LEE MAN FONG (Indonesian, 1913-1988)

Bali Life

(Indonesian, 1913-1988)
Bali Life
signed in Chinese (lower left)
oil on masonite board
100 x 243 cm. (39 5/16 x 95 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1962-1964
two seals of the artist
Commissioned directly from the artist by the present owners

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Lot Essay


Bali Life is one of the most monumental work of Lee Man Fong to appear at market and arguably the most significant 'Bali Life'-type of painting to come to auction. It is a panoramic depiction of life in a Balinese community, where agriculture, social and ritual life is tightly interwoven, and where the relationship between people and the land is intricately linked in a way that is manifested in their ceremonies and rituals, vastly different from the modern urban life as we know it. Though Lee Man Fong has never lived in Bali for a considerable period of time as he did in Batavia (Jakarta) and Singapore, he was, as with many artists from the Southeast Asian region and beyond, enchanted by the way of life and culture of Bali.

Religion and ceremonies are a large part of the Balinese culture and define the lives of most Balinese people. Unlike the majority of Indonesia, which follows the Islamic faith, over 90 percent of Bali's population follow the Balinese Hinduism religion. Temples, offerings of food and flowers, incense and images in the arts and crafts are all signs of the island's faith. Life in Bali is communal in its most essential form, with the organization of villages, farming and even the creative arts being decided by the community. The banjar, is a community organization seen in all villages and towns in Bali and seeks the participation of each person living within its precinct. The banjar arranges all village festivals, marriage ceremonies and cremations, and forms of community service. Most villages have at least one banjar and all males have to join one when they marry. Banjars, on average, have a membership of between 50 to 100 families and each banjar has its own meeting place called the bale banjar (pavillion). As well as being used for regular meetings, the bale is where the local gamelan orchestras and drama groups practice.

Bali Life presents a rousing and romantic moment in a banjar's preparation for a ritual. Lee Man Fong's tableau vivant of life in Bali begins from the left, where the Barong, the mythological protective animal spirit of the village is being tended to by the elderly (and presumably wisest) male village chief. The Barong depicted is a Barong Ket which traces its root to pre-Hindu traditions. With its wonderfully elaborate mask, it is a distinct cousin of the Chinese lion mask. The Barong Ket often has a beard made of human hair and the beard is considered the most powerful part of the mask. Lee Man Fong echoes the Barong's beard with the beard of the old man, its custodian. Nearby, under the protection of the Barong, a boy and girl play peacefully amidst feeding piglets, fowls, chicks and a resting dog.

Towards the middle of the pictorial ground, preparations are being made for a ritual that will presumably take place soon after. Offerings, comprising of brightly coloured fruits and sweet foodstuff, obtained from the natural bounty of Bali's forests and farms, are then wrapped and arranged in elaborate, elegant tiers that are then carried at ritual. A group of Balinese beauties tend over the preparation of these offerings which Balinese believe re-energises the earth and balances out the dominance of good and evil, keeping harmonious balance in the world.

In the meantime, men are at work in the fields, one of them is particular heroically depicted, standing with upright assurance, commanding a hoe in his right hand, ensuring the continued sustenance for his banjar. All round this close knit banjar community is fertility and bountifulness, from the lushly growing flowers and shrubs in the foreground to the beautifully rendered overhanging banyan tree on the left of the painting and the splendorous broad banana leaves on the right. A Balinese column is painted rising out of the picture plane in the middle ground - a symbol of the preservation and continued flourishing of life and cultural expression in the banjar. With Bali Life, Lee Man Fong has achieved one of the most sterling and complete representation of life in a Balinese banjar. Of extreme rarity is the depiction of the Barong, and the carefully orchestrated composition that reins in both human life, in different generations, and animal life to speak of a completeness and preservation of life and culture in the banjar.

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