Museum and Gallery Guide

Tan Swie Hian Museum

Events - 02 December 2009 12:00 AM | Updated 09 June 2010

Tan Swie Hian Museum

Address:  460 Sims Avenue, Singapore 387601

Opening hours:  Mondays to Fridays, by appointment only. Closed on Saturdays and Sundays.  

Admission: Free


The Tan Swie Hian Museum is Singapore's only private museum devoted to showcasing a living artist's work. It houses Tan's artistic creations in various mediums as well as his literary works.

A cultural icon in Singapore, Tan is one of the country's most prolific artists. Not only does he excel at painting, calligraphy, printmaking and sculpture, he is also highly recognized as a poet, writer, critic and translator. His works have graced numerous galleries, museums and stages, including performances with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra and at the Singapore Art Festival.

Tan has won many awards for his achievements, including the French Knighthood of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1978, a Gold Medal of the French Artist Salon in Paris in 1985, the 1987 Singapore Cultural Medallion and an appointment as Correspondent for Southeast Asia of the French Academy of Fine Arts.
The Tan Swie Hian museum was set up by the owner of the Tomlinson Collection, Tan Tien Chi, whose company has been one of Asia's leading antique businesses since the 1970s.  

Entering the museum, visitors find themselves in a surreal landscape that alludes to the cerebral sand patterns of a Japanese Zen garden. This was achieved by calligraphy inscribed on the raw cemented floor by Tan himself, with bamboo brushes used by hawkers to clean their woks. The 300 square metre area has 262 characters, some elegantly etched in the cement, others rawly gorged out. It took some three days and three nights to complete the whole area before the cement dried completely.

Beautiful ceramic frescos on the walls and philosophical chess pieces above the gallery set the stage for contemplative appreciation.

Tan followed Buddhist principles to design the chess pieces. He first took the concept of the six indriyas (the sense organs) which are the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and perception, and the corresponding six gunas (the objects perceived), namely sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and idea. He then sculpted these in the six forms and shapes of the Tantric discipline, chiefly the square, sphere, triangle, half-moon, peach shape and circle. These shapes are represented in the six basic pieces of Chinese chess: namely the adviser, elephant, chariot, horse, cannon and soldier.

Tan's contemporary paintings are done mainly in oil and Chinese ink and are, once again, strongly influenced by his background in both Chinese and Western art, as well as his Buddhist beliefs.

In Daffodils Are Also His Sermon, for example, Tan has re-interpreted both English Poet Laureate William Wordsworth's (1770-1850) familiar poem, I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud (which describes the bliss he felt when he saw daffodils dancing in the breeze) and the ecstasy the Jin Dynasty poet Tao Yuanming (259-334) experienced at a glimpse of the southern mountains when plucking chrysanthemums.

The museum also features fossil sculptures. The Stone Remains, is made from a 500-million-year-old boulder of fossils from China, while Tan's other fossil sculpture Three Times, has been carved to resemble lotus petals (the Buddhist symbol for purity) representing three time frames: the past, the present and the future.

Did you know?

You may have already come across Tan's work that has been installed as public art. His enamel mural and granite floor calligraphy is part of the public art programme at the NEL Chinatown MRT station.