Bali Girl

Bali Girl
signed in Chinese and dated '1980' (middle right)
oil on canvas
92.5 x 62 cm. (36 3/8 x 24 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1980
Private Collection, Asia
This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued
by Raffles Fine Arts Auctioneers.
Sale room notice
Please note that the correct medium for Lot 46 is oil on canvas.

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Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

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Lot Essay

The role that Singaporean artist Cheong Soo Pieng had in pioneering the Nanyang art movement is well-documented, and his prolific artistic practice spanning across six decades has contributed greatly to this overall consensus. The Nanyang style is a regional art movement that defined an era of widespread immigration and search for personal identity in a new land. Nanyang, meaning ‘southern seas’ in Mandarin, is a term that has come to define all things Southeast Asian. Many artists such as Cheong, who were part of a post-war diasporic population that fled China during the civil unrest after the Japanese Occupation, were already well-adept in traditional Chinese ink techniques. Coming to Southeast Asia offered a new perspective and learning opportunities for artists like Cheong.

Bali Girl (Lot 46) was painted in 1980 during Cheong Soo Pieng’s second trip to Bali, and produced 25 years after his landmark trip taken together with his contemporaries Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee and Liu Kang. The work reflects a more stylised and decorative character, as well as a confidence in the way that he executes his lines and compositions. These point to his continued visual innovation – an aesthetic sophistication that blended techniques of both East and West in a very experimental manner, which is a trope that permeates Cheong Soo Pieng’s entire oeuvre; as art historian T. K. Sabapathy observes, “In [Soo Pieng’s] art, one can see the influence of three very different traditions”.

1976 marked the end of Cultural Revolution, and many artists who had initially fled China years ago, such as Cheong, were finally able to set foot on their motherland once again. It would be remiss to disregard the emotional impact this had on the artist, and as such, the works that defined this period and beyond, were heavily influenced by a return to the tradition of Northern Song Chinese ink painting and ran parallel to his late decorative style.

Bali Girl is an excellent instance of the influence of Chinese painting on Cheong’s later works. Looking at the way in which the artist renders the twisting and turning of the expanses of leaves in space around the stems and branches in Bali Girl, we are immediately reminded of the seminal painting of the Northern Song school, Travelers among Mountains and Streams by Fan Kuan. Travelers among Mountains and Streams served as an ideal in monumental Chinese landscape painting in which the classical Chinese perspective of three varied planes of depth are evident. In this same way, Bali Girl adheres this formula of three dominant planes demarcated by the table of scattered frangipani flowers in the foreground, the female figure in the middle ground, while the decorative foliage and the penjor – a long ornamental bamboo pole woven out of coconut leaves found across Bali before the religious Hindu ceremony Galungan – make up the background. The soft delineated lines of the harmoniously geometric monochromatic background, which has its roots in ethnic modernist geometry – a culmination of Cheong’s forays into different styles and techniques – is off-set by the vibrant colours of the traditional Kamen skirt worn by the Balinese woman, the central figure in this present narrative.

At the same time, in Bali Girl, we see Cheong Soo Pieng using the archetypal Western technique of perspectival illusion of depth created by a window sill or table – known as trompe loeil – in the foreground of the painting, like a window into a space filled with mystery. However, at the same time, he eschews realist techniques in favour of a more simplified stylistic quality. Indeed, even comparing his female figures of Cheong’s earlier paintings produced during his inaugural Bali trip, such as Balinese Girls with Offerings, one can see that Bali Girl exhibits more exaggerated physical proportions: her limbs are highly elongated and her elbow bends in an acute angle, her face an angular oval shape, with almond lidded-eyes and arched eyebrows – a stylistic feature of his late works often attributed to the influence of Javanese shadow puppets known as Wayang Kulit found in Java and Bali. The works of this later period for Cheong, seeks more to capture the mood of the life in Nanyang, and Bali Girl encapsulates the calm serenity of a quiet moment of a sensitized, meditative state of preparation, as she quietly and reservedly reaches up to place flowers in her hair. The stylised forms of Cheong’s Bali Girl is not merely a formalistic device, but one that reflects the inner psychology and self-awareness in the way that they are represented with a sense of certainty.

Returning to T.K. Sabapathy’s observation of Cheong Soo Pieng’s work, Bali Girl is an artistic manifestation of the three different traditions have influenced the artist. It is not to say that Cheong merely copied from Eastern, Western or Southeast Asian traditions, but rather, he sought to achieve a style that was his own, while remaining true to the Nanyang spirit through his artistic practice.

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