The art of portraying the rural landscape is one which has traditionally been embraced by all members of the Singapore-based Nanyang School of the mid-20th century: Cheong Soo Pieng, Liu Kang, Chen Chong Swee, and Chen Wen Hsi. Within these present lots, Wild Crossing (Lot 531) and Alleyway (Lot 532) by Cheong Soo Pieng; and Beach Scene (Lot 529) and Huangshan (Lot 530), by Liu Kang, we are able to observe the strong and diverse techniques utilized by these artists in order to lucidly portray their surroundings: ranging from Southeast Asia to China, inhabited and uninhabited notions of space and place.
Liu Kang was born in Fujian but spent his early years in Malaysia where his father was a rubber merchant. He returned to China for his education, and enrolled at the Shanghai College of Fine Arts, later renamed the Xinhua Art Academy which was also attended by Nanyang School colleague Cheong Soo Pieng. Shanghai was strongly influenced by Western modernism during the 1920s and 1930s, the critical period where Liu was developing his personal style. Liu Kang continued his art education in Paris at the Academie de Grande Chaumiere from 1929 to 1933, where he was drawn to Post-Impressionists such as Cezanne, Matisse, Gaugin and Van Gogh, masters whose bold brush handling and compositional style strongly influenced his own works. Beach Scene clearly reveals Liu Kang's modernist training despite the Southeast Asian subject matter, with its flattened pictorial plane, gradient horizon, and truncated, angular forms of boats and figures. By contrast Huangshan, one of Liu's travel paintings, premises textural quality created by heavy brushwork and impasto, and a quasi-Impressionistic aesthetic, creating a lush, almost watercolour effect. Liu's technical range and has ability to move between the various interpretations of modernist style remains his most enduring characteristics.
Born in 1917, Xiamen, China, Cheong Soo Pieng studied Chinese ink painting in the Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts, and later combined this with Western concepts in the aforementioned Xinhua Art Academy in Shanghai. By the time he migrated to Singapore in 1946, he had a solid grasp of Chinese ink and Western oil painting history, techniques, pictorial formats. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Cheong continued to refine his aesthetic style through a diverse catalogue of motifs, themes, and experimentations with pictorial language and mediums. During the early 1960s, Cheong spent an extended period of time in Europe and in 1963, held a watershed exhibition with the London-based Redfern Gallery.
Alleyway, a rare and early work from 1955, is an eloquent example of Cheong's great mastery of Shanghai-Parisian modernism. It portrays a glimpse down a narrow alleyway, tightly hemmed in by buildings and shanties of juxtaposing heights and sizes. The almost Cubist formation, constrained perspective, and blocks of colour are purely European in aesthetic sensibility; yet at the same time Cheong remarkably manages to convey the shanty-town nature of Singapore life in the 1950s, verging on exploding into a bustling metropolis but still retaining a certain provincial quality through its rapid jerry-building to accommodate the ever increasing flow of migrants who came to carve out a better way of life, just like Cheong himself. Although there are no figures within this scene and it has an almost abandoned air, the frenetic quality of a rapidly modernizing Southeast Asia still permeates the composition.
By contrast, Wild Crossing is a characteristic Nanyang-style work, executed in the years following the historical Bali trip made by the artistic quartet. It reveals a more pastoral, domesticated Kampong scene; revealing an alternative perspective to Southeast Asia as seen through Cheong's eyes. The landscape depicts the back view of three villagers crossing a river, wending their way home towards the opposite bank of wooden houses on long stilts. Cheong's stylistic rendering of human forms is apparent within this work, where his classic elongated limbs and angular shapes pio can be clearly perceived. The use of soft brushstrokes and pale colours evokes a strong sense of tranquillity in this simple act of river crossing, while also suggesting the monochromatic colour scheme prevalent in Chinese traditional painting. Cheong continued to embrace this style of figurative articulation throughout his acclaimed career.