In addition to making great contributions to the musical literature of Singapore, Wang was also enjoyed painting as a pastime. She enrolled as a fine art student at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and, after her graduation, developed a friendship with Soo Pieng, who taught at the school from 1947 to 1961. This life-long relationship was maintained via close correspondence. Most notably, a number of paintings and calligraphic works were acquired by Wang from Soo Pieng; the present lot stands as a highlight of this grouping.
Sotheby’s is proud to exhibit Seated Maidens, a poignantly enchanting piece that showcases Cheong Soo Pieng’s visually seductive aesthetic and eye for the avant-garde. A leader among Southeast Asian pioneers, the Singaporean artist is renowned for his formative role in the Singapore art scene. Acknowledged for spearheading the Nanyang Art Movement, Soo Pieng exhibits an unmatched artistic versatility and openness to experimentation. He formed a cosmopolitan outlook as a result of his training in Xiamen and Shanghai, as well his travels in Europe and Southeast Asia. Importantly, the Amoy-born artist incorporated a wide range of artistic traditions in his diverse body of work. With a voracious appetite for innovation, Soo Pieng drew from sources as eclectic as Fauvism and Surrealism, to Indonesian puppetry and Batik, ultimately carving a unique voice in modern Southeast Asian art history.
Iconic and rare, this is an early masterpiece from the 1950s period a time when the Soo Pieng completed only a handful of oils per year. Unique to a few known works are Soo Pieng’s stylized figures painted in bright saturated hues—in particular a brilliant red and a dark bluish green. Here, the artist demonstrates a remarkable gift of orchestrating harmony, in colour, form and line, with the utmost intensity. Elevating a quintessential Southeast Asian subject into a visually arresting encounter, Seated Maidens is a paradigm of Soo Pieng’s sophisticated yet daring style that has garnered him generations of avid admirers and followers.
Seated Maidens attests to the pioneer’s distinct stylization and ability to portray the candid intensity of the region’s indigenous spirit. Painted in the wake of his 1952 trip to Bali, the influence of the island’s unique cultural milieu on the work’s subject matter and inventive style—indeed, on Soo Pieng’s very artistic consciousness itself—is immense; the painter himself readily acknowledges that the sojourn was “a landmark event” that “completely changed his approach to art." (Yeo Wei Wei Ed., Cheong Soo Pieng: Visions of Southeast Asia, The National Art Gallery, Singapore, 2010, p. 93 ) This present work portrays two Balinese women, decked in colourful kambens (Balinese sarongs), sitting cross-legged on the floor, with one gingerly clutching a traditional Balinese vessel. Immersed in the novel landscapes of the sun-drenched island, Soo Pieng demonstrates his keen eye for detail by capturing the minutiae of everyday Balinese life, from the wispy tropical tree in the background to the delicately-tied udengs (Balinese headwraps) on his subjects’ finely-drawn hair. A window into Soo Pieng's keen interest in Balinese life, this work draws striking similarity to a published ink sketch of two women composed in the same seated posture. (Ibid., p.166) (Fig. 4) Such comparable studies reveal the artist’s discernible hand in simplifying forms, showing both figures half-nude and making the maiden’s faces more angular. Soo Pieng’s approach in these early works also informs his wayang kulit inspired renditions of slender figures with elongated limbs that would populate his later oeuvre.
Beyond drawing from Indonesian influences, Soo Pieng’s unique personal idiom is constantly in conversation with modernist art movements that emerged from the West. Marking a shift away from representational realism, the artist’s composition in Seated Maidens draws variously from synthetic cubism and primitivism. Soo Pieng simplifies forms into bold and flat areas of single colours with subtle gradations, outlined by heavy contours. While the acuteness of his lines accentuates the immediacy of the image, the highly angular facial features of Soo Pieng’s two maidens are visually reminiscent of Picasso’s primitive works, such as his seminal Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
Seated Maidens is visually striking from afar – a result of Soo Pieng’s dexterity in articulating both tension and subtlety through his expressive palette. His use of a bold, Fauvist-inspired scheme sets the present lot apart from other Bali-inspired works that tend to employ earthy greens and browns abundantly. Importantly, colour is an aspect of Soo Pieng’s practice of foremost importance. The artist himself explains: “In my paintings, colour in the subject is the main theme. I always work on the main subject first and then put in the foreground and background, the colours in which art of secondary importance. It is creation of harmony of colours and variance in tones which are my main objects in painting.” (Ibid., p. 178)
In this early example, we see how Soo Pieng’s pronounced use of vivid colours—primarily the bright orange and deep turquoise—imbues this masterpiece with a spirited quality and gravitas.
The two women are bathed in vibrant shades of vermilion and cerulean respectively, their kambens in rich hues of violet and viridian—potent juxtapositions of cool and warm tones. Even the pastel-colored udengs that wrap around the maiden’s thick black hair are painted in pink mauves and fresh teals, retaining the chromatic expressivity defining this work. The painter’s looser brushstrokes in the surrounding setting lend the main focus of the composition further clarity and vigor. Seated against a natural landscape rendered in variegated yellows and broad steaks of white and grey, the two protagonists possess an assured presence.
By staging a lively interplay of secondary colours, Soo Pieng saturates his work with an arresting dynamism, thus echoing the way Fauvists prioritize colour and form as the foremost vehicles of communicating the artist's emotional state. Yet the present painting retains an undeniable visual harmony as the carefully appointed colours are balanced to great effect, creating a profound elegance. Drawing from both modernist Western analytic sensibilities and indigenous Balinese cultural influences, Soo Pieng’s Seated Maidens (1955) distinctly demonstrates not only the painter’s dexterity, but also his keen engagement with a plethora of artistic approaches. Possessing a grand musicality, which perhaps attracted Lucien Wang’s own sensibilities, Seated Maidens is truly an extraordinary and memorable early work within Soo Pieng’s prolific oeuvre.
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