Art Detail | Ilham Gallery
Chinese Lady
Chinese Lady

For Liu Kang, the Chinese aesthetic tradition, and his Chinese heritage more broadly, formed an enduring axis throughout his career. Over the course of his life, he made repeated references to this aspect of himself. This self-definition as an ‘Oriental’ artist would evolve with time: from his book of essays written between 1937 and 1981, one can trace a development from Liu Kang’s identification to China, to one that focused on his relation to the tropics and the multiracial society of Malaya. 

Liu Kang produced a large number of portraits across his career, often titled after the names of close family members and friends. Chinese Lady is one example of a smaller segment of Liu Kang’s portraits that were given generic titles, in which the models were either anonymous or referred to simply as “Man” or “Lady”. These works signalled most overtly the artist’s interest in the subject of ethnography, with titles such as Chinese Muslim Facing Front, or Indian Policeman. Likewise, Chinese Lady displays less conviction as a psychologically-incisive portrait than a study of an ethnic persona. Rather than trying to capture any sort of metaphysical quality, the goal here seems to be the capturing of her features and fashion: a styled bob, heavily-plucked eyebrows, wearing a modern-day green blouse with puff-sleeves and a ribbon collar. Attention is clearly paid to the portrayal of solidity and weight through seamlessly-blended brushstrokes, most notably in the contrast of light and shadow on the ribbon collar that falls heavily on her chest. A delicate blend between flesh-tones, earthy greens, and pinks is used to draw out the sitter’s immaculate presentation, with her rose-tinted cheeks and neatly-drawn lipstick. Unlike the expressive qualities of Liu Kang’s narrative paintings, this portrait is a practice in realism: a concerted effort to capture a vivid resemblance to the forms and images of the people who surrounded him.

Oil on canvas
59 x 46 cm
Credit Line:
Collection of ILHAM Foundation
© Liu Kang
About Liu Kang

Liu Kang (b. 1911, Fujian, China-d. 2004, Singapore) was one of the earliest pioneers of the Nanyang art style and a founding father of modern Singaporean art. Liu spent his formative years as an artist studying in Shanghai and Paris. As a student at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, Liu was particularly attracted to the modernist aesthetics of Post-Impressionism and Fauvism in the works of Matisse and Cézanne, and sought to incorporate elements of their styles into his own work. Liu’s style epitomises the synthesis of elements from both Asian and Western art traditions that is a hallmark of the Nanyang art style. As with the other Nanyang artists, Liu Kang's formative role in the development of the Nanyang style came about when he began to assimilate and paint local subjects in the Southeast Asian region. His most significant exhibition prior to his passing was held in China in 2000, after having postponed it for more than a decade due to the Tiananmen incident in 1989.

Further Readings
  • Liu Kang: Colourful Modernist, Edited by Yeo Wei Wei & Ong Zhen Min (Singapore: The National Art Gallery, 2011). Exhibition catalogue. 

  • Journeys: Liu Kang and His Art, Edited by Suenne Megan Tan, Translated by Goh Beng Choo (Singapore: National Arts Council Singapore & Singapore Art Museum, 2000). Exhibition catalogue. 

  • Sotheby’s, “Liu Kang: Fishermen by Boats”, Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art, Hong Kong, 30 September 2017, Lot #350, Catalogue entry.

Learning Section
  • Describe the woman in the painting. What is she wearing? What kind of person is she? What kind of life has she lived? Is she happy? Is she wealthy? Does she have a family? Has she ever been in love? How does she feel at the moment captured in the painting? How does she feel about being painted? Did she choose what to wear? Did she choose how to pose? Does she know the artist? Do they have a good relationship? Does she like this portrait?

  • Describe how the artist has used colour in the painting. What colours are dominant? What other colours are present and where are they used? How does the colour affect the mood of the painting?