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Discovering ART in DREAMS,
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Aug 7, 2012

TAN TONG, The Most 'French' and Extraordinary Malaysian Artist

Tan Tong posed for photo, Silkroad China, 2006

It has been 9 years being in teacher-student relationship cum friendship with Tan Tong ‘lao shi’ (teacher). Every visit to his house cum studio has become a lecture for me. He uses to explain his thought, arrangement of composition, philosophy behind his artworks hours and hours patiently. Every explanation will end up with a question, “understand?”. Listening to his ‘heavy-duty’ lectures does sometime make my brain jammed and yet I enjoy it so much. Once he starts to hold his long wooden ruler walking towards his easels, meaning lectures will soon to begin. No other artists except Tan Tong will talk about art so seriously. In order to support and prove what he says, he willing to scour all the bookshelf and area of living hall just to look for a book or an article for you. Looking at his super slim and skinny body, I feel strength in his soul and mind.

Photo with Tan Tong lao shi during his solo exhibition in Wisma SGM, KL, 2006

Photo with Tan Tong lao shi & his paintings, Subang Jaya, 2012

Tan Tong devotes his whole life to art and painting. He reads a lot and always makes research on his painting subjects. To paint a vase, he will try his best to search everywhere his ideal vase and willing to pay for it for research and analysis purpose, before painting it onto canvas. His spirit in creating better artworks has never sunk despite the illness suffered and poor physical health. He always says “I have a lot to paint and develop. Painting is never finish for me.” He loves his paintings more than himself. He knows to take good care of his paintings more than his own health. I have the greatest respect for his professionalism as artist and art educator. On the other hand, I deeply sympathize with his life and struggles as an artist.

Tan Tong and his painting, 2009

Tan Tong was the registrar cum senior lecturer of Malaysia Institute of Art (MIA) from year 1977 to 2002. He had educated thousands of students and hence ‘Tan Tong’ is a big name in Malaysia art circle. Having said that, Tan Tong is a lonely fighter in Malaysian art scene for not many people could understand him and his art. It is mentioned by Soka Gakkai Malaysia (SGM) in the “Homage To Picasso” exhibition catalogue published in 2006, “…… It is believed that Mr. Tan Tong is the only Malaysian artist who has spent the entire life in studying Picasso and who has developed art works along the same style of Picasso. Among the second generation of Malaysian Artists, it is also the works of Mr. Tan Tong that is most ‘French’ in content. For the reason similar to the above, Mr. Tan Tong is a lone ranger. As a result, his works that are developed along the way of Picasso are not appreciated by many…………..”      

Tan Tong smiled.............., 2006

Tan Tong took photo of me in sketching..........2006

In fact, Tan Tong has not only pursued and re-calibrated the Cubism of Pablo Picasso, he has earlier developed Yin-Yang series using western techniques on Chinese painting scroll in 1990’s. He combines the elements of I-Ching (Book of Changes), Taoist principles of space and nihilism, ancient Chinese scripts and Chinese History with his own quotations and notes, simplified forms and stylised subjects to create his own abstract and surrealistic Cubism paintings. The more one sees his painting, the more one wants to know him and his art. Looking at his artworks, one could feel Tan Tong’s enthusiasm for his paintings. In spite of health problems, he travelled far away to Paris in France and Xi’an in China to search inspirations, re-visit his hero (Picasso) and heroine (Yang Kwei-fei) and complete his research.

Xi'an city, China

Tan Tong posed in front of Hua Ching Chi where the statue of Yang Kwei-Fei is assembled.

