(Singaporean, 1917-1983)
Deep Feelings
signed and dated Soo Pieng 51 (upper right); signed, titled and dated 'Deep Feelings Soo Pieng 1951' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
76 x 58.5 cm. (30 x 23 in.)
Painted in 1951
Acquired directly from the artist's family by the present owner

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Lot Essay

Looking back at the career of China-born Singaporean artist Cheong Soo Pieng - widely recognized as one of the most influential ethnic Chinese artists of his generation - one is hard-pressed to categorize his paintings into one particular style. Critics describe his works as having progressed through several phases: from post-Impressionist to Cubist to abstract, semi-abstract and more. Above all, his oeuvre showcase his versatility as an artist. His formal training in art from Xiamen and Shanghai, coupled with his travels both in Southeast Asia and Europe allowed him the freedom of picking from numerous artistic traditions, to create a style that was uniquely his own, and one that perfectly amalgamated the east with the west.

One of the key strands of Cheong Soo Pieng's art is his singe-minded embodiment of the ideals of modernism, particularly in 20th century Asia - the lifelong pursuit of new forms, media and expression and the insatiable and voracious appetite for learning and filtering the best of disparate artistic traditions. Above all, Cheong Soo Pieng had the ability to imbibe and innovate key subjects and themes in modern art, and we see this nowhere better than in his exploration of the female form through his entire career as an artist.

Cheong Soo Pieng began his artistic education in the Xiamen Academy of Art. He later attended the Xin Hua Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai, where he was exposed to more Western artistic styles such as abstraction, cubism and surrealism. These influences are particularly evident in his early works, such as After Bathing (1947) and Portrait of A Girl (1950), which show strong influences of Western artists such as Picasso and Matisse. The linear aspects of the paintings, coupled with the sharp angles and strong colors highlight how modernism held sway in Cheong Soo Pieng's works during this early stage of his artistic development. After Bathing (1947) sees Cheong Soo Pieng as modernist artist par excellence take on a classic subject of the bathing or after bath nude. He pays particular attention to the environment around the figure, embellishing the background with a still-life, carpet and a wall with intricately carved details. The artist announces his credentials as an aspiring young modern artist, tackling a typical subject with virtuosity that equals the very best of the modernist masters like Henri Matisse.

Cheong Soo Pieng migrated to Singapore in 1946. During the earliest years, he quickly established himself as an art educator and an artist constantly looking for the new - be it in terms of pictorial subjects or style.


In this regard, the present lot, Deep Feelings (1951), stands as a significant example of his formative attempt as artist to deal with the simple but challenging subject of the female in portraiture. The apparently simple subject of a Chinese girl for this painting belies the burden of expectation that the simplicity of the subject brings. Cheong Soo Pieng set out brilliantly in the work to suggest the precocious beauty of the sitter, evident in her carefully braided ponytail and her neatly combed fringe. She is a picture of modesty, of serene contentment. Her dress, striking in its bold red and black colors, typical of working class girls in 1950s Singapore society, reveals the artist's fascination for the everyday. The sitter's porcelain skin is wonderfully contrasted against her dress, and topped off by her lusciously set red lipstick. A dash of rose on her cheeks suggests vitality and passion, even as the sitter has her gaze averted. The flower still life, evident in earlier works like After Bathing (1947) is reduced in size and significance in the upper left of the painting. The subject seats atop a blue cushion, a sea of evocative swirls of blue and black that lends a sense of dynamism to the statuesque figure of the sitter. The work is an accomplished portraiture, and when seen against later Cheong Soo Pieng's female portraits, shows up as a prototypical work.

In 1952, Soo Pieng embarked on a trip to Bali that would deeply influence his painting style and inspire him and fellow artists to reinvent a style that would eventually culminate in 'Nanyang' style. His painting, Balinese Girls with Offerings (1957) exhibits his use of vibrant colors, detailed depictions of the women's clothes and accessories, as well as a simplistic, more natural rendering of the women themselves. Similarly, Figure with Umbrella (1959) also showcases the landscapes and people that clearly served as Soo Pieng's muses at the time, but the figures here are less realistic and begin to show the elongation that have become Soo Pieng's most iconic style.

A trip to Europe in the early 1960s further influenced Soo Pieng's already multi-cultural style of painting. It was in Europe that he was introduced to and was greatly inspired by abstract works. He held solo exhibitions in London and Germany. The brief period he spent abroad from 1962 to 1963 had a profound impact on his development - for the next decade, he pursued abstract art and the exploration of media that was attendant in abstract art. His works took a turn towards the exploration of surface embellishments. Forms and figures became more abstract, and certainly the stylization of the female form continued.

Malay Girl (1972) shows his daring exploration of material in his so-called metal works. Facial features wrought out of disparate metal parts affixed onto a metal frying pan and installed atop a part of a standing rod, the sculpture strays from his usual lifelike depiction of women and exhibits the abstract tendencies he adopted while in Europe. This marked a distinct stage in his development as an artist where his use of unconventional media shocked and inspired many of his peers and students.

Soo Pieng's continued travels paralleled his journey as an artist, as his artistic style continued to evolve over the years. In the mid 1970s, Soo Pieng constantly returned to Bali and the increasing popular imagination of rural Southeast Asia to derive pictorial inspiration, and ethnic Bali and Sarawak figures dominate his works during these years. However, his depiction of Balinese women and landscapes appear to be more elaborate and decorative in comparison to his works from the 1950s. Meditation (1975), shows a woman with elongated limbs, framed by a hedge of foliage in the bottom half of the painting done in an extremely ornamental fashion. A Balinese temple appears in the near distant horizon, and marks a pictorial detail in the background that holds the entire composition of the painting in place.

In Soo Pieng's final years, he expressed a renewed interest in China and Chinese ink painting. By the River II (1982) contains a backdrop typical of traditional Chinese landscape painting, but painted in the Western medium of oil paint. The two females nestled in the painting exemplify how far Cheong Soo Pieng had come in the evolution of the female form in his art. The key features of this highly evolved figure-type - the elongated limbs; the almond-shaped eyes; the porcelain clear skin tone of the figures; their statuesque poses - demonstrate an artist's lifetime dedication to the exploration of form and color in his pursuit towards a certain totality and perfection in his works. By the River II not only demonstrates Soo Pieng's remarkable ability to meld Eastern and Western techniques so seamlessly and elegantly into a single work of art, but also reveal the progress that an artist, committed to his craft and the pursuit of beauty, can achieve What started out as a modernist inclination to find a breakthrough for the depiction of the classic female form turned out to be a lifelong exploration in media, form and color, culminating in not just one breakthrough but a series of significant advancement that earns Cheong Soo Pieng his place in the echelons of 20th century modern Asian art.

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