Art Retreat, Lee Man Fong: Oil Paintings Volume II, Art Retreat Ltd., Singapore, 2005, P.99 Colorplate
The present work aptly titled Bali Life is reminiscent of the schools of thought that colored the history of Chinese classical paintings, such as the Xieyi or expressionistic style that achieved recognition during the Ming dynasty. The Chinese painter Qi Baishi was a key influence in Lee Man Fong’s creative education, and himself largely inspired by the painter Xu Wei who was one of the pioneers of the Xieyi style. The ink on paper work Pine (Ref. 1) is demonstrative of these aesthetics, and hints to Lee Man Fong’s future studies of his own natural environment. The philosophy behind Xieyi focused upon animated ink strokes to enhance the emotions that existed within classical depictions of landscape, human interactions, or scenes of wildlife. This incorporation of freehand strokes enabled artists to capture the innate energy within their subject matters. Throughout Lee Man Fong’s career many of his artworks were painted in such fashion.
The artist’s choice of medium, however, renders Bali Life a unique piece from his body of works. Lee Man Fong rarely painted on canvas, with many of his oil pieces found on Masonite or wooden boards instead. In 1941 he visited Bali for the first time, and it was during this trip where he discovered the themes that would come to populate his oeuvre. The earlier renditions of Bali Life (Ref. 2 and Ref. 3) show the artist experimenting with classical Chinese aesthetics applied to a Balinese narrative.
As an immigrant living in Southeast Asia, Lee Man Fong found solace in the region’s vibrant heritage that reminded the artist of his early childhood in Guangzhou. Though the topography and traditions were seemingly different, it was these particular nuances that were gifted attention within his works. “Paintings are the flowers of cultures. They speak without words. They are not limited by time, nationality, or language. They have souls of their own”, the artist said2. This is especially visible in works dedicated to man's relationship with his natural environment, such as the work Up The Slope (Ref. 4), which is an intimate portrayal of a boy and his horse.
It was the early successes in his career that awarded Lee Man Fong the respected Malino Fellowship in 1946 allowing him to study in Holland, and experience firsthand Western art museums. The latter would have a profound influence upon his techniques and styles, for it was during this six-year period where the artist finessed his skills with oil paints and other like materials. Dutch artists such as Rembrandt also played a role upon future works, notably with the analysis of light and shadows, as well as staged scenes to accentuate the visual narrative.
Bali Life is reflective of these desired “theatrics” that were prevalent in historical paintings celebrated by European masters. Reminiscent of Rembrandt’s famed painting The Night Watch (Ref. 5), the present work depicts a gathering of people all engaged in specific activities, unaware or unwilling to entice a dialogue with the viewer. Archetypes of island existence, Lee Man Fong grouped together individuals who perpetuated his tropical-inspired narratives as experienced through the daily lives of Balinese villagers. Painted a few years after his return to Bali, Rojak Seller (Ref. 6) is an early example of the artist’s learned techniques with oil painting paired together with the island’s existence. The present work is a culmination of this East-West dichotomy, for “Chinese painting stresses brushwork, [while Western] …painting stresses touch”3.
Created late in his career and seven years after he had returned to Singapore in 1967, Bali Life is a romantic portrayal of the island’s inhabitants shown against the backdrop of the afternoon sun. It may be said that the artist “…does not treat light as an end in itself. Here the subject matter is held with the same importance as the task of describing the atmosphere surrounding it” 4. This too is reminiscent of the visual display in Landscape with a Castle (Ref. 7) that by itself may be more of a dissection of light and shadows, than an accurate portrayal of a European countryside. Bali Life can be seen in a similar construct as well.
The present painting is ultimately the artist’s homage to the island that inspired him throughout his lifetime. A marriage of Eastern aesthetics with Western tools, Bali Life is birthed from the artist’s want to blend these foreign ideals into a sound portrayal of a locale that was both muse and collaborator to his creative evolution. “When an artist paints, he ought to have the image well in his heart in order to create the ideational realm which startles viewers (with its beauty)”, Lee Man Fong said5.
1. Michelle Loh, The Oil Paintings of Lee Man Fong: The Pioneer Artist of Indonesia and Singapore, Beyond Colours, Singapore, 2014, p. 11.
2. Refer to 1, p. 6.
3. Refer to 1, p. 9.
4. Refer to 1, p. 7.
5. Refer to 1.
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