This oil painting, Life By the River, is by pioneering first-generation Singapore artist, art educator and critic, Liu Kang. It depicts a bucolic scene of daily life in a traditional kampung or village in 1970s Singapore. The background features lush tropical greenery and a group of typical Malay wooden kampung houses on stilts, or rumah panggung (literally, “stage house”), with gabled roofs. The stilts elevate the houses off the ground in order to keep their occupants safe from wild animals and floods, as well as for added ventilation. (Here’s an archival image of a Singapore kampung from the 1980s, depicting similar wooden stilt houses and walkway.)
The scene in Life By The River bustles with human activity – there are people chatting along the wooden walkway, a pair of women feeding ducks and another pair washing clothes in the river, while a man pushes a perahu or boat, to the river bank. In the foreground, a group of children are engrossed in a game, while an adult carrying a baby on his hip looks on. The walkway on the left mirrors the directional flow of the river on the right, with both serving as important narrative devices that wind their way through the landscape and draw together the different pockets of activities, imbuing the painting with a sense of the communal, harmonious kampung spirit.
The painting’s compositional style is more akin to the Chinese landscape pictorial scroll tradition, with the impression of depth created by the arrangement of shapes, rather than by a Western-style vanishing point perspective.
The bold colours and the semi-abstract style in which the faceless human figures are depicted, however, suggest the influence of Western art movements like Fauvism and Post-Impressionism that Liu was exposed to when he furthered his studies in Paris at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière from 1929 to 1933.
Liu Kang was born in China in 1911 and studied at the Xinhua Art Academy in Shanghai, where he was exposed to both Western and Chinese painting techniques. This curriculum was part of the Chinese government’s great reform effort, in the early 20th century, to modernise art education so that the modern Chinese artist would be one who was equally at ease with the aesthetic concepts and practice of both Chinese and Western art. Liu’s studies in Paris further built on his cross-cultural artistic education.
The outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese war in China was a watershed event in the art historical narrative of Malaya and Singapore as it prompted a large-scale exodus of cultural figures from China who sought sanctuary and eventually settled here. Liu Kang and his wife, Chen Jen Ping, were among them.
During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, Liu took refuge in Malaya, where he witnessed many atrocities committed by the Japanese army against men, women and children. Chop Suey is a multi-volume series of cartoon illustrations depicting the horrors that the Japanese army inflicted on the people of Malaya. Liu Kang’s charcoal sketches and caricatures and the graphic subject-matter in Chop Suey are not typical of his subsequent post-war artistic practice and are certainly not representative of what we have come to know as his signature style. Nonetheless, they are an important part of the artist’s personal history, as well as the history of his adopted homeland.
After the war, Liu and fellow artists including Chen Chong Swee, Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen Hsi, pioneered a distinctive artistic approach and style that has come to be known as the Nanyang style. The significance of the Nanyang style in Singapore’s art historical narrative means that it cannot be easily dealt with in a sentence or two and will have to be left for a separate article at a later time. In summary, the Nanyang artists sought, each in their own individual way, to combine Chinese and Western artistic sensibilities to depict the landscapes and peoples of their adopted home of “Nanyang” (translated literally, “the South Seas”, an old Chinese trading name for the region of Southeast Asia).
Liu Kang’s Life By the River remains one of the most iconic and beloved works that typifies the Nanyang style.