This iconic early work was painted only several years after the Amoy-born artist set foot into Singapore and captures the intense experimentation of Soo Pieng’s career in the 1950s. Notably, Untitled is unique to Soo Pieng’s body of work, in its dramatically larger scale and the pronounced use of vibrant colours for the greatest impact. It is exceptionally rare as he only completed a handful of oil pieces during this period and often on a small scale of not more than one metre in width. The painting’s unconventionally large size contributes to its imposing visual immediacy as Cheong maximized every inch of his canvas, filling it with a vast palette of opposing colours.
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. 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.
Untitled is perhaps most representative of Soo Pieng’s explorations of Fauvism and Cubism, exemplifying the daring color and reconstruction of form that were the salient features of these major avant-garde art movements. The artist reflects: “It is the creation of harmony of colours and variation in tones which are my main objects in the painting. I paint when I am in the mood, but I would stay on one subject for days, if necessary, to complete the expression of the idea in my mind.”1 For him, rather than mere ornamentation, colour was elevated to ‘the main theme’ itself, symbolizing and enhancing Singapore’s tropical identity on the canvas.
In marked contrast to prevailing representations of the region in art, dominated by restraint and organic browns and greens, his juxtaposition of cool and warm hues grants the work a certain whimsy, almost in the realm of the fantastical. Throughout his career, Cheong found enchantment and complexity in the most common scenes of local life, such as the craftsmen depicted here, and made them the focus of his brush – dramatizing everything from the bountiful tropical habitat to farmers toiling in the fields. The male figure on the right wears a traditional Malay songkok, the folds of his clothes are rendered in angular shapes and a patterned fabric draped upon his shoulder. In the middle of the composition sits a boy who confronts the viewer with his direct gaze, his small, exposed frame painted completely in Soo Pieng’s brilliant red hue.
Soo Pieng’s subjects are further delineated by strong, angular lines, which distort conventional perspectives of light, shadow and depth to replace them with a severe, flat geometry. These are indicative of Cheong’s cubist inspirations, yet instead of conveying rigidity, these lines spread liberally and expressively across the frame. His experiments in the form had been sharpened upon his migration to Singapore in 1946, Over the 1950s, Cheong cemented his knowledge of trends in the Western modern art movement, and his explorations of cubism were but a small sample of his range and readiness to embrace the avant-garde, but with time he made them markedly his own. Immediately evocative of Picasso or Braque’s own works, Untitled still retains a consciousness of its Southeast Asian setting, showcasing an unrestrained, imaginative conception of his home. Ultimately, his diversity of styles would serve merely as interchangeable lenses, through which he aspired to capture the multiplicity of Southeast Asia.
Demonstrated in the present painting is Cheong’s ability to capture the region’s unfolding cultural identities and the vigour of its people in an idiosyncratic style. Exhibited in the size and complexity of this portrayal of local life, is the artist’s confidence and commitment to an utterly bold vernacular.
1 The Singapore Artist: Journal of the Singapore Art Society, Singapore, 1954, p.27
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