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Romantic Loneliness in Passionate Devotion

——Yeo Hoe Koon’s 60 Years in Art Adventure


Yeo Hoe Koon was born in 1935 in Hainan Province, China. He graduated from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1957 and with a persistent passion in art he pursued his further study in Paris, France in 1959. He was recruited by Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, then one of the top three art schools in the world and spent 3 years there. The senior school mates of Yeo Hoe Koon’s are, to name a few, Lin Fengmian, Xu Beihong, Pan Yuliang and Wu Guangzhong. Paris was the art centre of the world then where many prominent artists resided. And Yeo continued with a sophisticated touring study from 1965 to 1968 in Europe.


In the 1930s and 1940s, Paris was very much influenced by post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism; and it was turned into abstract art when getting into 1950s. Mark Rothko (1903-1970) had his first trip to France in March 1950, and his retrospective exhibition was held in 1961 at MoMA New York followed by a touring exhibition to London and Paris etc. Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) had his first solo exhibition in Paris in March 1952. Other masters of abstract art such as Nicolas de Stael (1914-1955), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), and Yves Klein (1928-1962) stayed in Paris and their styles interacted to trigger more reactions and creations.


Yeo Hoe Koon practiced his paintings together with Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun in Paris. Zao and Chu were both the protégé of Lin Fenmian before they graduated from Hangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and rooted their abstract creations in traditional Chinese culture, and successfully integrated the inspiring elements from Chinese classical paintings, calligraphy, poems and music, with modern techniques and concepts from the western. This has encouraged Yeo to pursue his abstract art despite the difficulties in developing a unique art language and fitting into the monotonous taste back in Asia.


The French abstract movement went dominant when Yeo was studying there. Nicolas de Stael (1914-1955), of Russian origin, was one of the most influential artists there in 1950s after he moved to Paris in 1943. He was first inspired by post-Impressionism, and in 1940s corresponded with American Abstract Expressionism and French abstract movement but remained independent from the two major trends. He was best known for his use of thick impasto in highly abstract landscape works and the compression of rectangular colour blocks which evidenced his transition stage from cubism when Georges Braque (1882-1963) was his close friend and neighbour. His late work predicts colour field painting and Lyrical Abstraction of the 1960s and 1970s. The bold and intensely vivid colour in his last paintings predict the direction of contemporary art that came after him including Pop Art of the 1960s.


Among whom inspired by De Stael, Chu The-Chun has successfully developed his own abstract language. He arrived in Paris in 1955 and was tremendously touched in his heart after visiting the retrospective exhibition of Nicolas de Stael in 1956. The works of De Stael liberated Chu’s innermost energy, and guided towards a new dream of metamorphosis when Chu transformed to abstract painting.


The arc movement, deconstruction, thick impasto of rectangular blocks that appeared in Yeo Hoe Koon’s works since late 1960s have shown the inspirations upon landing in Paris from De Stael and the French abstract style. And his intuitive and expressive brushwork and momentum corresponded with the lyrical abstract in the format. The abstraction, emotion, dynamic and expressiveness throughout Yeo’s creative progress all coincide with the spirit of traditional Chinese culture.


The colour application, composition, rhythm and emotion factors in Yeo’s paintings have some spiritual links with Orphism or Orphic cubism, a derivative from cubism around 1912 which was represented by Robert Delaunay (1885-1941). Delaunay created the work “Simultaneous Windows” in 1912 which was wooed by art historians as the “first abstract painting ever” and is today in the collection of Guggenheim. The series of works began his “constructive” phase, in which he juxtaposed and overlaid translucent contrasting complementary colours to create a synthetic, harmonic composition. Guillaume Apollinaire (1830-1918) wrote a poem about these paintings and coined the word Orphism to describe Delaunay’s endeavour, which he believed was as independent of descriptive reality as was music (the name derives from Orpheus, the mythological lyre player). Devoted, idealism, pure aesthetic, melodious harmony from Yeo Hoe Koon’s paintings are the poetic linkage with Orphism. Delaunay has influenced renowned artists such as Paul Klee, the latter had inspired Zao Wou-Ki critically.


