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CHEONG SOO PIENG (1947-1983)
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT BRITISH PRIVATE COLLECTION
CHEONG SOO PIENG (1947-1983)

Seated Lady

Details
CHEONG SOO PIENG (1947-1983)
Seated Lady
signed and dated 'SOO PIENG 52' (upper right)
oil on canvas
80.5 x 61 cm. (31 3/4 x 24 in.)
Painted in 1952
Provenance
Private Collection, United Kingdom

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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

"I went (to) Bali on a sketching trip, and there I was fascinated by the scenery and by the Balinese women." – Cheong Soo Pieng

Cheong Soo Pieng’s works of the early 1950s are considered extremely rare and most important, with the artist only producing about a handful of oil paintings each year during this period, making them highly sought after by collectors around the world. Painted in 1952, the seminal year of the four Nanyang artist’s landmark journey to Bali, Seated Lady depicts a Balinese woman in a quiet moment of contemplation, her head resting softly on one knee. Surrounding her are various elements relating to everyday life: a bokor filled with offerings, an intricately carved architectural panel and sculpture of the guardian spirit Bhoma, all articulated in fine detail, expressing his interest in the rich material culture of the Balinese people. We know from his private collection of souvenirs from his encounters with the various ethnic communities of the region during Cheong’s travels, that these objects were a deep and meaningful source of inspiration. Indeed, looking at some of the works towards the end of his career, such as Sarawak Ladies, we see a heightened resurgence in his interest towards local cultural artefacts and practices as evidenced by the attention to detail paid to the sarong pattern and traditional accessories such as ear weights and tapung eno (traditional headdress), signalling that this was not merely a romanticisation of other cultures, but a deep respect and understanding of them.

Cheong's representations of Southeast Asia were often populated with the forms of women, whose comfort and ease in their natural form and beauty provided an exotic and refreshing base of artistic inspiration. Traditionally, women formed the core of domestic life and provided Cheong with a greater comprehension of practices of the cultures he so keenly observed. Looking at Seated Lady, the lone figure takes up the greatest part of the picture, reinforcing her centrality. Figures at rest are an iconic visual trope frequently revisited by the artist, due partially to his desire to achieve a subject in a relaxed a state, but also as a signifier of the hard work and labour of the people that Cheong sought to capture in his work.

In Seated Lady, the Balinese architectural element carved with a floral motif acts as a repoussoir, which Cheong combines with diagonal outline of the raised platform that the bokor is placed on to link our space with the figure’s, drawing us into her world. The female subject strikes an enthralling form with contours delineated in fluid and elegant strokes, while the textural elements around her contrast with the expansive smoothness of her skin, accentuated through strong vivid tones. The work also exhibits Cheong’s expert knowledge of colour, with a harmonious energy achieved through his bold use of brightly-hued tones of vermillion in the background and in the intricate motif of the bokor to complement the cooler tones of the figure’s mauve sarong. The heavy use of black is a hallmark of Cheong’s style during this period, signalling the influence of Western Modern movements such as Fauvism, Surrealism and Cubism. The mask-like features of the figure in Seated Lady achieved through strong outlines and harsh contrasts parallels that of Henri Matisse’s nudes, while the broad areas of relatively flat colours that display subtle variations seem to draw inspiration from the painting technique of Paul Gauguin. The spatial order of intermingling panes of colour hints at the Cubist movement developed by artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. However, this did not mean Cheong tried to mimic the work of Western artists, but rather only appropriated aspects that suited his own purposes in order to achieve a unique personal style.

Seated Lady demonstrates Cheong’s ability to masterfully combine colour, form and expression, establishes the artist's distinct contribution to the Nanyang Style, and affirms his sensitivity and respect towards the traditions and people of the Southeast Asian region. Fresh to market, this work marks the beginning of Cheong’s lifetime of continuous innovation and experimentation, which would pave the way for future developments and artistic breakthroughs throughout his career, earning him his place as one of the foremost artists of his generation.

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