Lee Man Fong
- Lee Man Fong
- Laut dengan Deburan Ombaknya (Breaking the Waves)
- Signed, stamped with the seal of the artist and dated 1960
- Oil on board
Private Collection, Indonesia
Private Collection, Hong Kong
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Dreaming my way to the capital am I.
What a trying journey! Such a trying journey!
So full of forked paths before, now where are the ways?
There shall come a day with gusty winds to help cleave through the waves,
For me to make full sail and an open boundless sea navigate.
- Li Bai, "A Trying Journey I of III"
Much of Lee Man Fong’s collection of paintings was influenced by his time in Indonesia, notably the years spent in Bali as an artist in residence upon the island. His oeuvre is a reflection of his foreign status amongst the Balinese, the artist actively involved in the village traditions and cultures that inspired the daily interactions of local life. As a Chinese immigrant originally from Guangzhou, Lee Man Fong’s paintings provide insight into his Asian heritage that was further complimented by the island’s lush landscape and wildlife that found themselves redefined within the paintings. An individual with a keen appreciation for the flora and fauna of the island environment, the artist’s paintings may be seen as a visual diary of his experiences and appreciation for culture that was not his own.
Lee Man Fong was known for his animal paintings that were inspired by the island’s wildlife. Many of these works favoured animals that were popular in Chinese folklore, such as goldfish, horses, tigers, and doves. As an artist who sought to replicate the natural beauty of the external landscape within the compositions of his paintings, these works were a romanticised ideal of Mother Nature. Regarding his landscape paintings, however, Lee Man Fong was not that prolific with works that were solely dedicated to the archipelago’s grandeur and greenery.
Therefore the present painting entitled Laut dengan Deburan Ombaknya (Breaking the Waves) is a rare work from the artist’s oeuvre, for it is a sweeping depiction of the ocean, void of any figures or recognisable landmarks, thereby absent of distractions that may disarm the visual power of the waves as they repeatedly crash onto the sand. It may be said that Laut dengan Deburan Ombaknya (Breaking the Waves) is the artist’s portrayal of the natural wonders that the island held for him. Thus the painting is a special piece from his oeuvre, and is a revealing look into Lee Man Fong’s personal interactions with the island of Bali.
While he was a Chinese artist whose ancestry was evident throughout his career, Lee Man Fong’s dedicated much of his life to painting another culture. This pairing of two juxtaposing Asian traditions established a grouping of subject matters, motifs, and aesthetics that was very much unique to his artistic expression. Throughout the paintings inspired by Bali, he continued to inherently express his Eastern painterly ideals, however placed them within another country’s artistic paradigm and aesthetics. The present work exemplifies this pairing of cultures, for though the ocean is distinctly that surrounding Bali, the composition and detail of the waves alludes to classical Chinese paintings of similar subject matter.
It should be noted that prior to his journey to Bali, Lee Man Fong traveled to Europe in the early forties. The artist was awarded the prestigious Malino Fellowship in 1946 that allowed him to study in Holland and familiarise himself with Western art history. During his time there he found solace in certain artists who emulated his own creative principles. Rembrandt was one individual whose works had a lasting impression upon Lee Man Fong's paintings. Notably the application of light and shadows, as well as building a sense of depth in the composition. To create a specific mood within a painting, Lee Man Fong appropriated the methods of Western artists and redefined them within an Asian framework. Thereby establishing a cross cultural play of Asian motifs with Western aesthetics.
The artist’s commitment to beauty and representing certain archetypes in the paintings further established Lee Man Fong as an individual whose oeuvre was cemented in the stories of the people whom he met and the environment that he had an intimate connection with. Therefore Laut dengan Deburan Ombaknya (Breaking the Waves) further solidifies his appreciation for the Balinese landscape, the painting a pictorial depiction of man’s relationship with the physical environment.
Reminiscent with other marine paintings that are a homage to Mother Nature, the present work surpasses its landscape motif to touch upon the metaphorical relationship between man and his natural environment. Within the Chinese philosophy of Wu Xing there are five elements that govern human existence: earth, fire, metal, wood, and water. The latter of this grouping signifies fluidity and movement, the ability to adjust and take on any challenges by being malleable to the forces that may arise.
Therefore as an artist Lee Man Fong’s creative expression may have found a voice in Western art history, but it was his Chinese heritage that largely defined his painterly methods and aesthetics. Laut dengan Deburan Ombaknya (Breaking the Waves) acts as a witness to these two cultures coming together to unify their ideals within the narrative. As a painting Laut dengan Deburan Ombaknya (Breaking the Waves) is a commentary on man’s innate respect and awe towards Mother Nature. However stylistically it is demonstrative of the artist’s talents as a painter who embraced Western aesthetics and appropriated these means within a Balinese framework.
Therefore Laut dengan Deburan Ombaknya (Breaking the Waves) is reflective of Lee Man Fong's responsibility as an artist who empathised with foreign cultures and was able to depict these new worlds within his paintings. As an individual who was gifted with an outsider status throughout his time in Bali, Lee Man Fong proved that it was his desire to become acquainted with the world around him that established the artist as a key figure in the emergence of modern art in Indonesia.