Yeo’s well mastering of classical oil painting in his early period in 1960s is was very useful in developing his personal art language on a well-blended classical and lyrical abstract. Thick impasto, deep colours and impressionistic realism formed the signature styles of this period. Yeo has seen in his mid 1960s pure abstract creations, as an organic integration of the mechanical cubism and his autologous gentleness inherited from oriental tradition.


His works of 1970s had assimilated more sense of light to the background, with an interaction of light and colour the subjects are brightened and translucent with depth. His brushwork characteristic has been preserved till this day - the dynamic feathery strokes involved the formation of dynamic and static balance in the picture.


Yeo Hoe Koon in 1980s had created mainly abstract landscape and still life paintings. The rectangular colour blocks that formed buildings or trees in the landscape merged into the skyline and works of this period applied soft-edge techniques with perfect blending of lights and colours. Much of the style has brought viewers back to the hazy atmosphere that William Turner (1789-1862) created with his obscure lighting, space distinction by Nicolas de Stael and situational creation by Peter Doig (b.1959), the now popular Scottish artist. Yeo has put together all creative factors to shape his career with avant-garde concepts.


Yeo extended his practice in landscape and flower paintings in 1990s and developed bold black strokes outlined the shapes to enhance the whole composition. The broad brush outlines brought more contract to the bright silhouette, which delivered a stern yet solemn warmth.


Yeo Hoe Koon may have to spend 5 decades interpreting flowers which became one of the most classical subjects appeared in his exploring. The flowers are quiet, excited, roaring, sad, or in ecstasy, being artist’s spiritual attachment and emotional sustenance.


Getting into the 21st century, Yeo remained low profile communing between his studio and house. In 2009 he created a series of oil paintings on Bali, inclusive of a few much sizeable works in various tones, that contemplating the sunsets and skylines of Bali, some subtle and others wild.


Yeo painted “Masa Depan”, or “The Future”, in the same year, achieved an extremely satisfactory completion with profound composition in fairly deep astringent colours. Dark green and brownish yellow adorning the wide deep blue background, like dreams flashing in a quiet dark night. Vague future seems often appeared to him, and yet still out of reach. With the "future" deep in the heart, he always has something to look forward, more than an always lonely figure in the art world.


Yeo Hoe Koon’s paintings of ink on paper echo the modern abstract movement first unfolded outside of mainland China, such as Zhang Daqian in Brazil and Chu Teh-Chun in France. A colour and ink splash work Zhang Daqian created in 1965 and also a masterpiece “La Source” by Chu The-Chun in the same year both connected spiritually to the 11th century painting “Mountains and Streams” by Fan Kuan the renowned landscape artist of North Song. In Taiwan, Liu Kuo-Sung invented “Kuo-Sung paper” in 1963 with thick tissues that delivers more natural effect with rich textures and made subsequent reforming possible that eventually led to the entire modernization of Chinese ink painting.


Liu Kuo-Sung published "The Nature of Modern Painting” in 1960, clearly explained his concept of abstract painting, "As some think that Chinese culture fragmented with the booming of abstract paintings, I would rather believe the spirit of Chinese culture be promoted instead. Because abstract paintings all over the world more or less accepted eastern concepts and tendencies towards Chinese tradition, and some artists even got directly structural concept and inspiration from Chinese traditional painting, oracle, calligraphy and rubbings". Liu added in 1969, “Western style is inspiring in the form, they showed you large amount of freshness, that works as a catalytic role; as for the eastern, it always inspired me with an inner touch, that enlightened me with the real comprehension of the meaning and value of art”. Yeo Hoe Koon's paintings have throughout shown his eastern feelings of such meaning and value.


Yeo may have precisely uphold this dedication, also continued carrying out ink creation beyond his abstract oil paintings. Based on his understanding of traditional ink and the long practice of his “lyrical abstract” oil paintings, his ink works reflect a strong integration of the eastern and western. Such elements of modern western abstract painting as simplicity, contrast, intensity and momentum, as well as pure formative abstraction, were all sentimentally blended in his ink works.


