A testament to his Chinese lineage, the present work is an accolade of Man Fong’s distinctive style of painting that provides insight into the daily lives of the Balinese from a foreign perspective. The background is blanketed with a layer of hazy colors: the typical long, sinuous tree branches, as well as the shanshui (traditional Chinese style of painting with brush and ink) imbues a dreamlike quality and echoes the artistic style of xieyi (Chinese freehand painting) often executed in “aerial” (or “atmospheric”) perspective. By depicting objects in the distance as paler and in less detail than those in the foreground, the technique conveys a recession in space that results in an illusion of depth. A unique piece amalgamating multiple narratives, the artist leads the eye on an undulating yet continuous journey from one end of the piece to the other, by staggering his figures in an assemblage across the breadth of the work. Man Fong also draws strongly from Western notions of perspective, allowing him to demonstrate proportion and generate a sense of movement within the panoramic vista. Some figures appear to move into the picture plane, while others remain utterly placid and unaware in their various poses. In the marriage of Eastern metaphors and Western techniques, Lee Man Fong presents his audience with a harmonious culmination of this dichotomy.
Bali Life presents a romantic portrayal of the highly specialized village life, surrounded by a sense of tranquility and serenity. The maestro depicts the island’s inhabitants with soft curves and exquisite contours on the idealized women, while the men are boastfully yet willingly toiling away at their arduous tasks. The female figures are highly pigmented in their execution; a stark contrast to the way in which the male figures are depicted. As they flock together towards the center foreground of the painting in an intimate, circular congregation, the work becomes suggestive of the artist’s innate respect for womanhood. Man Fong not only recognized the elegance and charm of the female spirit, but also celebrated their contributions as the matriarchs and nurturers of their society. Rendered in an earthy bronzed palette, the skin of the subjects appears to glow healthily against the backdrop of the afternoon sun, and, together with illustrations of life’s essentials including food, tools and containers, Man Fong conveys a compelling sense of nourishment, vitality and prosperity that seemingly washes over the people.
When documenting the locale, Man Fong paid particular attention to the specific gesticulations of each figure. Gathered women, deep in performing their tasks, or a beautiful maiden in a kneeling position captivatingly gazing into the distance results in an impeccably observed piece that is animated with life and optimism. Their downcast eyes and sincere smiles are gifted with attention by the painter to exude a feeling of tranquility and contentment in an otherwise exotic and theatrical setting. In the background, there appears to be a graceful camaraderie between the male inhabitants and a boy, breezily riding on a wild buffalo that seems to ethereally float in midair. In the same vain as other pieces within the limited and highly coveted Bali Life series, Man Fong provides a snapshot of an idyllic, rustic existence where man, woman, child and animal can coexist in harmony.
The piece functions as a vehicle of the artist’s desire to showcase the various archetypes of island life, an affinity he developed after having lived in the tropics and garnering an understanding of the Balinese people themselves. While Man Fong utilized a combination of Eastern and Western techniques, he did not allow himself to be bound by their formalities and took liberties to augment his work with a progressive, personal flavor. Lee Man Fong was relentless in his desire to bespeak a contemporary aesthetic, and in doing so, has become a true embodiment of what it means to be a Chinese reformist painter. Standing at the pinnacle of the artist’s significant legacy, the present lot is a true testament to the panoramic masterworks of the highly rare and sought after Bali Life series.
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