Thursday, 8 December 2016

The artist of the $50 note

Take a $50 bill and look at the back of it.

Do you see a pair of gibbons swinging through vines?

Most Singaporeans will have missed the painting by the late Chen Wen Hsi, one of Singapore's pioneer artists.

Chen Wen Hsi - The artist of the 50 dollars note

There is a pair of gibbons on the back of Singapore 50 dollars note.  The gibbons are there not only to beautify the note but they also signify a great artist who contributed his entire whole life to the art world.

陈文希, Chen Wen Hsi, was born in China, Guangdong province.  He migrated to Singapore in 1948 and passed on in 1992.  He loves art and nature at a young age.  He grown up in a suburb village and was taught by renowned artists like Pan Tianshou in Xinhua College of Arts in Shanghai, China.

So the next time, if you happen to hold on to a Singapore 50 dollars note, just spare some time to say hello to these gibbons and the great artist before you pass it on to another!

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Chen Wen Hsi

Chen Wen Hsi's Two Gibbons Amidst Vines (Collection of Singapore Art Museum, donated by Dr Earl Lu)

Another aspect of the photo that caught art enthusiasts by surprise was a framed painting by Chen Wen Hsi, depicting a family of gibbons amidst tree vines.

Rendered in Chinese ink, the painting should look familiar to all Singaporeans, as a similar work is printed on our fifty dollar note.

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Chen Wen Hsi - Artworks and legacy

After his death, Chen’s artworks became highly sought-after, fetching exorbitant prices in various auctions. In 1993, Chen’s painting of five gibbons in Chinese ink sold for S$100,000 to a private collector in Taiwan.

In 1994, three of his oil paintings sold at record prices of over S$100,000 each, making them the most expensive Singapore artwork sold at the time.

Chen’s works have been featured on Singapore stamps, commemorative ingots as well as EZ-link cards and currency. The gibbons in his painting “Two Gibbons Amidst Vines” appear on the reverse side of the S$50 banknote in the portrait series of the Singapore currency.

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Chen Wen Hsi

Chen's mastery in depicting human figures was also found in keen observation of nature and animals. His subjects include landscapes, figures, birds and animals, still life studies and abstract compositions. Chen was especially adept at drawing egrets and monkeys. Among all the animal paintings by him, Chen's gibbon paintings stand out, as they were noted by Chen's attention to detail and sensitive rendering of the beautiful creatures.His first inspiration from painting gibbons came from a reproduction of a gibbon painting that formed the right triptych of the famous painting, White Robed Guanyin, Crane and Gibbon by the 13th century Southern Song Dynasty Chinese artist Mu Xi (牧溪).

Awed by its lifelike quality, he was convinced with Mu Xi's great skill in close observation of the gibbons. So day and night, Chen studied Mu Xi's print and emulated the painting. Chen had never seen a gibbon when he was in China, and as a result he did not realise that gibbons, unlike monkeys, had no tails!

It was only much later in the late-1940s, that a foreigner pointed out his error in his painting, and corrected him. At around then, he had bought a white faced gibbon for $300 at a local pet shop shortly after he arrived in Singapore. This gave him immense opportunities to study the creature's postures and its characteristics, by rearing it in his home garden. In time, Chen had a total of six pet gibbons – one white, one grey and four black ones.

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Singapore Currencies


We have become so accustomed to cash exchanges in our daily grind that we no longer pay our dollar bills a second look. The next time you fish out the green five-dollar bill from your wallet, do spare a few seconds to examine it. While the front design features the first President of Singapore Encik Yusof bin Ishak as do all bills from the Portrait series, the back design theme is Garden City with a Tembusu tree of a long outstretched low-lying branch.

This is our 5-Dollar Tembusu tree. It is not just a default artist’s illustration. As a matter of fact it is a feature of Singapore’s most famous Tembusu tree. Located near the Tanglin entrance of the Botanic Gardens, it is believed to have existed long before the gardens was officially laid out in 1859. That puts the tree at close to two centuries old!

With its low lying branch to sit on and boundless green backdrop, this old Tembusu has long been a popular site for family portraits and outdoor wedding photo shoots. The tree has been inducted into the Heritage Trees of Singapore, which was launched in 2001 to identify and safeguard mature trees that serve as important green landmarks in our natural heritage.

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The Tanglin Halt flats & a 1-dollar note
The Tanglin Halt flats
A 1-dollar note

Iconic landmarks in Singapore have been commonly used as the back designs of the former and current Singapore currency notes. Examples are the Supreme Court Building, Clifford Pier, Victoria Theatre, The Istana, Benjamin Sheares Bridges and Changi Airport, which have all been used as motifs in the previous Orchid, Bird and Ship series.

The dollar notes’ motif designs sometimes also tell a Singapore’s history. For instance, the back of the Orchid Series’ 1-dollar note, released in mid-1967, features the Tanglin Halt flats, which were built in 1962.

Fondly known as chup lau chu (“10-storey building” in Hokkien), these early HDB flats had existed for more than 50 years but eventually could not stand the test of time. Most of its tenants had moved out since 2008, and the vacant blocks will be demolished by end of 2015.

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It might be the root of all evil, but money can also be a thing of beauty. We take a look at some of the most remarkable banknotes from around the world:

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