including his Boisgeloup sculptures based mainly on Picasso’s mistress Marie Therese-Walter and of course, the red building of the chateau with the tricolor of the French flag flying above.”
Long Thien Shih, 69, who also received a French government scholarship, went on to study at the famous print-making studio Atelier 17 in 1966.
His iconic Dead Souls Are Laughing At Us (etchings, 1974) is a key work in French ConneXion.
“The piece was done in Paris during the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1973. Arab members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) imposed an embargo against the West. There was rationing for petrol and I practically didn’t have any use for my car (a Citroen 2CV) because I couldn’t get petrol,” says Long about his work.
“It captured the state of the world back then – how oil can destablise governments. Sadly, this has been a recurring theme in global politics for decades since,” he adds.
An unseen work called Last Day Of ‘68, Paris (acrylic on canvas, 1968) from Long, who had two stints in Paris (1966-69) and (1971-76), is also hanging at the exhibition.
When asked if any new discoveries were made when looking through NVAG’s collection, Ooi mentions works by less renowned artists and those who had faded from the scene.
These include works by printmaker Abdul Mansoor Ibrahim, while Ponirin Amin, had, according to Ooi, “‘midwifed’ many good artists in his tutelage at the Mara Institute of Technology.”
Both deserve renewed attention from the masses.
Not to forget a work each from Sir William Hayter, the founder of Atelier 17, and Singapore’s pioneer artist Lim Hak Tai (1893-1963), the founder of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in Singapore. There’s also three plate paintings by China-born Singaporean artist Cheong Soo-Pieng (1917-1983), widely credited as the “progenitor of the Nanyang style”.
For such a multi-generational exhibition, Ooi structured it both chronologically and thematically.
“The exhibition is structured differently from the thematic focus in the catalogue. For reasons of space, branding and presentation, the exhibition is premised on both chronology and thematic concerns,” says Ooi.
In the exhibition’s catalogue, the story of the French connection and the Nanyang Nexus is expanded differently.
“It starts with the historical perspective from the early years of early China-born artists who had had their tutelage in Paris and some later making their way to Malaysia and Singapore (before the acrimonious 1965 split), NAFA as a bedrock of KL/Singapore-Paris and the Nanyang style. Focus is also on the art twins Chen Jen Hao and Liu Kang, Georgette Chen and the NAFA-Paris link, Lai Foong Moi (the Samsui woman of Malayan/Singapore art), Chia Yu Chian and Yeo Hoe-Koon in Paris in 1959.”
“The French link is ambitious. I can’t seem to grasp how the works are ‘connected’. Maybe the focus is too wide. A walk through the exhibition is not going to be enough. Perhaps, I need to get a catalogue for a clearer picture,” says Azam Adnan, 49, a banker and art lover.
For an exhibition, which is called French ConneXion, it is easy to conclude that the artists persisted with the French style. But Ooi was quick to dispel this notion. It might have been an entry point for them and some may have continued with it, but Ooi reckons upon returning to Malaysia “they would have renewed their roots with new ideas, formal elements and even new styles.”
“It will be difficult to single out individual artists as pantheons of French art,” he says.
Nevertheless, he picked a few who clearly demonstrated a highly French influence in their works.
The late Kajang-born Tan Tong is one of them. One of the earliest Malaysian artists to be French-trained, the artist was well-known for his Picasso-inspired works. Ooi calls him the “most French of the lot, who thought, breathed French and probably thought he was one as he had also studied French literature and philosophy.”
“His works are filled with French textual references to places or quotes and reconfigurations of Picasso and Matisse,” adds Ooi.
Georgette Chen is another example. A Chinese national who became a Singaporean, Chen was known for her post-impressionistic styled oil paintings.
The others, who are particularly French in artistic attitude, are Long Thien Shih, Lai Foong Moi, Tew Nai Tong and Ken Yang.
French ConneXion, if anything, has given the public a rare chance to appreciate the French artistic accent – strong or not – in some of our most treasured artists.
The French ConneXion is on at Gallery 2A, National Visual Arts Gallery, No 2, Jalan Temerloh, off Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur till Oct 31. Exhibition is open daily (10am-6pm). Free admission.