No discussion of Malaysian art today is possible without mentioning the contributions of Yong Mun Sen, the Father of Malaysian Painting.
He was born on 10 January 1896 in his father’s coconut estate in Kuching, Sarawak with the original name of Yen Lang. He went to Tai-Pu in the Kwangtung province of China in 1901 for formal education in the proper use of brush and calligraphy, He returned to Kuching in 1910. The experience of watching a Japanese artist painting with watercolours left an unforgettable impression on him.
In 1914, he visited China where he painted grandiose pictures of lions and tigers which were much loved by the warlords of the time. Two years later, he married 16 years old Lam Sek Foong who was to bear him five children. He returned to Sarawak in 1917.
He could have settled for a life of ease as a wealthy planter but he chose to answer the call of art. Knowing full well that an artist’s fate was endless toil, strife and frustration for which there could never be real compensation, he bravely accepted his destiny.
In 1918, he was employed by a bookshop in Singapore and served at a school bookshop counter. He developed a love for Singapore urban scene which he later depicted in numerous water colours.In 1920, he was transferred to the Penang branch of the bookshop in Carnarvon Street. He saw the lovely island and was captivated by its beauty and charm.
In 1922, he changed his name to Yong Mun Sen and set up Tai Koon art studio in Chulia Street. He took up photography seriously and executed some plaster-of-paris sculpture. In 1930,he moved his studio to Penang Road and renamed it Mun Sen studio. He was so successful in his career that he opened an additional studio the next year, at an old mansion at Northam Road. Around this time, he became acquainted with the work of European artists through books, particularly those on Van Gogh and Gauguin. The latter particularly had a very strong influence on the development of his style, especially in his oil paintings.
Around 1936, several Penang artists discovered each other and decided to form the Penang Chinese Art Club, with Mun Sen as the Vice President. He became the President the following year. With the advent of the Second World War in 1939,the Penang Chinese Art Club was disbanded never to be reformed again. The period of the Japanese Occupation of Malaya from 1941 to 1945 was the most unproductive period of his life. He had to turn to farming for survival.
Following the death of his wife in 1941, he married the beautiful Yao Chew Mooi, the daughter of Yao Swee Lum from Ipoh ( a descendant of Kapitan China, Yap Ah Loy). She eventually gave birth to four sons and two daughters. After the war over, he was very productive and became well-known through his exhibitions in Malaya and Singapore and also through foreign contacts in Britain, U.S.A and Australia.
Mun Sen’s forte was landscape in watercolour. He did make frequent sallies into oil and Chinese traditional brush painting with success, but it was in the watercolour medium that he excelled. His uncomplicated landscapes were executed in fluid, full-blood washes. His work reflected conscious attempts to incorporate the Chinese artistic spirit. The influence of Chinese art resulted in his compositions being more airy and generalised in treatment, revealing a concern for linear properties and surface design. He was not interested in providing details or factual depiction of the landscape he observed. He controlled the watercolour and allowed transluscency and fluidity to render the rhythms.
The international contemporary art trend towards expressionism finally caught up with him in 1949 and the resultant heady ferment produced a series of abstract watercolours with surrealist undertone. In 1956, he had the first of several strokes and despite his physical infirmity, struggled on to paint. However, continued illness and financial hardship led to profound despair eventually. He died on September 29th 1962.
Ten years later, in March 1972,the National Art Gallery organised a Mun Sen Memorial Art Exhibition. With impartial and intelligent appraisal, his works will always retain the honoured place in Malaysia art they deserve.