Mo Gao Gu Caves in Dunhuang, China

In 2006, I accompanied Tan Tong lao shi to join a travel agency organized trip to Silk-Road of China. The air was chilly in early winter. The trip began in Xi’an to Gansu province, Shaanxi province, Hubei province and Xin Jiang autonomous region. We visited many cities including Xi’an, Lanzhou, Dunhuang, Wuhan, Urumqi, Tianchi (lakes on the tops of Tianshan Mountain and Changbaishan Mountain) and etc. Along the trip, Tan Tong wrapped in thick winter clothes and gloves had never stopped sketching and noted down every single details of what he saw. I carried his big and heavy sketchbooks, took photos of him in natural posture, glanced the beautiful sceneries, made my sketches, collected samples for art, listened to explanation and instruction from our young tourist guide besides making sure that we would not be left too far behind the group members. It was a restless trip for Tan Tong. He needed to take medicines in order to continue the next day journey. 

Tan Tong was busy sketching.........2006

A sunset in Urumqi, China

The desert and camels, Silkroad, 2006

I remember the evening when we wanted to board a train in the railway station of Lanzhou. The station was crowded and people pushed their way recklessly to get onto the night train. In order to secure the safety of Tan Tong lao shi, I hold one of his arms and helped him to get onto the staircases. Suddenly from nowhere, Tan Tong was hit by a strong force and fell down. People kept pushing and hardly cared for others. They almost stepped on Tan Tong’s body. That night in the train, I know he did not sleep……………

Non stop sketching and making notes....

Tian Chi, means lake in the heaven. China, 2006

Me, carrying Tan Tong's big sketch books.

Scenery along the roadside to Tian Chi

I salute Tan Tong lao shi for his sincere in pursuing art, life and friends. He shares his knowledge, generously helps students in difficulties, be true in relationship and the most important is no one in Malaysian art scene could or might replace him and his art.

Lao shi, you are the best mentor I have ever had. I always pray for you good health and happy life.   

Tan Tong giving lectures at his house cum studio, 2012

Tan Tong lao shi in his living hall
About Tan Tong

Tan Tong, born 10 June 1942 in Kajang of Selangor, Malaysia, graduated from École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSBA) Paris with Diplôme Supérieure de Peinture in year 1974 and Diplôme Supérieure  des Arts Plastiques in year 1975. Awards received are :

1964       : French Government Scholarship – ENSBA, Paris
1975       : Foundation Rocheron – ENSBA, Paris
1991       : Salon Malaysia Consolation Prize (Painting) National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur
1997       : Philip Moris ’97 Certificate of Recognition National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur

17 solo shows have been held since year 1967.

1967       : Foyer des Artistes Galerie, Montparnasse, Paris
1970       : Samat Art Gallery, AIA Building, Kuala Lumpur
                : Meyer Art Gallery, Raffles Place, Singapore
1976       : Samat Art Gallery, Loke Yew Manson, Kuala Lumpur
1990       : “Mini Retro”, National Art Gallery Creative Centre, Kuala Lumpur
1993       : “Symphonies Yin-Yang”, Notices Gallery, Hilton Hotel Singapore
1996       : “Des Paris-Chine”, Malaysia Institute of Art (MIA) Gallery, Kuala Lumpur
1997       : “Souvenirs of A Journey”, Space 2324 Goethe Institute, Kuala Lumpur
                : “Painting As Mind Games”, Space 2324 Goethe Institute, Kuala Lumpur
1998       : “My Beginning As An Artist 1962 – 1969”, MIA Gallery, Kuala Lumpur   
1999       : “Erotic In Chinese Art” - Space 2324 Goethe Institute, Kuala Lumpur
                : “Buddhism & Taoism In Contemporary Chinese Art”, Space 2324 Goethe Institute, Kuala Lumpur
2004       : “China Year in France”, City Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur
2006       : “Homage to Picasso”, Wisma Kebudayaan Soka Gakkai Malaysia (SGM), Kuala Lumpur
2008       : “East & West” Donation of Artwork, Wisma Kebudayaan SGM, Kuala Lumpur
2011       : “Homage to Tan Tong – His Art and Times”, Wisma Kebudayaan SGM, Kuala Lumpur

Among the important group shows he has joined are :

