Cheong Soo Pieng’s varied artistic career can be characterised by his constant experimentation and assimilation of various styles and forms. As a result, his works possess a complexity that stems from a deep understanding and a deft application of artistic and aesthetic sensibilities inherited from both Western and Eastern traditions. In 1952, Cheong Soo Pieng traveled to Bali with fellow artists Chen Wen Hsi, Liu Kang and Chen Chong Swee and together they developed the Nanyang art style – distinctive for its rendering of Southeast Asian subjects through a fluid intermingling of artistic styles.
Between 1961 and 1963, Cheong Soo Pieng spent time living and working in Britain, and travelling around Europe. During this time, Cheong fully embraced Western styles of abstraction, and articulated this inspiration into an abstract style that combined the precision and surety of the Chinese brush with the freedom of abstract expressionism. Paysage Chinais 1 painted in 1963 is an exemplary work from this key “European period” in Cheong’s body of work.
Harmonizing the individualism and introspection of Western abstract painting together with Eastern fundamentals of spiritual peace represented through art, Cheong achieves in presenting the viewer with an abstract landscape of both Eastern and Western character. The variation between the sweeping field of sepia hues in the background, the punctuation of colour and white highlights in the mid-ground, and the deep blacks of the foreground accord the painting with a sophisticated depth that leads us inwards. The upper half of the painting utilizes techniques of light and shadow from 19th Century Western landscape painting; while the moody black ink that permeates the bottom half of the painting brings to mind the poetic touch of classical Chinese landscape painting. In the very centre, Cheong’s signature cobalt blue and orange hues stand out against the darker background, and ignite the work with vigour and joy.
Paysage Chinais 1 was painted in the same year as the triptych Nature’s Expression (Fig. 1), and contains the same subtle atmosphere thriving with vitality that can be traced to Cheong’s foundation in classical Chinese art that allowed his art to exemplify the charm and elegance of Eastern aesthetics. In Cheong’s compositions, the classical subject of the landscape is rendered with energetically precise brush strokes and a sensitive blending of colour. Time and space hang in an exquisite balance, leaving the viewer with a pure appreciation of nature.
“The most elegant of music cannot be heard, and the most magnificent image has no form.” In Cheong Soo Pieng’s abstract works, form, colour, and composition come together to present an unadulterated expression of beauty. A pioneer of modern art in Singapore, Cheong Soo Pieng’s artistic experimentation and dedication to his craft would come to shape the artistic landscape of Southeast Asia for generations to come.