History of art development of art in Penang
By Dr. Chew Teng Beng


     There is very litter knowledge of the painting tradition in the Malaysian Archipelago prior to the British colonization.  There is likely to be a background of painting in this area as evidenced by surviving art traditions in Thailand and Indonesia, particularly Baliness painting. It would appear therefore that painting skills were lost somewhere along the line.

     With the arrival of European travelers and colonials in the 18th century, together with Chinese trader to the area, painting reappeared. There is some suggestion that English and other European travelers in the area, commissioned Straits Settlements' artists, (both of Chinese and Malay origin) to paint local life, flora and fauna, either for pleasure or for historical record. Many of these commissions were given by officers of the India Company stationed in Malaya.

     The British introduced to Malayans the genres of landscape painting in the tradition of Turner and Constable and Realism rooted in the Pre-Raphaelites.  This continued until the 19th century when the impact of European Art, particularly French, began to have its effect on the whole region with movements such as Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism and Constructivism.

     After the Second World War, the centre of art shifted from Paris to New York. The Americans started movements like Action Painting, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Performance Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art and so on. Needless to say, our local artist who went overseas, came under diverse influences.

     The Chinese contribution to the art scene in Malaysia and Singapore came from Chinese immigrants and visitors (like the renowned Xu Beihong who stayed in Penang for many years) and others who had studied Chinese brush painting and calligraphy in China. Lim Hak Tak fouunded the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore in 1938 and attracted teachers like Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi and Georgette Chen. Through the activities of the teachers and students, the Nanyang artists played a major role in contributing towards the growth of modern art tradition in Malaysia and Singapore. They are especially well-known for their efforts in synthesizing Eastern and Western art traditions in their works.

     With reference to Penang, early art activities probably began with the founding of Penang in 1786 by Sir Francis Light under the East India Company, Penang was then know as Prince of Wales island. British artists residing in Penang were fond of painting the maritime views and Penang landscapes. However, it was likely that local Penang artists were also catering to the patrons of the European Trading Company.

     The modern art tradition may be traced back to around 1920 when the Penang Impressionists was formed. The artist group comprised of expatriate Europeans ((mostly English housewives) and two local talents, namely Mrs. Lim Cheng Kung and Abdullah Ariff. Given the colonialistic attitude prevailing at that time, local Penang artists were not welcomed to join the Penang Impressionists; Abdullah Ariff was admitted into the group because his services as an art instructor were needed while Mrs. Lim was the wife of a wealthy Chinese millionaire who contributed financially to the group's well-being.

     The year 1920 marked a significant milestone in the art history of Penang. It was the year that Yong Mun Sen came to Penang from Singapore and later set up his art studio. Lee Cheng Yong and Ooi Hwa were perhaps the first Penang artists to go overseas to study art at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Art. On Cheng Yong's return in 1934, he held a one-man show at the Philomatic Union, Acheen Street. The exhibition was of great interest to many local artists who had also been painting on their own, and did not realize each other's existence till then.

     In 1936, the Chinese artists got together under the influence of Yong Mun Sen and formed the Penang Chinese Art Club. The founder menbers were - Lee Cheng Yong (President), Yong Mun Sen (Vice-President), Quah Kuan Sim (Secretary), Tay Hooi Keat (Treasurer) and Kuo Ju Ping, Tan Seng Aun, Tan Gek Khean (Mrs. Tay Hooi Keat) and Wan Fee. They held their first Art and Photography Exhibition soon after, with the majority of the paintings in the school of Western Realism and Post-Impressionism and a few scrolls of traditional Chinese brush paintings. Artists all over Malaya and Singapore were invited to participate and contributed much to the success.

     In 1937, the penang impressionists, who had been holding regular annual art shows invited members of the Penang Chinese Art Club to participate. This was very encouraging to the local artists who responded positively. Unfortunately, this was to be the last exhibition of the Penang Impressionists as the group disbanded before the advent of the Second World War, never to be reformed. Most of their active members went back to Europe or were transferred.

     The Penang Chinese Art Club carried on with two or three more annual art exhibition, under the Presidency of Lim Cheng Ean (the father of prominent art-collectors, Ms. P. G. Lim and Lim Kean Siew), and later Ong Keng Seng. As the war approached, the art body had to suspend its activities, as a result of security restrictions being imposed on the coastal and rural areas. Finally, the group dissolved itself just before the out-break of hostilities in Malay, with the Japanese invasion in December, 1941.

     The subsequent occupation of the Japanese forces discouraged all cultural activities. Indeed the Kempetei (Japanese Military Police) kept a close watch on Chinese cultural group and their leaders. The Penang Chinese Art Club's records and all photographic evidence of group outings were burnt as a precaution.

     Fortuately, the war ended in 1945, Art in Penang revived with the formation of the Penang Art Teachers' Art Group under the Penang Education Department ]. In 1948, Tay Hooi Keat became the first Malaysian to go to Britain to study art at the Camberwell School of Art.

