Watching Rui En take her seat on stage and tuck her legs delicately by her side, it feels uncannily like looking at pioneer artist Georgette Chen, whom the actress portrays in an upcoming three-part docudrama.
Beyond the sharp chin, ruler-straight posture and pursed, red lips, there seems to be a sophisticated, unapologetic dignity about the 34-year-old MediaCorp actress that similarly emanates from the woman in the self-portrait behind her.
Rui En in character as Georgette Chen for docudrama The Worlds Of Georgette Chen. Image: National Gallery Singapore
During the filming for the programme, which premieres on Wednesday on Channel NewsAsia and MediaCorp Channel 5, Rui En uncovered aspects of Chen that she identified with intimately. At a press conference on April 24, 2015, she says of Chen: “She was feisty, strongwilled and incredibly independent. In these ways, I felt like a mirror of her.”
Born in 1906 in Zhejiang, China, Chen is best known for her still life paintings and portraits and contributed tremendously to the growth of the Nanyang art movement in Singapore, which fused South-east Asian themes with Western painting techniques.
The docudrama, The Worlds Of Georgette Chen, commissioned by the National Gallery Singapore and produced by Channel NewsAsia, recreates the colourful life of the artist, who had a privileged, cosmopolitan upbringing as the daughter of a rich businessman.
It takes viewers from her childhood in France to her youth in revolutionary China and, finally, her adulthood in Singapore, where she taught at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. She died in 1993 after a long illness.
She was highly regarded for her post- Impressionistic work, with her heavy brushstrokes and emphasis on volume and texture influenced by French Impressionists of the late 19th century.
She was one of the few female Chinese artists featured in the famous Salon d’Automne exhibitions in Paris. In 1982, she was awarded Singapore’s Cultural Medallion. Her works will be on display at the National Gallery when it opens in October. Yet, for all her professional success, it was her capacity for love that Rui En admires most.
The actress explains: “Even though her husband, Eugene Chen, was a political fugitive and more than twice her age, he was the love of her life. For me, what makes her human is that she dared to love unconventionally.”
One of the most memorable scenes, she recounts, was filmed in an abandoned school in Braddell Road. She was tasked to play the piano while channelling the grief that Chen had for her husband who had just died, shortly after the end of the Sino-Japanese war in 1944.
While Chen may have been “a woman after my own heart” to Rui En, portraying her did not come without difficulty.
Prior to the project, she knew little about the artist. She was terrified at having to portray a real-life person for the first time, though she says this fear was also what challenged her to take the job.
To prepare herself, she read up as much as she could on the artist, from biographies by art historians to Chen’s personal letters.At the same time, she was also grateful that there was limited video documentation of the artist as this gave her the space to “breathe life into the character”.
She hopes that by portraying Chen as a woman, rather than just an artist, she can bring her story to a wider audience. “We do not want the production to be an arty-farty docudrama made for people who already know about her.”
Rui En also had to get used to the lack of dialogue. In most scenes, information is delivered by a narrator and the cast is used only to dramatise a particular moment or encounter. Freed from having to memorise lines, Rui En was able to focus on the production’s other priorities, such as historical accuracy.
Managing director of Channel News Asia Debra Soon explains that to achieve an accurate portrayal of the artist, all the periods of her life spent in Paris and Shanghai were shot on location. Sixty-two other sets were created in Singapore and each prop, right down to Chen’s paintbrush, was selected carefully.
Naturally, these efforts required an extensive amount of research, which led to valuable new discoveries. For example, a fifth self-portrait by Chen, which had been given to an old neighbour of hers, was uncovered during the making of the docudrama, along with the unpublished memoirs of Chen’s sister.
Curatorial and collections director at the National Gallery, Mr Low Sze Wee, says that new painting may well be the earliest known self-portrait of Chen, preceding the four that had been discovered before.
The journey has also been personally enlightening for Rui En.
“As you grow older, you want to learn more about the world around you. This project came at a point when I was just starting to become interested in other forms of art beyond acting. From it, I have begun to cultivate real appreciation of other mediums,” she says.
The Worlds Of Georgette Chen premieres on Wednesday on Channel NewsAsia at 8pm.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 27, 2015. For more similar stories, go to http://sph.straitstimes.com/lifestyle.
Read on to find out the truth behind Rui En’s supposedly sulky appearance at the Star Awards 2015 Show 1.
Rui En too, was among the best dressed for the night; relive the top 10 red carpet looks here.