A pristine example of the artist’s attempt to study the very foundations of form, Opera Scene is an early exposé of still life. By selecting an assortment of seemingly mundane objects, the artist reduces the onus of expectation, allowing him to concentrate primarily on the treatment of line, space and colour. The picture plane zooms in on miscellaneous items stacked on shelves. The artist paints an inner square within each ledge, providing the interior areas with the illusion of three-dimensionality. The crammed spaces within the shelves provide the perfect stage to study the variegated effects of light and shadow. Below the cabinet is a tiled floor receding into a vanishing point, further permeating the work with a sense of depth.
By reducing the details of his composition, Cheong Soo Pieng could dissect each object and its reflective light. A white mannequin head with downcast eyes rests in the first layer, detached from its torso behind it. Inspired by the likes of Cubist artists Picasso and Braque, Cheong imbues a sculptural quality to the mannequin by fragmenting its form, dividing it into demarcated segments with varying gradations. Beside it, a piece of fabric, a softer material held in place by a small bowl, cascades downwards. Perched on the upper shelf is a miniature globe with a protruding axis, as well as a small ball, both objects revealing his ability to capture the spherical form.
The vanguard of focus in this composition is the flamboyant opera mask hanging on the right side. Its countenance bears a hyperbolic expression, with furrowed eyebrows, a sharp nose and a wide smile. Light originating from the right side histrionically blankets half its face, casting the darker remainder in shadow. It is evident that Cheong spent his first decade in Singapore reconnoitering Western modernism, as he delineates the contours of the mask’s features, a Fauvist technique. The sense of immediacy palpable in this work is almost completely absent in his later works. While Cheong would later depart from this Cubist style, nuances of this movement would remain in spirit, primarily in his construction of lines and picture planes.
Though its subject matter appears rudimentary, the present lot is telling of the artist’s mind, which was always seeking inspiration from the world around him. It summons the theories of American art historian Meyer Schapiro, who emphasized the importance of studying the choices made by artists who painted Cubist still life works, as he believed these decisions could provide valuable insights into their private lives and thought processes. He stated: “Style is, above all, a system of forms with a quality and meaningful expression through which the personality of the artist and the overall outlook of a group are visible. It is also a vehicle of expression within the group, communicating and fixing certain values of religious, social, and moral life through the emotional suggestiveness of forms.”
The combination of meticulously chosen items in the present lot is in fact an allegorical conventionalism used to celebrate attributes of the arts in general. Rather than depicting traditional motifs such as fruit and flowers, Cheong decides to touch on the human condition. The mask echoes his interest in theater, a precursor to his later exploration of wayang formations and Southeast Asian dance performances. Simultaneously, the presence of the mannequin and textile reveals an early interest in costume and design, serving as a herald of his future works, which would include Batik design and remnants of ethnic iconographies.
Therefore, the present lot acts as an integral antecedent of an artist bursting with wanderlust, someone who would later explore myriad cultures, forms of dress, and people spanning the Southeast Asian region. Upon migrating to Singapore from China in 1946, the zealous artist took the opportunity to reinvent his artistic practice. Comfortable in his studio space at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and provided with the resources and materials to create, he delved into a stint of experimentation that would mark his identity transition from that of a native Chinese to a resident of Nanyang.
Seldom does one have the opportunity to acquire such a masterpiece painted in this pure, Modernist style, because between 1950 and 1955, Cheong only painted around five to six oil works on an annual basis.1 Only in later years would become more productive.2 Much like the present lot, most of his early oil works from this era were small in size, with very few exceeding one meter in length.3 Opera Scene truly reveals his inherent dexterity in spatial composition and the execution of paint across a smaller picture plane.
Sotheby’s is proud to offer Opera Scene at auction, as it is a very rare occurrence to even come across such an early work, let alone have the opportunity to exhibit it on an international platform. This rarity truly stands as an early vestige of Cheong’s natural métier and insatiable appetite for discovering new approaches to representation. Studying Opera Scene is integral to understanding the preliminary stages of aesthetic development of a maestro deemed the face of Singaporean modernism.
1Ho Sou Ping, Ma Peiyi, The Story of Cheong Soo Pieng, Singapore, 2015, p. 38.
2 Ibid, p. 38.
3 Ibid, p. 38.
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