Written by Shireen Lee
Published in Senikini Malaysia art now issue #21,
Published by National Visual
Arts Gallery Malaysia
Meeting Tan Tong is a chance encounter. It was in 2004 at City Art Gallery Kuala Lumpur where he had his solo exhibition ‘China Year in France’. The exhibition had ended by the time I arrived but Tan Tong was there with the gallery owner. Thing started with my first greeting to him. I called him ‘lao shi’, a Mandarin word which means teacher. He seemed happy with a satisfied smile - the beginning of our mentor-student relationship.
Tan Tong lived in Paris from 1964 to 1975 on a French government scholarship to study at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSBA). He was one of the earliest Malaysian French-trained artists who graduated with Diploma (DSAP) in painting and drawing, and was awarded the ‘La Fondation Rocheron’. Living in Paris was a bittersweet experience for him as what we can read from his ‘Tan Tong – A Touch of French’ written in 1991.
Back from Paris, 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 from all over Malaysia. With strong personal characteristic and artistic charm, Tan Tong was an iconic lecturer of MIA. His passion for art was not confined to painting and drawing, but including education, art analysis, theoretical research, philosophy study, literature, symbolism, geometry, aesthetic and others.
Tan Tong’s fastidiousness and directness in life and art reflects his earnestness and honesty towards people and living. Occasionally, some artists might stay away from him in art exhibitions as he used to criticise artworks publicly. He did it for the goodness of artists in general. Unfortunately, not many people could accept it and understand his sincerity. For Tan Tong, as an educator and a French-trained senior artist, he had the responsibility and authority to voice. He is a lonely fighter in Malaysian art scene for few people could understand him and his art. Tan Tong had an interesting answer for this, ‘….because they do not read and have not attended my lecture.’
I lived in Johor Bahru from July 2005 to November 2009. It was a must for me to visit Tan Tong every time back to Kuala Lumpur. Besides enjoying meals, every visit turned up to be a lecture for me eventually. He explained his thought, composition and philosophy behind his artworks in hours patiently. Every explanation ended up with a question, ‘understand ?’. Listening to his ‘heavy-duty’ lectures did sometimes make my brain jammed, yet I enjoyed and appreciated it.
November 2006, we joined a trip to Silk-Road in China. Began from Xi’an , we travelled to Gansu province, Shaanxi province, Hubei province and Xing Jiang autonomous region. The air was chilly. Along the trip, Tan Tong, an asthmatic, wrapped in thick winter clothes and gloves had never stopped sketching and noted down every single details of what he saw. Meanwhile, I carried his big and heavy sketchbooks and took photos of him besides making my sketches and the most important thing was that 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 gain strength for the next day journey.
Nothing much I could hear from Tan Tong from December 2009 to March 2012 as I resided in Fukuoka, Japan. Nothing was mentioned regarding his health and condition in his letter to me. I was surprised to find him skinny and weak after returning Malaysia. Even he was spiritually strong, there was no longer any ‘heavy-duty’ lecture and eat out. Tan Tong fought against his illness with brave soul and creative mind. He continued painting and writing with all his strength. Living near to Kuala Lumpur, my visit to him became more frequent. We spent time chatting on all topics including art in hospital. We had our meal in hospital café or enjoyed food in lunch box at his house. I were grateful that I managed to be with him, to help him in some ways during his final year….
In fact, Tan Tong had not only pursued and re-calibrated the Cubism of Pablo Picasso, he had earlier developed Yin-Yang series using western techniques on Chinese painting scroll in 1990’s. He combined 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 order to complete research on his painting subjects, he risked his health and life to travel far away to Paris in France and Xi’an in China to search for inspirations, re-visit his hero (Picasso) and heroine (Yang Kwei-fei).
Tan Tong's painting entitled Artist and Model I (80cm x 100cm Oil)
The artist is represented by the palette and the model is Yang Kwei-Fei.
Despite of his unhappy personal life and poor health, Tan Tong lived for art seriously and heartily. He devoted himself to painting, a genuine fighter for art and life. He used to say, ‘I have a lot to paint and develop. Painting is never finish for me.’ He loved his paintings more than himself. He knew to take good care of his paintings more than his health. One will never understand the inner self of Tan Tong if you have never listened to his heart as if one will never understand his art if you have never seen his painting with heart. Tan Tong was a remarkable artist of his time in Malaysian art scene who had left us his creative art pieces for further research. Homage to you, my mentor, my ‘lao shi’.