When Liu Kuo-Sung witnessed the inaugural ceremony of Research Institute of Traditional Chinese Painting in Beijing in 1981, and held his solo exhibition at National Art Museum of China in 1983 followed by touring exhibitions in 18 cities in China to promote modern ink painting without having to be restrained by applying “the centre of brush strokes” or “zhong feng”, Wu Guanzhong was practicing his ink painting relentlessly. Wu then started to paint with funnels that dropped colour on paper, a way he could much liberate his creative ideas while drifting apart from purely “traditional brush and ink” or “bi-mo”. Wu witnessed a renewed vibrancy in his quest to bring the spirit of Chinese culture far beyond the traditional pictorial conventions of brush and ink.


Yeo Hoe Koon practiced his ink paintings in a similar philosophy, most in a strong dynamic intensity with the accentuation of the colour of ink, as Wu Guangzhong often reminded himself to keep the string of his figurative kite unbroken – that connection between art and life. Yeo was no longer confined to portraying the details of Bali, lotus pond, forest or mist in the dawn, he was able to instead linger in the formal rhythms that could be found among all subjects, and the mood thus created.


Yeo is not from a rich family and to venture to Europe for his childhood passion he needed much determination. He did not paint those popular styles fluctuating in the trends and has lived very simple life in cramped space filled up by his own paintings and tools. He could only upgrade the pigment used to artist grade since the end of 2014. Nevertheless he has never stopped. The stylistic innovations signaled by the mighty force, dynamic momentum, and calligraphic rhythm are the throughout clues despite of different periods or subjects, marked clearly his personal art language.


Yeo Hoe Koon has held more than 30 solo exhibitions and 80 group exhibitions in France, UK, Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and mainland China etc., and his collector base is widely spread across Europe and Asia. Many institutional collectors in Singapore, Malaysia and Beijing and Guangdong Province in China have carefully selected Yeo’s works and added to their corporate collections, which will not appear in the market anymore. Great works are therefore getting less. To bring back a masterpiece of Yeo’s 1961 took nearly one year from a Jewish collector in UK who had kept the piece for 54 years, being a good example to give.


Yeo Hoe Koon gradually achieved great success at the market level since 2013, in which year his excellent technique, unique style and mature works are finally more recognized. Nearly in a sudden, mainland Chinese collectors discovered a long time buried old master with solid French academic background, followed by a large number of purchase floodgates and solo exhibitions in Shandong Province, Beijing and Guangdong Province. As more masterpieces flew to mainland China, his works caught more attentions from major collectors of Singapore and Malaysia and many found in ecstasy they started to appreciate abstract paintings beyond the traditional landscape portraying China Town and Singapore River.


A wash of the grievances for years, the artist is filled with joy, and there has been a lot of brisk, melodic and rhythmic fast-paced movements on canvas. At the age of 80, he is racing against time with a huge outbreak of creative energy and vitality. He spent all his time on new creations, while staying on in his simple persistence despite of some physical decline. He has spent all his time in practicing abstract paintings, and transforming all over, and has evolved into a realm without transgressing.


As China raised “One Belt One Road” strategy upon the great revival, the Maritime Silk Road crossed through the Straits of Singapore, more strategic cooperation in the aspects of culture and economy will develop along the Silk Road economic belt. The Big Four masters in Chinese modern art history, Zao Wou-Ki, Chu Teh-Chun, Wu Guanzhong and Liu Kuo-Sung, as well as renowned Chinese artists in Southeast Asia such as Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng and Yeo Hoe Koon, rooted in Chinese culture with respect and comprehension of tradition, have integrated national and international concepts and skills, and are moving perfectly consistent with the strategic integration of “One Belt One Road” as an integral of the cultural heritage.


Today Yeo Hoe Koon no longer held on to the distinction between abstraction and non-abstraction. Any picture that shows no clear figuration may be described as abstract. As Wu Guanzhong said, “The painter wanders up, down, left and right within time and space, exploring the beginnings and endings of memories, only in order to express the elusive passage of time”. The sunset and sunrise in Yeo’s paintings are often unmovably relay to his overwhelming heroic passion, and the peaceful forest and mist are after all, some unstoppable artistic romance lingered forever.



Allison Liu

December 2015

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