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(Singaporean, 1917-1983)
Vermilion Abstract
signed in Chinese (lower left)
oil on canvas
81 x 63 cm. (31 7/8 x 24 3/4 in.)
Anon. sale; Christie's London, South Kensington, 11 November 2011, Lot 1072
Acquired at the above by the present owner
Private Collection, Singapore

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Lot Essay

Cheong Soo Pieng's artistic development is a remarkable cohesion of Eastern and Western sensibilities; a progressive vanguard of abstract experimentation and narrative figuration combined with a keen awareness of the rapid pace of aesthetic modernity within 20th century painting. 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 Xin Hua Academy of Fine Arts 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. In 1963, the London-based Redfern Gallery organised two exhibitions by two up and coming Asian-Chinese artists: Cheong Soo Pieng and Zao Wou-ki. The works produced and displayed throughout Cheong's Europe trip reflected a consistent aesthetic: masterful abstract landscapes with dense painterly intersections of black, blue and red, rendered with calligraphic intensity. Cheong showed a distinct preference for the intersection of earth and sky, with a rising or setting sun clearly in evidence - the insignia of cyclical birth and life.
Beginning (Lot 108), painted in 1963, is a perfect representation of Cheong's endeavours. Like other works of this period, it depicts a landscape composition; however it is not portrayed as a flat linear horizon but an abstracted scene possibly reminiscent of a seascape. The cobalt ?blue sky of the background appears to reflect the tenor of the sea below, while the cresting black roils to the left of the visual plane could be the mounting waves, or overhanging majestic cliffs. The dynamic, almost turbulent nature of the centrifugal details creates a powerful force within the work. It recalls the essence of Chinese calligraphy, in which the motion and life energy of the painter is imbued into the actual composition through deeply gestural strokes and the rapid laying of paint. Beginning is an emotional journey, pulsating with life and rhythm against the forces of nature.
Vermilion Abstract (Lot 107) is another seminal abstract by Cheong. The strong swathes of black and red, against an orange background are characteristic of Cheong's landscapes. However the golden circle of the sun is bound in the middle, suspended between land and the flaming red sky. The land-bound forms are particularly distinct, taking on defined shapes which could be interpreted as mountain peaks in the distance; or even the vanishing point perspective of Chinese landscapes in hanging scroll form which run vertically rather than horizontally. Unusually, they also take the form of primitive symbols or even the pictorial hieroglyphs of the Chinese language. A man of learning and erudition, Cheong frequently employed these embedded signifiers in order to refer to the deeper historicity and culture of his Chinese-Southeast Asian background; creating vast meaning behind superb aesthetics of his works.

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