Upon their return from Bali, the pioneer artists embarked on a new period of artistic experimentation. For Cheong Soo Pieng, it was marked most clearly by a dedication to discovering a means through which to accurately express and represent the essential feeling of life in Southeast Asia. As residents of Singapore, a further endeavor was to capture the particular unique scenes and aspects of Singapore. Cheong Soo Pieng in particular, would seek out individuals and scenes of everyday life beyond the studio in search of inspiration. Cheong’s early interpretations of Singaporean scenes have endured to the present day, where they continue to resonate as iconic and nostalgic pieces of Singapore’s visual history.
The present lot is unique for its medium of oil and linen mounted on paper. The thin, gauze-like material upon which Cheong painted would allow the oil to seep through to the layer of paper laid beneath, and for the texture of the linen to show through the paint layer as well. The end result is the extremely vibrant preservation of colour, and an intriguing balance between the delicate combination of paper and thin linen, and the textures of the linen upon close inspection. An artist for whom the material and physical attributes of an artwork and its frame were exceedingly important, this work from 1951 is an exceptional example of Cheong’s innovation.
The busy composition of the scene situates the viewer amidst the bustle of activity by the docks. A small fishing boat captures our attention in the left foreground of the painting. The forms of fishing nets full from a day’s work can be seen resting on the docks, their proportionality looming larger than the men themselves. Juxtaposed with this is the presence of larger boats filling up the background of the painting, and reaching back into the horizon. Not one to paint faithful representations from life, By the Docks can perhaps be read as Cheong’s visual commentary on the point of intersection between traditional modes of livelihood in the forms of the fishermen and their catch, and the advent of new modes of industry represented by the larger junk boats. An astute observation at the historical point of Singapore in the 50s, the work can be seen as an important bookmark in Singapore’s art historical, as well as national history.
A similar work, Seaside (1951) resides in Singapore’s national collection, and presents an idyllic scene of kampong life and community. The figures in both paintings veer towards semi-abstraction, finding themselves in the in-between of cubism and figuration. The elements in both paintings are outlined with a halo of white paint, a style that would become iconic in the thick black outlines of Liu Kang’s paintings. A testament to the camaraderie and artistic synergy between the pioneer artists of the time, we see an early iteration of the style here. Cheong painted very few of such works, and they are exclusively limited to works executed during the early 1950s.