1967       : “Malaysia & Singapore Artists”, Foyer Des Artistes Galeria, Montparnasse, Paris
1978       : Raya Art Gallery, Melbourne, Australia
1982       : Phoenix International Frankfurt, Germany
1983       : ICIPA, National Art Museum, Singapore
1987       : ASPACAE ’87, Ishikawa Art Museum, Japan
1988       : “Contemporary Paintings of Malaysia”, Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, USA
1990       : Malaysian Artists Association, Australia High Commission, Kuala Lumpur
1991       : Salon Malaysia, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur
                : “A Touch of French”, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur
1994       : “Pont des Arts”, Nanyang Artists in Paris 1925 – 1970, National Art Museum, Singapore
1997       : Philip Morris, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur
1999       : Malaysian Contemporary Art, China Museum of Art, Beijing
2001       : “Pont des Arts”, Galerie Bernanos, Paris
2002       : Open Art Show, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur
                : “Soundvision – Dance – Action Painting”, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur
                : “Pont des Arts 2002”, Wisma Kebudayaan SGM, Kuala Lumpur
2003       : “Malaysia & China Chinese Painting & Calligraphy”, Wisma Kebudayaan SGM, Kuala Lumpur
2005       : “Between East & West”, Shian Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur
2006       : “Art Malaysia, 1st Malaysian World Art Tourism Expo 2006”, PWTC Malacca, Malaysia
2011       : “New Route”, Wisma Kebudayaan SGM, Kuala Lumpur

Extract from “Picasso is My Hero and Fei-Fei… is My Heroine” by Tan Tong (July 2006), published in “Homage To Picasso – A Solo Exhibition 2006 of Tan Tong” exhibition catalogue.

Each of us is bonded by a tradition
I am by two – Chinese and French
I am both, retaining and harmonising
The best of two opposites; yet complementary
The synergy of the two polars makes me
Neither more Chinese nor more French
I am a Malaysian. Malaysia is my homeland
France is my homeland too
I am in harmony with both

Growing old makes me more mature and wiser.

The  process of relearning by re-creating what had been created before is about art history remanifesting itself in different dimensions and idioms in time, space and place. Art moves within and without, or both – in a circle, a square or a triangle, or all the three together.

My art is seen through the panoramic eye of a westernised orientalist. By unravelling some major works of Picasso, they revealed a few aspects in the development of arrangement and composition in my own art.

Extract from “Tan Tong – In Quest of the Fourth Dimension : Minimal Cubism” by curator Ooi Kok Chuen, published in “Homage To Picasso – A Solo Exhibition 2006 of Tan Tong” exhibition catalogue.

Tan Tong approaches the geometric Rubic Cube with the spirit of Chinese Minimalist philosophy, the Tao, and its cryptic behavioural/cosmological system coded as I-Ching (Book of Changes) (which did share some similarities with the philosophy of the latter-day Greek Pythagoreans).

What Tan Tong has come up with is a Cubism simplified , further crunching the “perspective” of inner reality into the elusive “Fourth Dimension,” the quest of the art world’s Holy Grail with the hypothetical truth of time spatiality.

In Tan Tong’s new geometry, the inner details like that of physiognomy are obfuscated, emotional impulses cauterised, and notions of the thumb-rule of foreground-middleground-background blurred.

Colours are used not descriptively, but in the Robert Delaunay idiom of colours being form and subject and as ambiguous spaces (chambers / areas / spheres).

The whole composition is further enriched with a festoon of symbols and signposts.      

Extract from “Tan Tong – A poetic art of struggles” by curator Ooi Kok Chuen, published in “Homage To Tan Tong – His Art and Times” exhibition catalogue 2011.

While Picasso is more spontaneous, Tan Tong is a ordered control freak, exacting an equilibrium among all the elements in his paintings, but using multifocal points. Tan Tong’s newer works in the last decade or so are also known for its sparingness of brushstrokes, a cut-to-the-bone linearity and an almost Mondrain hard-edge quality, Matisse-like cutouts, decorative and geometric backdrop panels against a mock-cosmic sky with simplified constellations of moons and stars.

