93-Year-Old Experimental Calligrapher Lim Tze Peng Continues to Leave His Mark on Singapore

Highly revered Singaporean artist and teacher Lim Tze Peng is considered to be one of Singapore’s most significant artists of the last century. Born in a small village, or kampong, in 1921, Lim taught himself Chinese ink painting and over a long and prolific career has developed an innovative and expressive style.

Lim is best known for his ink drawings of bustling scenes of Singapore’s Chinatown and the Singapore River, using techniques from the Nanyang style. In the 1950s, he began to produce paintings of Chinese junk boats, and continued with his depictions of the post-war transformation of the city, focusing on day-to-day happenings in the former British colony as it declared independence and went through a period of rapid modernization. Beginning in 1981, Lim began a series of nostalgic paintings of the historical buildings of old Singapore, which were being torn to be torn down to make way for a new, more developed city. He painted two works per day on-site, eventually creating close to 500 pieces, affixing the memories of a lost time in Singapore; as of 1983 all of these buildings had been demolished. During this period, he further developed a signature painting style which emphasized gesture and rhythm, and afforded these works and ones following a palpable feeling of spontaneity and emotion. 

Since this period, Lim has continued his depictions of local urban environments, but also developed his practice through experiments with calligraphic techniques and abstract expressionist forms. Lim credits his painterly calligraphy to a happy accident: paint from an artwork he was working on had seeped onto paper underneath, which he subsequently use to practice calligraphy. He became entranced by the interaction between the colors of the paint and the forms of traditional calligraphy and has since explored the method further. Using bold gestures and rich colors that stray from the disciplines of traditional forms, he relates his experimental ruminations on line and color to those explored by Western artists practicing abstract art.

Among many notable moments of his long and illustrious career, Lim has exhibited in two solo shows at the Singapore Art Museum, and in 2003, received the Cultural Medallion, a prestigious award given for artistic excellence in Singapore. In 2009, he became the only Singaporean artist to have been invited to exhibit at the National Art Museum of China and in 2012 broke the record for the highest price paid for the work of a living Singaporean artist at a Christie’s auction. In 2014, at 93, Lim continues to be very productive, creating paintings and calligraphy with an energy and skill that ensures that his great body of work will continue to be prized by collectors and institutions alike.

—K. Sundberg

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