CHEONG SOO PIENG (1917-1983)
CHEONG SOO PIENG (1917-1983)
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CHEONG SOO PIENG (1917-1983)

Nature’s Expression

CHEONG SOO PIENG (1917-1983)
Nature’s Expression
signed in Chinese and dated '1963' (lower right); signed, titled and dated Natures Expression, Soo Pieng, 1963 (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
101.5 x 153 cm. (40 1⁄8 x 60?1/4 in.)
Painted in 1963
Acquired directly from the family of the artist by the previous owner
Christie's Hong Kong, 25 May 2013, Lot 15
Acquired at the above sale by the previous owner
Private Collection, Asia

Brought to you by

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

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Lot Essay

“Soo Pieng’s sojourn in Europe brought him confidence and prestige as one of Singapore’s most sought after artists. He had made a risky decision in 1961 when he resigned from his teaching position at NAFA to become a full-time artist” - Cheong Soo Pieng: Visions of Southeast Asia (2010)

Widely acknowledged as a shining beacon and pioneer in shaping the course of modern art in Singapore, Cheong Soo Pieng has had a long and fruitful career, producing a diverse body of work that spans across a plethora of styles, medium and genres. Nature’s Expression is exemplary of his trailblazing spirit and versatility, marking a pivotal period of transition towards abstractionism during his journey across Europe in the early 1960s. Executed in 1963, this work is an exceptionally rare large single-panel format work within Cheong’s abstract oeuvre, which showcases the artist’s sheer talent and ability to demonstrate a multitude of artistic expressions. Most other examples from the same period created in larger size are usually presented within diptych or triptych formats.

Born in 1917, Xiamen, China, Cheong 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. Cheong’s artistic development is a remarkable cohesion of Eastern and Western sensibilities; a progressive vanguard of abstract experimentation and narrative ?guration combined with a keen awareness of the rapid pace of aesthetic modernity within 20th century painting. 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. His sojourns across Europe had offered him visual and intellectual inspirations in form of the works by artists such as Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, JMW Turner and more, providing a transformative impact on his artistic direction. Indeed, works produced and displayed throughout Cheong’s Europe trip re?ected a consistent aesthetic: masterful abstract landscapes with dense painterly intersections of bold vermillion, crimson or yellow backgrounds, and dense painterly intersections of black, blue and red, rendered with calligraphic intensity.

Nature’s Expression enfolds the viewer in a rich expanse of dynamic brushstrokes delineating the land formations, horizon, and sun, juxtaposed against an ochre background. Suspended in the middle of the canvas, the golden orb of the sun – the circle, a recurring motif in Cheong’s works – is bound by the land and luminous sky. The land-bound forms are particularly distinct, taking on de?ned shapes, which could be interpreted as mountain peaks in the distance. This brings to mind the work of German artist Paul Klee, whose works such as Castle and Sun, feature circles as both a visual representation of forms in nature, but also as a means to reduce complex subjects into elemental geometric forms. However, unlike Klee, most of Cheong’s abstract paintings draw from his background in Chinese ink painting traditions; he takes the pictorial tradition of Chinese landscape (Shan Shui) painting and reinterprets the three core elements of balance, form and composition. Further, where Shan Shui traditionally eschews colour, Cheong embraces it and makes it a distinct feature of his abstract paintings.

First layering crimson and cobalt pigment on to the orange base, Cheong then forms the topmost layer of Nature’s Expression with thick swathes of black paint which nearly effaces the areas of blue. What makes the work a true masterpiece is not only its scale, but the dynamic gradients of black and crimson streaking across the resplendent tangerine background, as well as the exuberant energy expressed in Cheong’s brushstrokes. Each stroke is an index of Cheong’s movements, with each turn and pause visually articulated on the canvas; sweeping lines are truncated by spontaneous paint blots. The raw dynamism of the entire composition and gestural movement of the calligraphic strokes reveal a transference of life energy and vitality of the painter to the canvas. Of the six principles that form the foundation of ink painting (liufa) as dictated by sixth-century Chinese art historian and theorist Xie, one core concept was that of “spiritual resonance and lifelike vitality” (qiyun shengdong), which is the merging between creator and creation, the transference of the painter’s own life energy to the movement of the brush and ink. A good painter could demonstrate re?ned control and virtuosic ?nesse in depicting structure and movement; an excellent painter imbued each gesture with the pace of his breathing and the rhythm of his heartbeat. Within the aspiration to portray the grandeur of nature in its most primeval form, Cheong has infused Nature’s Expression with both expressionistic fervour and pulsating life. It is the culmination of Cheong’s artistic explorations abroad, and a remarkable example of the new pictorial language that combines Chinese art concepts with a Western approach, that distinguishes him as one of the most innovative and creative modern masters to come out of Singapore.

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