Whatever elements his works are infused by, it is always the stirrings of love that override everything else. Love, after all, is a beautiful disease.

Tan Tong lao shi and Mr. Ooi Kok Chuen

Article about Tan tong and his art, published in Eye Asia, July 2012 edition.

 Tan Tong – A touch of French 1991, by Tan Tong

To The Happy Few…
It was during my fourth trip to France in 1983 that I rediscovered the nostalgia I have for Paris.  I lived there from 1964 to 1975 as a student. The trip was that of an old friends paying a long overdue visit. The physical aspects and atmosphere of the city were not the same as they were during my student days. Le vieux Paris n’est plus (la forme d’une ville change plus vite, hélas! Que le Coeur d’un mortel)… Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867).

Paris seemed to have acquired a new face; there was the revival of many districts with new surroundings; new city planning has improved the looks of the Beaubourg Plâteau, the Halles Market Square, the high rise buildings of Montparnasse and the skyscrapers of the Ministry of Defense. In the lively and popular quarters of the left and right banks there were more tourists, souvenir shops, fashion boutiques, restaurants and outdoor cafes than I can remember. The young and trendy population were much in evidence.

In my youth, my ambition was to be an artist, and going to Paris in the early 60s was the achievement of this ambition. It was unthinkable not to dream of going to Paris. Just as devout Muslims make their journey to Mecca, so do all avant-grade artists aspire to make a pilgrimage to Paris. It is the centre of new ideas and artistic energy; it is the place for instruction and enlightenment. For most and for me, Paris has been and will still be considered the capital for excellence in art.

There are romantics who say that one should visit Paris for the place not the people. People get in the way of the appreciation of the city and the strong tradition it holds in its history for art lovers. The romantics are right. Cities may change but there are always places where time stood still and one can still experience that Paris one wants to experience.

Paris change!... mais rien dans ma mélancolie n’a bougé! Palais neufs, échafaudages, bloc, vieux faubourgs, tout pour moi deviant allégorie.

Was Baudelaire right?

There are streets which have outlived generations of users, shop and restaurants which seem indestructible. It is the heart which changes. The Grand Vefour still looks much as Baudelairesaw it. So do the Hotel du Quai Voltaire and the Ȋle Saint-Louis.

Paris owed so much to Baudelaire and Proust, those outstanding geniuses of the 19th century. I discovered the two writers almost simultaneously in my last year at the University of Bordeaux in 1971-1972. Though both are writers whom one cannot truly appreciate till middle-age ‘quand une fois le Coeur a fait son vendange’.

Baudelaire was not the only person who deplored the “ravages” made upon Paris. Each generations has its own lament. Yet despite what people say, today, even though Paris has been revamped to keep up with the progress of time, the city planners have taken into consideration the grande tradition of Paris that has made it one of the world’s most beautiful cities. The 20 districts that wrap themselves around the centre of Paris have had their architectural heritage restored and upgraded.

The joy to be in Paris again after an absence of 8 years was mixed with bitter-sweet memories. In 1964, I was awarded a one year French scholarship to study at L’École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. I was happy until I discovered that life in Paris was not easy. Paris could be an unhappy yet attractive place to live in. You can understand why only when you have lived there. I would not have chosen any other place. It is where I belong spiritually, morally, and culturally. It is where I spent my happiest days and my most miserable moments.

On my arrival in Paris I was put in a 2-star hotel in the Montparnasse. Later when my scholarship ended I moved into a smaller hotel named Hotel des Arcades in Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau situated between the Halles and the Louvre Museum. A teeming commercial and market centre, it was always noisy and crowded day and night. The hotel was old and small. I had only a bed, a writing table and a small cold basin. Through the years I was hard put to keep myself going. Many of my fellow-students like Yeo Hoe Koon, Tew Nai Tong, Long Thien Shih, Loo Foh San and Li Chung Chuan had to be creative to make ends meet by hard work, endurance and courage.

