Lee Man Fong’s paintings of the Indonesian landscapes and local culture and traditions are highly regarded for their artistic significance in the emergence of the country’s modern art movement. Though he was born in China, and moved as a young child to Singapore, it was the artist’s relocation to Java in the thirties that influenced his visual language and established his creative legacy. The importance of the present painting Up The Slope
is not only relevant within the artist’s own prodigious oeuvre but also in the historical context; it also serves as a homage to Xu Beihong, whom Lee Man Fong had held in high regard, while also infusing his own individuality and personal experiences. As a distinguished art historian wrote, “Xu Beihong’s way of combining Chinese and Western elements was to incorporate Western fixed point perspective and anatomy in traditional ink painting…While paying attention to accurate anatomical proportions and introducing fixed point perspective, Xu maintained traditional compositional qualities in his pictorial spatial structure. In contrast, Lee Man Fong wove Eastern narrative aesthetics and Southeast Asian sceneries into his Western oils.
His paintings echo Chinese ink paintings in style and composition; however by juxtaposing them against Western mediums like oil and Masonite board, he created his own visual language. Bold black, calligraphic lines are swept over delicate, almost translucent layers of muted colours set against a relatively sparse background, creating a harmonious balance between shadow and light, as well as space and form. By unifying elements of the East and the West, Lee Man Fong distinguished himself from his contemporaries, who were focused on themes of social commentaries. While the horse has been perceived as a creature of nobility, power and might in the west, it is also a signifier of power, wealth and prestige in ancient China and Central Asia.
Executed in 1943, Up The Slope is an extremely rare, early work depicting a young man dressed in a tank top and shorts ascending a slope or a hill in the wilderness. The casual attire along with the quick and loose brushwork denotes a contemporary scene. Deliberately showing the back view, Lee Man Fong directs our gaze upwards; thus the painting personifies hope, while the serene surrounding points to peace and prosperity. The background is abstractly illustrated, barely suggesting steps with faint horizontal lines. The execution marks a gentle divorce from his the more realistic depictions of his later works. The present painting highlights Lee Man Fong’s love for nature and accentuates the poignancy of an unsophisticated rustic charm.
1Xu Beihong in Nanyang, April 5 - July 13 2008, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore, 2008, p. 28 - 29