Walking through the galleries on the first floor of Dr Bhau Daji Lad (BDL) Museum, one is struck by sheer range of styles on exhibit. Black pen and ink renderings with a distinctive red chop detailing scenes of yesteryear Singapore Chinatown, of settlements along the Singapore River give way to long calligraphy scrolls of Chinese poetry and are followed by large abstracts on vast sheets of rice paper that blend calligraphy with graphics. All of them have been painted by Singaporean artist Lim Tze Peng over the last 70 years and more. The powerful brush strokes of the large works create a dramatic interplay of contrasting colours and are the recent creations of the 98-year-old master. They are simply astounding for it is impossible to imagine that these strong paintings are the work of an artist just two short of his century.
Lim Tze Peng always wanted to be an artist. In school, teachers discovered his talent for Chinese calligraphy and encouraged it. Though he began life as a teacher in Sing Ming School in 1949, and became its principal in 1951, (a post he held till 1981) he worked on his art practice simultaneously. Peng is among the pioneers of the art world in Singapore and could perhaps be called the visual biographer of the city-state. Capturing through his detailed sketches, beautiful vignettes of life along the Singapore River, and localities before they were torn down for development, giving us a flavour of a Singapore that no longer exists. We asked him a few questions about his artistic journey –
Sonal Shah (SS): Earlier your preferred medium was oil, so what made you change to pen and ink? Also, some of your recent large works are far more abstract than your earlier style.
Lim Tze Peng (LTP): Chinese calligraphy was what first got me into art. In Chung Cheng High School, I realised that I had a deep love for the calligraphy art form. As I worked on it, I realised that oil just was not the medium for me and I was far more comfortable working with ink.
My change in the subject matter - from painting Singapore landscapes to writing Chinese script and eventually more abstract work - was actually a practical move. Getting older, I was no longer able to spend long hours painting outdoors. I, therefore, decided to look inwards and paint from introspection.
I began painting calligraphy with deeper insight, trying to bring out the meaning of each character. This led to the creation of hu tu zi (also known as muddle calligraphy), a kind of abstract form of calligraphy, blending character and subject, painting and lettering. This eventually progressed to art calligraphy and my current abstract works.
My works now reflect all that I have learnt and experienced, and are a culmination of my many years of experimentation. Neither calligraphy nor painting, they are a combination of both.
SS: What is the process you follow? Do you work on one painting at a time or several simultaneously?
LTP: These days I work indoors, painting from contemplation and try to accomplish one work every day. It keeps my skills and creativity sharp. When I captured sceneries as a young man, I would spend hours standing outdoors, portraying what I saw. I have a separate notebook that I sketch on to plan my artworks. Then I paint directly onto the rice paper.
SS: What is a typical working day? At this age do you paint alone or do you have assistants?
LTP: I begin painting every afternoon, around 2 pm, after resting post lunch. Before I get started, I usually have a bottle of chicken essence. I have single-handedly painted all my work. I can say with pride that every one of them is unique and carefully executed. Unless you can count my daughter, who helps me prepare my inks, brushes, and paper, I do not have an assistant.
SS: What would you consider an important challenge you faced?
LTP: As an artist it was a struggle to find my own style and identity. In my early career, my works were greatly influenced by both Eastern and Western old masters. I had to work hard to find my own style and get that breakthrough in both my paintings and calligraphy works. I know that I do not have as much time as I used to have. I hope to stay healthy and fit so I can practice painting and calligraphy everyday.
SS: Three pieces of advice you would give the new aspiring young artists today…
LTP: Be well-read; you have to know about the world around you in order to create your art. It is important to know where you come from, remember your roots. Last but not least, to be a good artist you first have to be a good human being.
These insights have only served to deepen my admiration for this eminent artist. That Lim Tze Peng is not very well-known outside of Asia is indeed a pity, for he deserves a much wider, international recognition for his outpourings. For those in Mumbai, The Spirit of Ink exhibition, which is on till mid-September at BDL Museum, is a terrific opportunity to get acquainted with this inspiring master.
Did you know? Lim Tze Peng...
- was born on September 28, 1921
- some records state his year of birth as 1923, but that was a false declaration by the artist in the hope he would be able to retain his job for longer
- his wife sold vegetables to support the family when he became a full-time artist
- consumes a bottle of chicken essence, a type of boiled chicken broth, before he puts paint to paper
- had his first solo exhibition in 1970 in Singapore
- got the Cultural Medallion for Art in Singapore in 2003
- has no assistants and continues to paint everyday
- developed a style called muddle calligraphy or Hu Tu Zi