By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cheong Soo Pieng’s art had reached a peak in his ability to realize his artistic vision that was to capture the essence and vitality of how he viewed the peoples and landscapes of Southeast Asia. A tireless innovator, Cheong’s various experimentations in style and medium culminated in producing his most iconic figure type. With her serene expression, elegant posture, and porcelain complexion, the women of Cheong Soo Pieng’s later canvasses were essential in continuing a fascination and romanticisation of rural Southeast Asia that draw its roots to early colonial interpretations of the region.
In imagining and representing Southeast Asian subjects, Cheong Soo Pieng’s vision differed from that of Western visitors such as Miguel Covarrubias, Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès, and Rudolf Bonnet. For these artist, Bali was to them what Tahiti was to Gauguin, and they chased and followed the dream of discovering an unsullied tropical paradise. While Cheong’s fascination with the region was no doubt heavily influenced by the work and experiences of the visiting artists that came before him, it was in part also the affinity he felt towards the Asian ancestry of the region. Born in Xiamen, China, in 1917, the so-called Nanyang region represented for Cheong and his generation distant relatives, new opportunities for work and industry, and the chance to forge a new path following the ills of China’s Cultural Revolution and the changing political landscape. The lure of exotic Southeast Asia came later, when Cheong and a group of fellow migrant artists (including Liu Kang, Chen Wen Hsi, and Chen Chong Swee) who were also teaching at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art in Singapore, decided to embark on a trip to Bali in 1952.
The impetus for the trip came following Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès’ exhibition at the YWCA in Singapore in 1933, where the pioneer artists became enamoured with Le Mayeur’s vision of Southeast Asia. The dappled light, rich colours, and depictions of ritual life captured by Le Mayeur’s brush sparked their imaginations, and it was decided that they would embark on a trip together to Bali in search of artistic inspiration. The artists were not to be disappointed, and found themselves immersed in the idyllic natural environment of Bali where bare-breasted women and lean, muscled men went about their daily tasks with an uncalculated grace.
The Bali trip expanded the artists’ view of Southeast Asia as a region rich with culture and history that was relatively untouched by modern technologies and ideas. For Cheong Soo Pieng, this rush of creative inspiration led him to travel to other parts of Southeast Asia, including the island of Borneo that was home to the Sarawakian subjects of the present painting.
Cheong Soo Pieng received formal art education in traditional Chinese ink painting at the Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts, and later attended the Xin Hua Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai where he was exposed to modern Western artistic styles such as Abstraction, Cubism and Surrealism. Sarawak Ladies is an example of Cheong’s effortless assimilation and expression of the distinctive styles of Western and Eastern art.
The overall composition is harmonious and in line with the Chinese philosophy of qi which is focused on the balance of opposing forces: vitality and stillness; strength and weakness; white and black; and so on. Using Western fundamentals such as complementary colours in the ladies’ yellow and green scarves, and the use of Western mediums of oil and canvas to achieve a finesse and lightness of touch more often associated with traditional Chinese ink paintings, Cheong presents his subjects within a perfectly harmonious and balanced composition. Overhanging branches draw our eye towards the central figures of the scene starting from the topmost deer that looks quietly towards his companion, who in turn connects with the young child in the lap of the front-facing lady. Behind her, a second lady looks towards the deer in the background of the painting, and completes the circular arrangement of figures that while apparently still, are all interacting dynamically with their surroundings.
“It is creation of harmony of colours and variation in tones which are my main objects in painting. I paint when I am in the mood, but I would stay at one subject for days, if necessary, to complete the expression of the idea in my mind”
- Cheong Soo Pieng
Depth in the painting is achieved with the use of varying shades of gold, yellow, and brown to demarcate the back, mid, and foreground of the painting. A technique that can be in fact drawn back to the modernist style of cubism, Cheong displays yet more mastery of balance in creating a sense of depth through flat planes and areas of the composition. In opting for a dense pointillist rendering of the environment, Cheong invites us to appreciate the different textures present in the painting, and focus on the feelings and sensations of coming across a sun-dappled tropical clearing, rather than presenting a realist rendering of the various flora and fauna. Only key features stand out in sharp relief – the branches which frame the composition, the gentle beauty of the figures and the deer, as well as the man-made items they have fashioned out of natural materials.
Sarawak Ladies is one of the most exceptional examples from this iconic period of Cheong’s career. The inclusion of animals as well as the young child in the painting provide a fullness to the composition, and display the eloquence of Cheong’s visual style. Compared to Cheong’s representations of rural Southeast Asia immediately following his return from Bali in the 1950s, the later works represent a remarkable maturation of the artist’s practice. Moving away from the raw passion and excitement that can be felt in his earlier canvasses, the works from the late 1970s to early 1980s exude a calm sophistication and stillness that equally expresses the exuberance and beauty of rural existence. As an artist who experimented with varying styles of abstraction on canvas, as well as mixed-media works and sculptures, Cheong never strayed far from the iconic symbols of the mother and child, the relationship of man to his environment, and of the importance of community. He continuously sought new means through which to adequately express his subjects, and was driven by a desire not only to record the reality of rural Southeast Asia, but to extract and express the essence of their culture as he saw it.
For Cheong, painting went beyond the expression of the real, but was about the expression of ideas and emotions. His later works depicting Southeast Asian landscapes and people were produced while back in his adopted home of Singapore with only photographs and sketches to refer to. Cheong’s compositions were not however, pure fantasy, but rather, an exalted idealisation of what he sincerely believed to be the means through which to express the incredible awe he continued to feel towards the enduring vitality of rural Southeast Asian culture. In the intricately patterned batik skirts of the seated ladies, their delicate headdresses, and their distinctively stretched earlobes, Cheong displays an eye for detail and an acute appreciation for the cultural markers that set the ladies apart as Sarawakian, rather than from any other tribal group.
A realisation of Cheong’s artistic ambition, and a testament to Cheong’s mastery of his craft and achievement at developing an unmistakable and unique artistic style, Sarawak Ladies is a masterpiece from Cheong’s varied artistic career that establishes him firmly as one of the most exceptional and pioneering artists of the 20th century.