The Leisure Retired from Secular

—— Tay Bak Koi’s Paintings


The paintings of Tay Bak Koi (1939-2004) bring us back to the “Poem on the wall of an Old Man in Yu Shan Village” by Qian Qi, the Tang Dynasty poet, “Smoke from cooking in gloaming, cattle faded away upon grazing”. The poet depicted a common scene of village (or kampong) to be quiet and full of breath of life, as if a landscape painting with cottage vista in twilight.


Tay Bak Koi drew many scenes of such, just like his popular buffalo, rocks and village, life by the river of the fisherman, ploughing and harvest, traditional café shop, tropical fruits, temples and many old landmarks faded away in history. Memories from his impoverished childhood were transformed into the leisurely sceneries through his roseate brushes.


He caught my attention since he is among the distinguished disciples of Cheong Soo Pieng. In the academic context, the most renowned artists of Singapore initiated from Lim Hak Tai, followed by Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Wen His, and formed the First Generation old masters. My collections focus on first generation’s masterpieces, I also participated to organize the Retrospective Exhibition of Lim Hak Tai at Xiamen Museum in 2011, and devoted abundance of efforts to study and authenticate the artworks of first generation masters. This stream of art history started from Lim Hak Tai who founded Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts (XAFA) in 1918, to Cheong Soo Pieng who graduated from XAFA in 1936, to Lim Hak Tai who founded Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in 1938, to Cheong Soo Pieng who taught at NAFA from 1947 to 1961, to Tay Bak Koi who graduated from NAFA.


Singapore's art community has been influenced by the pioneer artists southward from Guangdong and Fujian since the 1930s. It inherited the Hai-Shang and Ling-Nan style which then dominated the China art society, while oil painting largely absorbed European Impressionism and Fauvism characteristics, followed by Cubism, Expressionism and even Abstract Expressionism style. Then, local artists upheld the traits emblematic of its place of origin, fused with individual taste and interaction, to finally morph into what is now known as the Nanyang style of art. This art style has flourished ever since to express the unique local conditions which formed the striking regional landscape.


In this paper, I would explore the context and personal characteristics of Tay Bak Koi through a few selected works in his typical style among his popular topics of the landscape, buffalo and heron.


Tay Bak Koi initiated his art creations since 1960s. The work “River People” (Figure 1) was created in 1961, being the very early work we can rarely find now. We may trace in this painting the influence of cubism and abstract expressionism flourished from the United States since 1940s, and especially the influence of Cheong Soo Pieng who developed his abstract composition since 1950s that integrated calligraphic lines and blocks of ink and colour. In Cheong’s paintings at this period (Figure 2), boats and riverside houses looming into the dimensional structure formed by interwoven of blocks and blanks. Tay followed much of this style. His works at this stage appeared little choppy, his brush skills still stiff and he had not created own signature style yet.


Nevertheless, in his subsequent creations Tay continued along his cogitation of abstract expressionist and showed his personal characteristics from late 1970s’ works. The sails, buildings and figures were often painted in colour blocks. This appears more obvious in his landscape paintings, in which the abstract colour blocks form into rocks and mountains. And rocks have their Yin and Yang faces, half blended, which eventually developed into the very Tay’s style landscapes in 1980s.

Tay Bak Koi’s most popular buffalo works were prevalent in 1990s, and is the integration of reality and romance (Figure 3). The shape of buffalos is laconic and was inspired by Picasso’s minimalist line structure in his work “The Bull” (Figure 4). The composition followed Tay’s early development of planar abstract structure. Buffalos are either resting, or running, accompanied by shepherds and birds. In most of his buffalo paintings, we can always find one buffalo in red, which stands out from the cold-coloured mountain, meadow or other buffalos.

Across year 2000 Tay Bak Koi painted many works of heron (Figure 5) and swan. Herons are commonly seen in Singapore. They habitat near clean water and take good care of their feather, thus heron symbols freedom and elegance. Chen Wen Hsi is famous for his herons painting, especially the geometric abstract composition in his late works (Figure 6). Not only the blacks and reds are herons but also the left-blanks. Chen well integrated the yin-and-yang philosophy in this type of works to crystallize into very dynamic layout, that set his status in art history. We are always eager to find innovative elements in paintings, in terms of concept, colour and composition etc, as enjoying a graceful melody. Tay Bak Koi absorbed the first generation masters’ spirit and created own pattern of heron. To express his hope towards freedom with the sense of youth and dynamism, this can be taken as his self esteem in his late period to pursue his spiritual goal.

Viewers in front of Tay Bak Koi’s paintings would sense the sweet colours and the quietness in his artworks and share the romantic heart of the artist. His works presented the world from a more subjective perspective and inner emotions. Through his persistence to overcome the difficulties in pursuing his art dream, Tay Bak Koi eventually formed his signature style. We shall stop occasionally, to appreciate these paintings in our collections, and to recharge and refresh our minds, to feel it from within the heart, as said in the classical phrase by Hu Lan Cheng to Zhang Ai Ling, “May the days stay quiet and graceful, life smooth and peaceful”.


Feb 2014, at Bergen Scholarly Retreat