Born in Xiamen, China, in 1917, Cheong Soo Pieng received formal art education in traditional Chinese ink painting at the Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts, and later attended the Xin Hua Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai where he was exposed to modern Western artistic styles such as abstraction, cubism and surrealism.
Cheong Soo Pieng was a key member of the pioneer group of artists responsible for the establishment and development of the Nanyang style of art in Singapore in the early 1950s. With his proficiency in various art styles, and the ability to express them with a local sensitivity, Cheong Soo Pieng’s body of work has been integral in tracing the influence of Chinese, as well as Western art in the history of 20th century painting in Southeast Asia.
Arriving in Singapore in 1946, Cheong Soo Pieng sought a continuation of the modern Chinese art movement that was taking place in Shanghai within his new surroundings in tropical Southeast Asia. Along with his contemporaries; Chen Chong Swee, Liu Kang, and Chen Wen Hsi, who became the founding members of what became known as the ‘Nanyang school’; the style of art that emerged through the work of these Chinese émigrés was largely concerned with the integration of traditional Chinese art forms with modern developments in Western art, depicting the vivid context of Southeast Asia as their main subject matter.
Travelling to Bali in 1952, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi, Liu Kang, and Chen Chong Swee fully immersed themselves in the rich ritual and cultural history of the country, and produced some of the most striking works in their artistic careers. The trip, lauded as a watershed moment in Singapore’s art history, launched these artists on a new trajectory in their artistic endeavors, and their works would forever reference the colour, movement, and vitality of life they experienced there. Following in the footsteps of artists such as the Belgian painter Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès, who came before them in search of inspiration, the trip to Bali was regarded as an important pilgrimage and rite of passage that served to eventually cement the affinity for Southeast Asia in the hearts and minds of the four pioneer artists.
Given the fluidity of national boundaries at the time, Singapore was considered as a part of the larger Malayan peninsula, and the search for a means of representing Southeast Asia as a region was at the forefront of these artist’s minds even more so than a desire to capture a strictly ‘Singaporean’ identity. It was only after their return from Bali that the artists gained the confidence to meld and integrate varied artistic styles and influences, that the Nanyang style of art became more distinct. Coupled with the run-up to Singapore’s national independence in 1965, the notion of multiculturalism and the importance of developing a national identity eventually became more articulated.
Following Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès’ exhibition at the YWCA in Singapore in 1933, the pioneer artists became enamoured with Le Mayeur’s vision of Southeast Asia. The dappled light, rich colours, and depictions of ritual life captured by Le Mayeur’s brush sparked their imaginations, and it was decided that they would embark on a trip together to Bali in search of artistic inspiration. The artists were not to be disappointed, and found themselves immersed in the idyllic natural environment of Bali where bare-breasted women and lean, muscled men went about their daily tasks with an uncalculated grace. The artists would sketch together outdoors, making quick records of peoples or scenes that caught their attention. For those who favoured painting in oil such as Cheong Soo Pieng and Liu Kang, these sketches would be transformed into breathtaking canvas paintings upon their return to Singapore. Those with a preference for the medium of watercolour, like Chen Chong Swee, might produce works on the spot, or at their leisure during the trip.
Balinese Dance can be considered as a key masterwork from within Cheong Soo Pieng’s vast and varied body of work. It is certainly one of the largest works on canvas executed in the early 1950s, and is telling of Cheong’s ambition and passion for his subject. The work is visually striking with its rich, intense palette, and is executed with a boldness of vision. The Leak, a fearsome figure from Balinese mythology dominates the centre of the composition, his red lolling tongue and monochromatic body a striking contrast against a turquoise night sky. Cheong has chosen to paint a moment of high drama in Balinese ritual and culture – depicting what would be an immediately recognizable dance. The specter of the Leak is disrupted only by his distinctly human feet that betray the pageantry of the event. An ochre ceremonial umbrella and a tall ceremonial torch frames the scene, and reveals to us the festive mood of the scene.
In the foreground, the shapely backs of two women are also part of the dance – their glittering headdresses, colourful costumes and fans creating a contrast against the form of the Leak. The four pioneer artists had hoped that they too, like Le Mayeur, would find their muse in Bali. For Le Mayeur, the beautiful Ni Pollock who would eventually become his wife, was a source of endless joy and artistic inspiration – he painted her repeatedly, often duplicating her form enacting varying gestures and postures. For the pioneer artists, it was to be Souri, the beautiful Balinese dancer whom they would paint in turn. A key piece painted by Liu Kang currently in the National collection of Singapore depicts a similar back-view of Souri in brilliant colour, and was likely in reference to the same moment captured by Cheong here.
The perspective of the painting puts us directly in Cheong’s viewpoint, where he was perhaps seated or standing in a circle of spectators around the performance whom are depicted in the background behind the Leak. From this vantage point, we can almost hear the pulsing beat of the music, feel the frenetic dance of the Leak, and imagine being entranced by the elegant and fluid movements of Souri and the second dancer on her left. Experiencing this height of ritual performance in Bali must have left a deep impact on Cheong and his companions, as both he and Liu Kang would return to Singapore to produce iconic masterpieces that would forever immortalize the moment.
Balinese Dance stands out as one of the most significant works of Cheong’s artistic career, and encapsulates the strength of emotion and passion that the pioneer artists felt towards their time spent in Bali. They would return to Singapore refreshed, and with a renewed dedication towards a ceaseless innovation in their individual artistic practices.
An early indication of the technical mastery and artistic vision that would earn Cheong his place as one of the foremost artists of his generation, Balinese Dance allows us a rare, early glimpse into the early inspiration and ambition of this key figure in Singapore’s art history.