We finally managed to arrive at something although I almost gave up the struggle. I was tired of everything – life, art, acquaintances, even friends except for those who had the same interests and were good company. With these friends I enjoyed good talks, music, wet cold evenings, intimacy, red wines, street worship, shop-gazing, alley-shopping, Seine-loafing, exploring the least-known arondissement and visiting museums and galleries.

If you like France you will love Paris for its people, its scenery, its climate, its fine food and wine, its history and its priceless cultural artistic heritage. It is a place to which no travellers, whatever his race, background, tastes and aspirations, can remain insensitive. Nature has endowed it with one of the most delightful climates to be found anywhere. History has left its mark everywhere. Paris ‘s past has been a turbulent one consecrated by four or five centuries of heroism, toil, penury and sacrifice, failure, success and renown. It has been a magnet and still is, to artists, poets, writers, scholars and intellectuals from earliest times and has often been known as the ‘Hot Pot of Genius’. It is a true home of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The true spirit of freedom is reflected not only in French art and letters but also in everyday life of the people themselves, the ways they go about day-to-day business of living.

For most Malaysian, Paris is not a real city. It is a legend. No city in the world has quite the same attraction, the same fascination, the same glittering unreal image. In literature, in the movies and in popular song, no city has been described in terms so extravagant, so romantic, so different from ordinary life as Paris. Since young boy I have learned that Paris is the city where everyone falls in love not only in spring, summer, autumn but in winter too, where writers and artists escape to find their creative freedom, like Hemingway and Henry Miller among others. In Paris, you live in garret without a centime and you are definitely happy because it is the tradition to be poor, cold and happy. Endless stories about Paris made it for Malaysian the alpha and omega of all that is romantic, adventurous or strange. For those of us who read French the situation becomes even more complicated because instead of reading matter-of-fact descriptions of modern Paris, we find ourselves impressed by lines like Baudelaire “fourmillante cite…où le spectre en plein jour accroche le passant…”

Finally, the big day arrives and the Malaysian is face to face with Paris, the reality and the legend. Perhaps his first view of the city is from one of enormous train stations. If he arrives at the Gare Saint Lazare early on a foggy morning it will remind him of a certain famous paintings by Monet, where he sees nothing but a few waiting taxis and empty streets. Perhaps he lands at Bourget and immediately thinks of the old airport in Kuala Lumpur in Sungei Besi, and wonders why he can’t see the Eiffel Tower from the steps of the air terminal. Or perhaps he is a young Malaysian student from London, hitch-hiking into Paris on a hot summer afternoon with some francs in his pocket hoping to get a letter from home and a little money at Banque Nationale de Paris. Whoever he is, however he arrives, he isn’t aware at the first difference between Malaysian myth of Paris an d the real city. The reality will sink in slowly in a few days. At first when he looks at the Seine, the fact that it is just another river with barges and traffic and oily dirty water eludes him. Even if the quays are deserted he will imagine lovers embracing in the shadows of the bridges. When he visits the left bank he won’t realise at first that the popular self-service restaurant is no different from a cafeteria in Kuala Lumpur, that the crowded sidewalks are just as impersonal, that the prices in the stores are just as high if not higher than at home. When he wanders along the Rue de la Huchette at night, he won’t admit at first that the little restaurants with their bohemian atmosphere, the disco-clubs, the bars, are just as tourist-oriented and phony as anything in Jalan Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur. But slowly the truth sinks in. Paris is just another large cosmopolitan modern city. Its romance belongs to the past, the books, above all to the fact that its distance from everyday Malaysia permits the legend of flourish. And with this reality comes inevitable disappointment.

Instead of the romance of Paris the Malaysian finds himself faced with unexpected, everyday prosaic problems, like finding a place to live.  For the Malaysian who has never heard of a ‘Pas de porte’ or a ‘reprise’ and knows nothing about the Parisian housing situation, the problem becomes quite serious. And once he has solved it he’s still faced with a series of other problems. If he doesn’t know French he struggles to get along with impatient ill-tempered Parisian shop keepers. If he knows some French, of course he wants to meet people, to find a circle of French friends and this, as he soon discovers, is quite difficult, for French society is by nature more closed outsiders than Malaysian society. Soon the Malaysian is overwhelmed by a series of practical problems. He feels let down; Paris has disappointed him. Nothing is left of its romantic, glamorous, bohemian reputation.