     Penang appeared to be centre of attraction for artists in the immediate post-war period. Mohd.Hoessein Enas who came from Indonesia to Penang via Singapore recalled that at that time, the Singapore art scene was dead. The famous art patron, Frank Sullivan met Hoessein Enas in Penang in 1949 and urged him to go to Kuala Lumpur. He was to go on to form the Angkatan Pelukis Semenanjung and became a nationally known figure.


     In 1952, the Penang Art Teachers' Council was formed with Tay Hooi Keat as chairman. Some of the early members included Lee Joo For, Tan Tin Kok, Lim Tong Juan, Tan Lye Hoe and Chee Wee Sun. Most of the members were teachers from the English-medium schools in Penang. The name of the group was changed to Penang Art Teacher's Circle in 1965.

     In 1953. the Penang Art Society was formed under the chairmanship of Loh Cheng Chuan. The Penang Arts Council was also formed the same year with Souter as President, Tay Hooi Keat as Secretary and A. Sabathy as Honorary Treasurer and Auditor. Since then, both organisations have been holding regular art exhibitions for its members, as well as sponsoring one-man shows for local as well as visiting artists from other Malaysian states and foreign lands.

     In 1957, the Thursday Art Group was formed with ideals similar to the Wednesday Art Group of Kuala Lumpur (which was formed by Peter Harris in 1952). Members of the Thursday Art Group included Abdullah Ariff, Tay Hooi Keat, Kuo Ju Ping, Lee Joo For, Lim Tong Juan and William K. K. Lau.

     The first one-man show by a Malaysian artist overseas, was that of Chuah Thean Teng in 1959 in London, presented by the Federation Arts Council. His exotic batik paintings (which he had been producing since he opened his Yahong Gallery in 1955) raised the status of batik from craftwork to fine art and brought Malaysian art to the attention of international art scene. Following his success, other batik artists, notably Tay Mo Leong and Toya also found international fame.

     In 1963, May Liang started her Galerie de Mai which sponsored two important art shows in 1963 and 1964, the Salon de Mai. Organised by Tay Mo Leong and Khoo Sui Ho, the Salon, which exhibited the works of Penang and invited S.E. Asia artists, was believed to be one of the first international art shows in the country.

     In 1972, the Universiti Sains Malaysia's Museum and Art Gallery came into being. It provided Penang art-lovers with a permanent display of its collection of Penang and Malaysian art-works in air-conditioned comfort. Dr. Chew Teng Beng was requested to return from the United States to establish the Fine Arts programme and he was ably assisted by Dr. Lim Eng Hooi.

     In 1979, Khoo Lok Sain formed the Sain Art Academy, offering courses in Commercial and Graphic Art. Galeria Sdn. Bhd. was formed in 1982 and provided Penang with another venue to appreciate art.

     In June 1984, the Penang Water Colour Society was formed with Tay Mo Leong as president. The Society had held annual exhibitions at the Penang Museum and Art Gallery ever since.

     In 1986, Konsenih was started and Yuen Chee Ling became the Art Director of the art section (till January 1990, when she moved to her Conservatory of Fine Arts at Artville). In 1987, Equator Academy of Art was started by Chuah Kooi Yong which became so successful that it opened its branch school at Anson Road on 2nd April 1990.

     In 1987, Rosaline Teoh opened her E'land Art and Tea House with a permanent display of her works together with her master, Chung Chen Sun. However, the place is also a venue for occasional group exhibitions, including the first exhibition of the Penang Artists Association which was formed in 1989 under the pro-tem chairmanship of Ang Swee Hin.

     The USM Off-Centre Gallery was started in Janrary 1989 at Penang Plaza and displays work by the faculty and students of USM Arts Centre. It was the venue for several group exhibition as well as the Penang Women Artists' Show in January 1990, sponsored by Pulau Pinang magazine.

     The Art Gallery, at Gottlieb Road was started on 1st September 1989 and was officially declared open on 1st October 1989 by Dr. Sak Cheng Lum. Besides providing more exhibition space for local artists and viewing opportunity for art-lovers, it also tries to promote interest in art to the general public by producing several art books. Its maiden publication was 'The Book of the Orang-Utan' featuring Chinese brush paintings of Malaysia's mascot for 'Visit Malaysia Year', 1990.

     Other books in the pipeline include 'Pioneer Artists of Malaysia', 'Yong Mun Sen - Father of Malaysian Painting' and 'Toya - Batik Artist par excellence'.

     In June 1990, The Gallery was the venue of 'Rotary Art For Charity' exhibition, organised by The Rotary Club of Bayan Baru, with paintings donated by some of the top artists in Penang, (namely, Rosalind Teoh, Tan Choon Ghee, Tan Chiang Kiong, Toya, Chew Teng Beng, Chai Chuan Jin, Yeong Seak Ling and Tay Mo Leong) as well as several art-lovers.

     With so much art activities presently flourishing in Penang, it is hoped that Penang will soon regain its former status as the leading art centre in Malaysia. This book serves as a permanent record of artist in the past and present who had contributed so much to the art scene in Penang.

Excerpt from
Dr. Chew Teng Beng. 1996. "History of the Development of Art in Penang", Tan Chee Khuan.1996. Penang Artists 1920-1990, Penang : The Art Gallery. pg. 5-7

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