Art Detail | Ilham Gallery

Artist Chen Wen Hsi was a lover of nature and is well known for his repertoire of herons and gibbons. In this work, however, we see the silhouettes of whales outlined against a blue sea. Further down, the shapes become more abstracted in a play of negative space as sea and silhouettes intersect. In contrast to the crowded left half, the right half shows only two blue whales positioned in the centre of a black background.  The artist was influenced by Cubism and we can see how he uses cubist elements including geometric shapes and planes in this work

Oil on canvas
100 x 80 cm
Credit Line:
Collection of ILHAM Foundation
© Chen Wen Hsi
About Chen Wen Hsi

Chen Wen Hsi (b. 1906, Guangdong, China — d. 1991, Singapore) was a pioneering Chinese-born Malayan artist associated with the emergence of the Nanyang style. He received his art education from the Shanghai College of Art and later the Xinhua College of Art. He had already made a name for himself in his native China and internationally by the time he arrived in Singapore in 1948. In Singapore, he was a lecturer at the Chinese High School and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Like many of his peers in the Nanyang style, Chen was proficient in both Chinese ink painting and Western oils. While he is most known for his Chinese ink paintings of gibbons in the traditional xieyi style, he also experimented with Cubist and abstract techniques in many of his works.

Further Readings   

  • A Brief History of Malayan Art,  Marco Hsu (translated by Lai Chee Kien), Millennium Books, 1999.

Learning Section
  • Look carefully at this painting. Describe in detail how the left half of the painting is different from the right. How is it similar? Why do you think the artist has chosen this composition?

  • The title of the painting is Whales. Is the title important in helping you to understand the painting? What elements of the whales has the artist chosen to focus on? What details has he not included? What alternative title could you give to the painting?

  • In this painting the artist plays with negative space and silhouettes. Negative space is the empty space around a focal point. Why not create a response to Chen Wen Hsi's work? Get two different coloured pieces of paper, one half the size of the other. From the smaller piece carefully cut out some simple shapes. (fish shapes are a good idea but you can be creative). Now stick down your collage by sticking your silhouette shapes on one side of the bigger sheet of paper and the remaining negative space on the other side of the paper.