At this point the Malaysian leaves, goes back to Malaysia to tell his friends that Paris is sad, unpleasant, hostile, not worth seeing. But for him who stays, after the disappointment, another Paris begins to emerge. Slowly, because he no longer expects romantic surprise, one begins to discover a new kind of charm. He will discover his own Paris, different from any others, which is worth more than the legend, the myth, overcoming the disappointment. Perhaps one evening he wanders by accident into Place des Vosges where the red brick building reflect a hidden autumn sunset and a few children are still running on the sandy paths as people leave their benches and delicate metal chairs to disappear into the shadows of the old arcades. Perhaps he discovers the delightful pleasure of a walk in the Jardine des Tuilleries with red-brown autumn leaves blowing in the wind, crackling underfoot. Perhaps while admiring the splendid fontaines of the Palais de Chaillot, he could not resist doing a croquis of the magnificent breath-taking view of Eiffel Tower. Perhaps he experience for the first time the biting cold of winter as he’s bogged down by the thick snow in the Jardin du Luxembourg and feels that soft gentle kisses of snow falling on his face. Perhaps he finds the time to idle away in one of the open terraces in Boulevard Saint Michel, drinking and watching the blondes and brunettes in mini skirt around him and … oh! la, la, how they smile and sometimes pause to converse with a rare eloquence of many foreign languages!

Perhaps he gets a job and grows to love the music of the blind accordionist playing ‘Milord’ of Piaff in the impersonal metro corridors during the morning rush to work… Perhaps he falls in love with Mona Lisa one Sunday in the Louvre Museum. It is love at first sight and instant infatuation: “car le Coeur a sa raison que le raison connaȊt pointe”. He wanders what is so mysterious about her. Is she a chef-d’oeuvre? She arouses great motion in him although she has already been dead more than 400 years and immortalised by Leonardo de Vinci. But she lives! Soon he discovers she is no mystery to his informed eye. To him art is not meant to be mystery. It is something to be experienced, understood, enjoyed. And it can be understood by anybody willing to learn. The only mystery in art is why so many people, otherwise educated and well-balanced, should look at paintings, and failing to like them at once, conclude that art is not for them.

What are the secrets of
Mona Lisa’s greatness?
Is it that noble pose?
Is it that charming eye?
Is it that enigmatic smile?
Is it that semi-bare bosom?
Is it that delicate pair of hands?
Is it that mystic landscape?
Is it that she was painted by the
Man of Renaissance L.d.V.?
Or is it that beauty is in the eye
of the beholder?

And Possibly if he stays long enough, the Malaysian falls in love, and even though Paris is really just an old crowded noisy, large city, full of average people and average problems, the he falls in love with Paris too.

Now I am back where I started. Paris has become once again a legend and a dream, only this time it is a personal dream and thus a real one…

Tan Tong and his students. From left : Chin Wan Kee, Tan Tong, Me and Ng Hon Loong, Wisma SGM KL, 2006

From left: Tan Tong, Me, Jehan Chan, Ng Hon Loong and Kelvin Chap, PWTC Malacca, 2006

For more information about Mr. Tan Tong and his art, please click on to the below websites.

1 comment:

  1. In a way, for an art-lover like myself, decorating our home is quite easy. I just please myself mostly, with my poor husband going along with most of my choices. I am always collecting beautiful things, like handicraft decorative pieces, little sculptures and hangings.
    And I simply hang lovely paintings in all our rooms. Not all are originals of course, as who can afford many of those.
    I order many prints on canvas from who have a vast collection of images from Western art, that you can choose to make economically-priced prints like this Interior in Aubergines, by Henri Matisse,, from there.
    I can choose the frames as well and my orders are delivered quickly to my home.