Fortune and Longevity is a work of true excellence that reaffirms Lee Man Fong’s contribution and influence as a pioneer Southeast Asian artist who created a brilliant synthesis of Eastern and Western art rarely surpassed since. Completed in 1951 inHolland, during the most pivotal years of the artist’s career, it is a painting that embodies the essence of Lee’s soul, painterly skill, and innovative mind.
Lee Man Fong’s trip toHollandin 1947 began with serendipity. The artist had won a grant to study in The Hague on the recommendation of the then-Acting Governor General of the Dutch East Indies, Hubertus Johannes van Mook, and was awarded the scholarship despite having been born in China instead of the Dutch East Indies, which would normally be a pre-requisite in order to be eligible for the program. The unconventionality of the situation is a testament to Lee Man Fong’s talent and achievement.
According to anecdotes, the artist’s first show featuring impressionist style paintings received a lukewarm response, but instead of bringing him down it spurred the creative energy that gave birth to his now trademark style. In Holland Lee found a conviction to embrace his identity as an individual of many facets: China-born, Singapore-raised, Indonesian at heart. He reinterpreted his Lingnan School of Painting training by blending the past and the contemporary, retaining the structural aesthete of calligraphic paintbrush and painting scenes from life. This became his distinguishing factor and he stood out among his contemporaries. His exposure to the best artworks and museums was undoubtedly integral to his development. Hollandwas the center of the Dutch Baroque Golden Age and was home to Rembrandt van Rijn’s masterpieces, including the celebrated De Nachtwacht (The Night Watch).
True to the Lingnan style, Lee Man Fong expressed a tendency to create the atmospheric effect prevalent in Chinese style ink on paper paintings. As articulated immaculately by the present work, Fortune and Longevity, figures are outlined by bold, black calligraphic lines while seemingly diaphanous colours fill them and exemplifies the delicacy of their painterly texture. By using oil on wood panel instead of Chinese ink on paper, however, the dramatic effects brought on by strong contrasts of light and shadow as well as saturated colours is multiplied. With Lee’s western innovations this aesthetic becomes similar to Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro. Although Fortune and Longevity is set during the day, some compositional parallels can be drawn with Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch. For example, by alternating the focus and lighting between figures in the foreground, middle-ground, and background, Lee created an atmosphere and sense of perspective. He selected only a few key figures as focal points in the foreground while the silhouettes of figures and architectural outlines appear delicate and brumeux. Like in The Nightwatch, figures crowd the composition of Fortune and Longevity, but they never seem rigid. On the contrary, with light falling on the perfect elements and locations, it sets the painting’s mood and creates its dynamic fluidity. Thus he successfully balanced two opposing but complimentary methods – East and west, yin and yang – and created a visual language that is entirely his.
At 260 centimeters, or more than 8 ½ feet, long, Fortune and Longevity is one of the earliest and the most epic horizontal pieces the artist has ever completed. It is certainly the longest known work that was executed in the Chinese style and it is very likely to stand in Lee Man Fong’s historical repertoire as the precursor for his celebrated Bali Life scenes, which would be executed later on. Most large-format pieces by Lee are at most 244 centimeters in length, as the Masonite board he uses is usually prefabricated in that dimension. For the present painting, however, Lee chose to execute it on a thick wood panel, possibly for its longevity, in the manner of Flemish Renaissance artists like Pieter Breugel the Elder. The scene Fortune and Longevity unfolds a narrative featuring people from all walks of life – from playful children to wise elders, from strong farmers to nurturing women, from houses to farm animals – joined in a celebration of life. The picture plane is divided into three registers, which bears a semblance to the Flemish Renaissance masters’ penchant for composing their works into triptychs. Each part of Fortune and Longevity can stand alone as an individual work, but also flows with natural fluidity together and was rendered in meticulous detail.
At the center of the composition a crowd gathers and watches two girls and a boy dancing and playing Chinese waist drums. To balance the dominant Chinese culture with a hint of Western influence, a subtle reference to European Art History is exemplified by rendering the most prominent figure on the foreground, a boy, in contrapposto. This standing position puts most of the figure’s weight on one foot such that the shoulders and the pelvis are angled in different directions. Favored by Michelangelo when he sculpted David, for example, this pose gives the figure a more dynamic appearance and was groundbreaking in its time for using the body to express a state of mind. Mirroring him in a reverse stance, with his back showing to the viewer, is a farmer tending to his oxen. He borders the invisible division between the left and the middle registers. Mirrored pairings are repeated several times; the two dancing girls in the foreground, two boys crouching on the ground by the vegetable patch and by the qi lin, respectively. The pattern creates a sense of balance: positive and negative, yin and yang.
On the painting’s upper left Lee Man Fong boldly inscribed in Chinese a wish for a prosperous year and longevity for the people, wishing good harvest, good agricultural production, good hygienic condition, population growth, prosperity, happiness, harmonious family life, good living standards and growth of wealth. Lee Man Fong incorporated meaning into each element of the composition that would help him convey these auspicious wishes. Reminiscent of Peter Breugel the Elder’s approach in the Nederlandisch Proverbs, in which each surface is filled with pictorial versions of famous Dutch idioms such as “to have the roof tiled with tarts” (which means, to be very wealthy, illustrated on the upper left), both works depict peasant life, only Fortune and Longevity is laden with Chinese metaphors describing painting’s auspicious message. On the left side of the panel, pumpkins symbolize gold and abundance, lettuce in Chinese is the homophone of money, aubergine is deemed to be a plant to cure all sickness, kumquats symbolize prosperity, winter melons symbolize family unity, while water buffaloes augur idyllic life, harvest and fertility. Longevity is represented by the pine tree and the abundance of villagers spanning three-generations. Anchoring the composition on the right register is a statue of a qi lin, a symbol of good omen, protection, prosperity, success and longevity.
The present work is unique among Lee Man Fong’s corpus; a masterpiece that balances the East and the West, tradition and change, past and future. No known work by the artist rivals it in its scale, rarity, importance, historical context, creative and technical brilliance and ground-breaking innovation. But it is Lee’s deepest empathy for humanism that imbues Fortune and Longevity with soul and propels it as a true gem. Kept in private hands since its completion in 1951, this rediscovered treasure is offered to the public for the very first time in more than six decades and brings with it Lee Man Fong’s vision and wishes for a better life for the people; simple, idyllic and abundant with blessings.