(5. Taming the Bull, The Ten Ox-herding Pictures)
Lee Man Fong’s Cowherd reflects many of his most signature artistic elements, with his focus on framing a realistic, yet deeply idyllic scene of pastoral life. Born in 1913, Lee was one of Southeast Asia’s most lyrical and celebrated artists, growing up in Singapore and establishing his craft in Indonesia. Crucially, he was granted a scholarship in the Netherlands at the age of 34, and this formal artistic training empowered him to first synthesize Chinese ink and brush techniques with Western oils. Over Lee’s storied career, he became a pioneer of a new Nanyang style - a blended visual language of Eastern principles and subjects with Western perspective - that came to define an era in Southeast Asian art. In recognition of his role in shaping the course of Southeast Asian art history, Lee’s work is extensively catalogued and anthologized in books and studies, of which Cowherd is notably featured.
Cowherd features a young village boy astride his buffalo, leading it out to pasture. Strikingly, his posture is tall, confident and particularly at ease, just as if his riding is but second nature to him, with a hand on his hip and the other wielding a long bamboo switch. This is further emphasized by the buffalo’s stance, head lowered towards the grass almost deferentially. The natural environment too provides an apt backdrop, as Lee imbues the sky with a bright, illuminated blush hue that highlights child and beast. Additionally, the painting’s perspective is singularly unique, as the viewer approaches the work at a seeming angle, placing them close to the ground and right beneath the cowherd’s lofty gaze. All of these elements form a cohesive whole and this sense of quiet self-assurance pervades throughout the frame, a total harmony and control between the boy and his animal. Natural tones of brown, muted green and pale peach define Lee’s palette, each complementing the other. Cowherd features a highly minimal view, with open expanses of sky and land, allowing the boy and buffalo to remain the focus.
The motifs of man and animal are recurring ones in Lee’s work, embodying his preoccupation with nature and balance in visual terms onto the canvas. In particular, his illustrations of a boy and his buffalo are allusions to the classical Chinese zen parable, the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures, where a boy’s search and taming of the buffalo serve as an allegory for the final search for enlightenment. As such, the buffalo has long been symbolic of the practice of meditation– becoming at one with the natural environment. It is this theme of unity that the Cowherd celebrates.
Cowherd references iconic elements of Chinese creative culture in both subject and form. Lee had remained singularly conscious of his Chinese heritage and strove to enshrine them in all of his works, paying careful homage to Chinese calligraphy and composition in his portrayals of indigenous life. The board canvas is oriented vertically, reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy scrolls and the traditional concept of shansui, mimicking the natural flow of water and the landscape. Here, his oil strokes bear the delicacy of the Chinese ink brush, rendering distinct, fine outlines alongside nuanced shading. The boy’s profile, composed of clean minimal lines, stands stark against the pale of the sky, yet the rest of the painting is further defined by complex overlapping shades. This composition imparts the buffaloes and the earth they stand on with a real sense of depth and shadow.
Chinese brush painting traditionally strove to capture an abstract feeling of remoteness and connection to nature, which Lee preserved in his own art. However, Lee was set apart for his expressive use of light and colour borrowed from Western practice, and he incorporated a Western fixed perspective into what had been a strictly Chinese form. By the 1960s, Lee’s varied style had evolved towards warmer yellow tints and a greater fidelity for his subjects, infusing the work with a vibrancy of atmosphere and movement.
Lee found the greatest inspiration in the local and the worldly, prompting him to capture even the smallest vignettes of village life for posterity. His painting always aimed to provide a vivid narrative of the rural landscape, chronicling Southeast Asian themes, people, flora, and fauna in all their diversity. In the end, Lee refused to be bound by the rigid conventions of either Chinese or Western painting, giving rise to a progressive blend of brush and oil techniques and creating his own special aesthetic.
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