Classically recognizable, Rojak Seller gives viewers a rare vignette into the vibrant lives of the village people of Indonesia. Lee Man Fong’s choices of subject matter have always strayed towards the observational, his paintings often documenting scenes of daily life. Rojak Seller is part of the artist’s Bali-inspired paintings and provides insight into his personal experience as a foreigner living in Indonesia, a stint that deeply impacted his aesthetic. In the present lot, Lee pays homage to Chinese calligraphy and painting through his depiction of a hawker preparing rojak, a traditional fruit and salad dish, for a humble family of three.
It may be said that “As an Oriental artist, he has renewed and transformed Western oil painting by imbuing it with the essence of Chinese ink painting, achieving a mutual identity between subject and object, at the same time vastly opening the restrictions on traditional Chinese painting." Lee’s cohesive color palette and gentle brushwork congregate to portray his uniquely personal style – expressing a multicultural visual language, awakening the pictorial reveries of the daily lives of the Indonesian milieu. Brimming with a heavenly, dream-like atmosphere, Lee’s delicate brushwork details the immaculate gesticulations and features of each character, as warm pigments diffuse into their exquisite curves and contours. He avoids harsh lines and definitive edges, communicating subject matter through suggestions of form within darkness and light. Inspired by his travels and studies in Europe prior to settling in Indonesia, Lee was particularly influenced by Dutch artist, Rembrandt and his employment of light and shade. As demonstrated in the present lot, Lee adopted the careful application of shading and manipulation of light to capture the sinuous contours and curvatures of the human figure and the objects around her.
Uninterrupted, the rojak seller exudes serenity and warmth, as Lee renders her in earthy bronzed tones, setting her apart from the faded grays of the terrain. His palette is muted and earthy, the most vibrant of which is applied to the cloth of the satay vendor’s attire and her cornucopia of fruits, drawing the viewer’s attention to the woman as the nucleus of the composition. He imbues the backdrop with negative space, such that the figures appear suspended in mid air, floating dreamily in a backlit space. These artistic choices create an atmosphere of serenity, emphasizing the human connection being made in a simple, transactional relationship, one that peppered his circadian experiences while living in Indonesia.
Rojak Seller is a depiction of human camaraderie — the intimacy between the children and woman as seen per the artist’s observation of this singular moment from village life. Here, each character is gifted with his or her own physiognomies and characteristics, the painting acting as a narrative of their interlocking relationships, or alternatively as the female paragon with surrounding youth. Women were a staple in his oeuvre, and he remained faithful to this subject matter throughout his career. Lee not only immortalized the elegance of the female spirit, but also rejoiced their contributions as the matriarchs and nurturers of their communities. The artist elevates her status by depicting her with a sense of femininity and beauty. Her posture, poised and nimble, is a mark of her sophistication. Her hands are nimble and delicate, despite the laborious nature of her work. Next to the rojak seller, the family waits patiently while cattle graze behind them, noticeable only through the faint lines of their silhouettes.
With his marriage of Eastern metaphors and Western techniques, Lee delineates and arranges each character across the tranquil landscape, which allows him to demonstrate proportion and generate a sense of movement within the panoramic vista. Lee’s artistic imagination and flexibility sets him apart as one of the most dexterous and expressive reformist Chinese artists of his era. By drawing elements from Western compositional forms and Chinese traditions, Lee pays homage to his cultural lineage in Rojak Seller, commemorating those that humbly serve as the heart of Indonesia.
 Ho Kung-Shang, Michelle Loh, The Oil Paintings of Lee Man Fong, Art Book Co. Ltd.,Singapore, 2014, p. 7
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