During the early fifties, Cheong and other Singaporean peers travelled to Bali for the first time. While many European artists were enthralled by the lush landscapes and rich cultures of Bali and created romanticized depictions of the island, the artist drew inspiration from the archipelago in other ways, “[rediscovering] timeless elements within a localized landscape and community that would translate effortlessly into his ever-new art.”1 Although he was a Chinese artist whose education was predominantly influenced by classical Chinese calligraphy and painting, Cheong’s trip to Bali inspired him to incorporate a new layer of complexity in his artistic expression and images found in the local culture, such as the patterns in batik textiles and wayang shadow puppets, frequented Cheong’s paintings. With new attention to composition and mood, the artist’s creative outlook after this trip changed dramatically and had a permanent influence on his career.
Two Women with Fruits was created a year after his second return to Bali. A culmination of favored motifs and expressions, the present work is a reinvention of “existing forms and highlight elements that would further define the characteristics of his ethnic Modern Art."2 Cheong makes great use of his trademark features here, notably in the almond-lidded eyes and long thin limbs inspired by Balinese shadow puppets. This work is special in its composition because it is one of the few paintings featuring two Balinese women in a standing position. Typically, the artist’s depictions of Balinese women are seated and engaged in some form of activity. This nuanced gesture of standing dramatically changes the mood of the work as the two maidens relish in the lush forest landscape with a certain gravitas that belies a representation of rural life.
As per his later works, the human figures appear flat in the absence of shadows but are given perspective through his melodious arrangement of colors. This use of iridescent gold paint in this particular work is absolutely dazzling, providing the work with a sense of richness akin to Byzantine mosaics. “In my paintings, color in the subject is the main theme. I always work on the main subject first and then put in the foreground and background, the colors in which are of secondary importance. It is creation of harmony of colors and variation in tones which are my main objects in painting. I paint when I am in the mood, but I would stay at one subject for days, if necessary, to complete the expression of the idea in my mind.”3 The vividness of the sarongs and the contrastingly bright hues of the fruits bring the two women to the foreground, directing the viewer’s gaze to his subjects while anchoring their angelic image to the Balinese countryside. The multitude of leaves painted in bright gold in the pointillist manner adds a shimmer that is similar to Gustav Klimt’s works in his ‘golden phase.’ Like in Klimt’s The Kiss, the present work’s use of gold colors in a patterned manner invokes classical western styles seen in early mosaics and illuminated manuscripts. The overall harmony of Cheong’s artistic choices establishes a serenity that emits from the work cementing the artist’s desire to capture the mystical beauty of bucolic scenes.
Rarely does one come across such a glistening, gold masterpiece from Cheong’s oeuvre, featuring his most charming motifs. Cheong devoted his lifetime painting the humanistic qualities that touched him deeply during his second journey to Bali. Drawing inspirations from the rich cultures and verdant landscapes of the region, the artist’s paintings evoke an inexplicable utopian sentiment as seen in this elegant representation of two Balinese maidens amidst a luscious naturalistic background. Actively experimenting with opposing mediums and motifs, Cheong produced an oeuvre that was an innovative blend of Asian Traditions with Western School of thought, being “about a way of thinking and expressing modernity, [and a] conscious effort to make new art for a new kind of belonging, a new way of seeing the world.”4 Cheong’s career had a lasting influence upon the country’s creative maturation and his opus serves as a concise study of Singapore’s appropriation of modernist aesthetics set into an Eastern framework.
1 Bridget Tracy Tan, Cheong Soo Pieng Exhibition: Bali 1977, Nanyang academy of Fine Arts, Singapore, 2013. P.130
2 Bridget Tracy Tan, Cheong Soo Pieng Exhibition: Bali 1977, Nanyang academy of Fine Arts, Singapore, 2013. P.130
3 Cheong Soo Pieng, The Singapore Artist: Journal of the Singapore Art Society, Singapore, 1954, p.27
4 Soo Pieng, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore, 2013, p.143
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