Lot 1109
  • 1109

LEE MAN FONG | Bali Life

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  • Lee Man Fong
  • Bali Life
  • Signed in English and Chinese and stamped with two seals of the artist 
  • Oil on masonite board
  • 81.5 by 182 cm; 32 by 71 1/2  in. 


Private Asian Collection
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Private Asian Collection


This work is in good overall condition as viewed. There is evidence of wear and losses along the edges of the work due to abrasions with the frame. Examination under ultraviolet light reveals some areas of restoration along the edges of the work, an area at the bottom right (near the steps and foliage), at the face and arms of the seated girl holding a basket of offerings, and some very tiny sporadic spots of restoration (example at the bottom left area in the background, the floor, the roof and platform of structure the right). Framed.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Sotheby’s is honored to present Bali Life, an impressively expansive work by Southeast Asian master Lee Man Fong that marks the pinnacle of the Indonesian artist’s career. There are but a handful of pieces of this caliber from the artist’s oeuvre that have emerged in the international market. Reminiscent of a Chinese scroll painting, the narrative of the piece unravels before the viewer to capture lively vignettes of the artist’s favored subjects, elegantly composed as a single, unified image. Although rooted in delicate Eastern aesthetics, Man Fong combined them with Western techniques to become one of the most intellectual and admired painters of his time. Distinguished for their poetic charm and sophisticated compositions, Man Fong’s horizontal format pieces are treasured for their rarity and complexity, and Bali Life does not stray from being one of the magnum opus works of the artist’s storied career.

Man Fong traveled to Bali for the first time in 1941, during which he discovered the people and the customs that would later come to populate his opus. This magnificent work is a prolific example of the artist’s signature techniques; a mature yet vivid color palette, acute brushwork and immaculate figuration set the piece apart in its complexity and thoughtful composition. Earthy and muted hues instinctively connect to Bali’s natural landscape, while the scene is enriched by gold accents on the loom in striking comparison to the aquamarines of the weaver’s sarong and the blouse worn by the standing woman beside her. A testament to his Chinese lineage, the present work is an accolade of Man Fong’s distinctive style of painting that provides insight into the daily lives of the Balinese from a foreign perspective. The background is blanketed with a layer of hazy colors: the typical long, sinuous tree branches, as well as the shanshui (traditional Chinese style of painting with brush and ink) imbues a dreamlike quality and echoes the artistic style of xieyi (Chinese freehand painting) often executed in “aerial” (or “atmospheric”) perspective. By depicting objects in the distance as paler and in less detail than those in the foreground, the technique conveys a recession in space that results in an illusion of depth. A unique piece amalgamating multiple narratives, the artist leads the eye on an undulating yet continuous journey from one end of the piece to the other, by staggering his figures in an assemblage across the breadth of the work. Man Fong also draws strongly from Western notions of perspective, allowing him to demonstrate proportion and generate a sense of movement within the panoramic vista. Some figures appear to move into the picture plane, while others remain utterly placid and unaware in their various poses. In the marriage of Eastern metaphors and Western techniques, Lee Man Fong presents his audience with a harmonious culmination of this dichotomy.

Bali Life presents a romantic portrayal of the highly specialized village life, surrounded by a sense of tranquility and serenity. The maestro depicts the island’s inhabitants with soft curves and exquisite contours on the idealized women, while the men are boastfully yet willingly toiling away at their arduous tasks. The female figures are highly pigmented in their execution; a stark contrast to the way in which the male figures are depicted. As they flock together towards the center foreground of the painting in an intimate, circular congregation, the work becomes suggestive of the artist’s innate respect for womanhood. Man Fong not only recognized the elegance and charm of the female spirit, but also celebrated their contributions as the matriarchs and nurturers of their society. Rendered in an earthy bronzed palette, the skin of the subjects appears to glow healthily against the backdrop of the afternoon sun, and, together with illustrations of life’s essentials including food, tools and containers, Man Fong conveys a compelling sense of nourishment, vitality and prosperity that seemingly washes over the people.

When documenting the locale, Man Fong paid particular attention to the specific gesticulations of each figure. Gathered women, deep in performing their tasks, or a beautiful maiden in a kneeling position captivatingly gazing into the distance results in an impeccably observed piece that is animated with life and optimism. Their downcast eyes and sincere smiles are gifted with attention by the painter to exude a feeling of tranquility and contentment in an otherwise exotic and theatrical setting. In the background, there appears to be a graceful camaraderie between the male inhabitants and a boy, breezily riding on a wild buffalo that seems to ethereally float in midair. In the same vain as other pieces within the limited and highly coveted Bali Life series, Man Fong provides a snapshot of an idyllic, rustic existence where man, woman, child and animal can coexist in harmony.

The piece functions as a vehicle of the artist’s desire to showcase the various archetypes of island life, an affinity he developed after having lived in the tropics and garnering an understanding of the Balinese people themselves. While Man Fong utilized a combination of Eastern and Western techniques, he did not allow himself to be bound by their formalities and took liberties to augment his work with a progressive, personal flavor. Lee Man Fong was relentless in his desire to bespeak a contemporary aesthetic, and in doing so, has become a true embodiment of what it means to be a Chinese reformist painter. Standing at the pinnacle of the artist’s significant legacy, the present lot is a true testament to the panoramic masterworks of the highly rare and sought after Bali Life series.