Satay vendors are a recurring motif in his oeuvre, in line with Lee’s wish to paint the everyday. Through this painting, we may begin to see Indonesia through the eyes of a painter sympathetic to the Chinese style but also fluent in techniques of the West. This work depicts a man selling satay by the side of the street, brows furrowed deep in concentration as he works beneath a traditional bamboo structure. Three figures are crowded around the satay stall as another figure stands further right while tending to his horse. All eyes are turned towards the food: the coals in the fire are rendered in a glowing red in stark contrast to the earthy, sepia tones that dominate the rest of the composition. In the background, a man and a child are seen departing from the scene, their jaunty movement indicating a journey well spent as they head toward the fading light. Hints of trees and growth border the work in a loose, freeform style reminiscent of xieyi ink and wash painting.
This painting is seems to be an early experiment: the entire composition is washed in a hazy earth-brown, with outlines serving to delineate positions in the picture plane. Light is used to generate form, with the contours of faces and bodies emphasized with the careful use of shade and shadow, reminiscent of the Dutch master Rembrandt’s approach. This stylistic choice echoes the sentiment expressed by architect Louis Kahn, who famously noted: “Light is the giver of all form.” However, unlike Rembrandt’s heavy use of oil and pigment, Lee’s experiments in light and shadow incorporate the light and airy character of Chinese ink. He applies tone in diffuse swathes, lending an Impressionistic quality to his figures. The dream-like quality of the painting is further heightened with the “Chinese space”1 that surrounds each of his figures, a white glow emanating from each form that would only be heightened in his later works.
Lee also innovated on Chinese art by introducing depth and Western perspective in his compositions, a technique he learnt after being awarded a prestigious scholarship by the Dutch government to study and travel in the West. This can be seen with the bridge in the background disappears into the distance, as if extending toward infinity. Furthermore, Lee selectively uses outline to extend the picture plane, with outlines in the background being more lightly rendering than the ones in the foreground, mimicking the focus instinctively made by human eyes.
Lee Man Fong’s choices of subject matter have always strayed towards the observational, his paintings often documenting scenes of daily life such as the purchase of an Indonesian food staple, the satay. His work is noted for its , reaching toward a quiet beauty to be found in harmony and coexistence, discovering a warmth that can be found through the intimacies of nature, family and community.
1 Claire Holt. Art In Indonesia: Continuities and Change. Cornell University Press, Ithaca: New York, 1967, p. 248.
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