Southeast Asian artist Lee Man Fong was enraptured by the universality of art, a philosophy that strongly resonated throughout his illustrious career. An opus that transcended cultural boundaries, Lee’s works were an exquisite syncretism of Eastern aesthetics with Western sensibilities. Unparalleled in imagination, soul and aptitude, Lee sparked an innovative and ground-breaking vernacular that distinguished the artist as one of the most celebrated masters of his generation.
Lee’s historic rise began as a self-taught artist before his talents were recognized by the Dutch colonial government in 1947. At the age of 34, the artist was awarded the prestigious Malino scholarship to study in Holland, precipitating a pivotal moment in his burgeoning career. The years spent overseas exposed the Guangzhou native to an extensive catalogue of Western art, his formal education leaving an indelible impression upon his later works.
Completed in Holland in 1947, Dutch Girl on Ice was conceived during Lee’s early years in the Netherlands, yet the painting already expressed an acute understanding of Western visual traditions. Lee renders the full-length portrait in oil paints, dexterously adapting the Western medium to imitate the characteristics of Chinese ink painting. A vision of elegance, the Dutch girl is posed in dark winter clothes, her vermillion hair and distinctive brown Dutch shoes set in vivid contrast against her attire. The exemplar work of Western and Eastern blends is a rare piece in Lee’s immense portfolio, preluding his eventual maturity into the Nanyang style that would come to trademark his storied career.
Dutch Girl on Ice is a testament to Lee’s fluency with the Eastern visual language, composing the Dutch scene with the structural elegance of Chinese brushwork. The top of the coat is repeatedly layered with loose daubs of wet paint, its unrestrained form referencing the mogu (boneless) technique found in traditional Chinese art. The absence of formal outlines enhances the coat’s lifelike quality, relying on its indistinctive texture to capture the fur in abstract detail. Lee transitions from the dense veneer into a diaphanous wash of grey that binds the lower half of the coat with fluid, darkened brushstrokes. The resulting effect is a portrait that bridges the divide between a Western reality and Chinese abstraction. Lee’s skillful wielding of the brush mirrors the subtle intricacies of Chinese ink with an oil medium, asserting his expertise from both ends of the spectrum. Even in a Western setting, the portrait possesses a distinctive Chinese character through the virtuosity of his brushwork alone.
In a stylistic departure from traditional Chinese figurative paintings, Lee incorporates influences of Western realism into his portrait. The Dutch girl’s features are rendered with an Eastern touch, her delicate countenance echoing the refined grace of her East Asian contemporaries. Her blushing skin is made visible through translucent washes of pink, responding towards the bitter wintry landscape that surrounds her. Energized by the new artistic landscape of Holland, the present lot captures Lee’s growing inclination towards the naturalism of the West, providing a harmonious counterbalance to the painting’s notably Eastern disposition. The artist’s sensitivity towards the nuances of each culture’s traditions manifests in a complementary dichotomy of aesthetic sensibilities, creating a masterpiece that emanates with cross-continental appeal.
Over the course of Lee’s celebrated oeuvre, the painter maintained a great fidelity to Eastern philosophy. The portrait is a refined embodiment of the interdependent relationship between nature and man, establishing a natural rapport between the girl and her environment. In a subtle display of congeniality, Lee demonstrates a consciousness of fundamental Chinese patterns, such as yin and yang. The vast wintry landscape befits the girl’s bulky winter attire, their relationship forming a cohesive picture of unity. Grounding the horizon with light washes of grey, the gentle implication of ice transforms the negative space behind the girl into a snowy vista. The simplicity of Lee’s brushwork underpins his expert familiarity with the nuances of Chinese brush styles, evoking an entire scenery through the ingenuity of his brush. Together, the minimalistic setting works in tandem with the girl, producing an image that exemplifies nature and man as a cosmic whole.
The time that Lee had spent in Holland was a cathartic rebirth for the artist’s creative energy that allowed him to paint freely without the formal constraints of commercial work. Fondly recognized as his period of ‘pure art’, the conducive setting was integral in setting the foundation for the artist’s inimitable style. Surpassing boundaries of language, nationality and culture, his works possess a universal lexicon that appealed to an international audience.
 Ho Kung Shang, The Oil Paintings of Lee Man Fong, Taipei,1984, p. 6
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