Pastoral charms and rustic women – the batik art of Teng

An appreciation of a local legend

One does not run the risk of overstatement when describing Chuah Thean Teng as the pioneer of batik painting. He is after all, recognized internationally as the master of an exquisite and delicate art - one which requires skill, draftness, patience and meticulousness. In the fickle, fidgety and evolving world of art, his oeuvre has carved a permanent niche in the rare pantheon reserved for timeless and sublime works of beauty.

Art, like music, is food for the soul and one is tempted to draw parallels between Teng and others artists of his generation. The mind immediately recalls names like Pablo Casals, Maria Callas and Andrés Segovia - innovators and pioneers whose contributions to the world of art will be remembered and cherished forever. Like them, Teng dared to be different and unique in an unpredictable world and the gamble paid off handsomely.

Art connoisseurs and experts from around the world have compared Teng's works with those of Matisse, Picasso and Gauguin. Indeed, like the French post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, whose favourite subjects were voluptuous Tahitian women in their natural surroundings, Teng has an uncanny talent for capturing the beauty of earthy Malay women in rural and natural settings. Quite unlike Gauguin however, Teng manages to also strike a balance between the sensual and the spiritual. In his paintings, a woman is both a lover (as in Anticipation, picture right) and a nurturer/caregiver (as in Harmony, picture top right, and Lullaby). She is, thankfully, not like one of those grotesque women in Klimt's The Hostile Powers. Teng's batik women may be larger than life and slightly disproportionate, but they are ultimately beautiful.

One could also, at the risk of being scorned, be tempted to compare Teng with the 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, not in terms of artistic achievements, but as highly individual masters who have defined and set standards in their own areas. Rembrandt, for example, mastered the use of chiaroscuro (the arrangement or treatment of light and dark parts in a work of art) to give his subjects a physical presence, a famous example being The Night Watch. Teng, on the other hand, became a virtuoso of the art world when he 'transformed' batik printing into an elegant art form. When viewing the works of both Rembrandt and Teng, one can almost detect a glow emanating from within the compositions, making the two-dimensional characters appear illuminated, vibrant and alive. With batik painting, this effect is particularly apparent when the picture is hung with back lighting.

Chuan Thean Teng was born in 1914 in Fukien, China. When he was 18, he travelled to Malaysia, fell in love with the country (Penang in particular) and has stayed here ever since. His experiments with batik printing, when he was in his 20s, would prove to be the turning point in his life. It took him years to master the technique and he has never looked back. At age 41, he held a one-man exhibition in Penang.

Since then, Teng has held numerous exhibitions in Malaysia and other countries. His works adorn the homes of royalty, premiers, ambassadors, musicians and assorted literati. They are hung in galleries spanning continents. In 1965, he was bestowed the honour of being the first Malaysian to have one of his creations grace the cover of a UNICEF greeting card. The painting chosen was entitled Two of a Kind (picture right). The same honour was repeated in 1988 with another painting Tell You A Secret. He has also been featured in major newspaper and magazine articles since the 1960s.

Together with his three sons (all batik artists), Teng operates the Yahong Art Gallery in Batu Ferringhi. Situated on a prime location along the tourist belt of souvenir stores, boutiques, beach resorts and restaurants, the gallery attracts people from all walks of life.

Batik painting process

As mentioned previously, batik painting is a delicate and time consuming process. Although the batik technique of dyeing fabric is an old and time honoured art, applying it to painting is a fairly recent discovery. The materials used are wax and dyes, and the 'canvas' is made from either cotton or silk. A basic pencil drawing is made and the artist then decides which colour to be applied first. Molten wax is applied to areas of the cloth that won't be dyed. After the selected areas have been coloured, the wax is removed and fresh molten max reapplied to other parts of the cloth which is then dyed in a different colour. The process is repeated until the entire painting has been completed. If an artist makes a mistake during one of the several processes (which can be as many as 15), the artwork is ruined and the artist has to start from scratch. Batik painting is a labour of love, but for a master artist like Teng, the results are always stunning and well worth the effort.

Writter by Raja Abdul Razak
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved