Always one to bridge the gaps between Asian and Western art, Cheong Soo Pieng has emerged as one of the most influential artists to come out of Southeast Asia in the latter part of the 20th Century.
Cheong's infinite enthusiasm for exploring new styles and avenues in art has led him to move from style to style in rapid succession during his prolific career. From the 50s to 80s, he has challenged young artists with his versatility and innovation, dabbling in all mediums from painting, to ceramics, to sculpture; and always excelling in each.
Through the long extent of his career, Cheong was most interested in the sense of design and composition of a piece, making use of angular forms, and utilising a bold colour scheme. Despite the willingness to experiment with anything and everything, these were the three principles he was unwilling to compromise.
The period between 1948 to 1959 saw Cheong experiment with oil in impasto effects. Influenced by post-war Western artists, his paintings of this time inevitably possessed a raw, stripped down effect that hinted at three-dimensionality.
The Satay Seller is a wonderful exemplary of the much celebrated Nanyang style, of which along with Liu Kang, Chen Wen Hsi and Chen Chong Swee, the artist has come to embrace after the group's historic trip to Bali in 1952. So much has been discussed on this historic trip and indeed its importance and its impact on the development of the Nanyang style cannot be overly stressed.
"In 1952, Liu Kang, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng went on their historic field trip to Bali. While it would not be accurate to state that the Nanyang artists went to Bali because of Le Mayeur or even Gauguin's inspiration, Le Mayeur did create a deep impression of Bali in the Singapore art circle and, in fact, the artists met him during that trip.
The pioneers went to Bali mainly to search for a visual expression that was Southeast Asian. Not only did Bali offer them a rich visual source, the Balinese experience also revealed the ritualistic, experiential and decorative nature of Southeast Asian art -- a point which sets the Singapore story apart from the Gauguinian legend.
During and after the trip, images of Bali provided both the inspiration and visual sources which enabled the artists to crystalise their exploration of an aesthetic style in Singapore art. The artists were driven by two cross-currents - ore was the search for pictorial representation of the Nanyang culture (i.e., the Nanyang School in art). The other was an advancement of the Symbolist value of the artist as a creative individual who is able to transform "primitive" art to formulate a new artistic language. This second notion was an aesthetic value and practice with roots in the West, but it found resonance in Singapore in the 1950s as artists were being recognised as individual talents by newly-formed institutions such as the British Council. This spurred much innovation in the visual arts and even Lim Hak Tai, the founder of NAFA, experimented with new pictorial idioms in the 1950s of which Composition of 1955 is an example. Cheong Soo Pieng was quoted in the mid-1950s on the significance of the Bali field trip:
"(In painting I first) experimented a good deal in colour technique, and when I had evolved a technique which pleased me I tried it upon studies of the human form. I went to Bali on a sketching trip, and there I was fascinated by the scenery and by the Balinese women. I discovered that Balinese women are the ideal subject for me, and I made a good number of paintings, modern in feeling and to my own liking many of which I do not wish to sell."
(Kwok Kian Chow, The Bali Field Trip, Liu Kang, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng, http://www.thecore.nus.edu.sg/post, 2007)
The Satay seller unabashedly captures the quintessential elements of the style: the subjects are painted with a decorative tendency which pressed them against the surface, like a flower motif on a batik (traditional textile from Southeast Asia) and the foliages depicted are evocative of the tropical environ.