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Mid-Autumn Festival, Mooncakes and Art

Think of the Mid-Autumn festival and mooncakes, pomelos and lanterns come to mind. Though this year’s lantern walkabouts may be curtailed due to the never-ending haze, we can still delight in the endless variety of mooncakes from the traditional to the avant garde.

Ren Shuai Ying, Chang'e Flying to the Moon, 1955, Ink Painting, 89.5 × 53.5 cm

Ren Shuai Ying, Chang’e Flying to the Moon, 1955, Ink Painting, 89.5 × 53.5 cm

The Mid Autumn festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. Marked by a full moon, it was originally meant to celebrate a bountiful harvest and give thanks for it as a family but in today’s urban culture it is a celebration of harmony and unity among family and friends. There are several folk tales and myths that explain the origin of mooncakes: the one that is most commonly heard in Singapore is that of the Hans using the round pastries to pass messages of a secret uprising against the Mongols in the early 13th century. And of course there is the ever popular legend of the Moon Goddess Chang’e who after drinking the elixir of life, floated up to the moon and still lives there.

Georgette Chen, Mooncakes and Lanterns,1970, oil on canvas, National Library Collection.

Georgette Chen, Mooncakes and Lanterns,1970, oil on canvas, National Library Collection.

The artist that I think of in the context of these festivals is Georgette Chen (1906-1993). Her paintings of traditional foods, fruits and delicacies that distinctively signify each celebration are uniquely her and the Mid-Autumn Festival was a recurring theme in many of Chen’s still life paintings.

Still Life: Moon Festival Table Year c.1965-1968, Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm

Still Life: Moon Festival Table Year c.1965-1968, Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm

Mooncakes with Green Pomelo (1965-68),  Still Life: Moon Festival Table (1965-68), Mooncakes with Golden Pomelo, Mooncakes and Lantern (1970) all depict iconic foods and fruits associated with the festival in her trademark Nanyang Style which combined the Western painting style with Asian subject matter. Chen used vivid and contrasting colours to depict the joy and mood associated with these festivals and her arrangement of objects and use of space cleverly drew the viewer’s gaze to each element of the composition. She was truly an artist par excellence.

The National Gallery Singapore, which is to be opened by the end of this year, will showcase Chen’s works in the DBS Singapore Gallery and earlier this year it also commissioned a docu-drama on her life titled, The Worlds of Georgette Chen. If you missed it, you can catch it here.

Happy Mid Autumn!

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About Durriya Dohadwala (31 Articles)
Durriya Dohadwala is an independent writer on contemporary Asian art and culture. She is also a docent and enjoys facilitating the decoding of contemporary Asian art.