Lee was born in Guangzhou but moved to Singapore at a young age. He grew up in a modest home, and put aside his early interest in art to help his family fund his siblings’ education, only later returning to his artistic inclinations. He later moved to Batavia (modern day Jakarta) and spent significant amounts of time in Bali, and would later return after his style had matured to paint Balinese Procession, depicting daily life in Bali and a procession on its streets.
Balinese Procession is an exemplary piece that illustrates the ideals Lee sought to distill throughout his practice, capturing the nuances of place through a fusion of East and West. The painting is constructed in media res with a first point perspective with the vanishing point at the far left of the composition, as If Lee was observing the scene just off the road. This compositional technique is reminiscent of the Rembrandt’s Night Watch, capturing a strong sense of movement: Lee’s figures look like they might be able to just step into three dimensionality. Lee also makes the depiction of depth of field a high priority: figures toward the front of the field, e.g. the horse, the dog and the girl in the blue kebaya (a form of traditional clothing), are heavily outlined, while those toward the back fade into the sepia background, a technique favored by post-Impressionists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. This focus is aided by subtle details, such as the murkiness of these figures’ feet and foreshortening of the dog’s legs, maintaining our attention at the center of the painting.
Although it is titled Balinese Procession, this painting captures a full scene in everyday Balinese life, not merely a procession. To the right of the piece, there are eight figures unfazed by the procession: negotiating at the market, interacting with their children. The significance of this portrayal is twofold. First, this extends and innovates upon a long tradition in Chinese scroll painting, such as Zhang Zeduan’s Along the River During the Qingming Festival, which renders everyday life in Chinese cities in axonometric form, encompassing everything from the imminent crash of a boat to street diners. Second, this departs from a longstanding practice by many Mooi Indies (Beautiful Indies) European artists, such as Willem Gerard Hofker, to romanticize Bali through the gaze of an Other. Lee wished to capture a full scene: men wearing udeng (a Balinese headgear) and saput poleng (a black-and-white checkered cloth with ceremonial importance) with white collared shirts, women in kebaya at the frontlines of the procession carrying offerings on their heads. His wish was not to sexualize or infantilize, but to remember the intimacies of these movements and actions, to communicate the transcendent spirituality of a moment.
But perhaps the most noted quality of this piece is its unique, trance-like atmosphere. It is Lee Man Fong’s eye for detail that truly is able to transport us into the scene that he presents before us: a gentle breeze, a stray leaf, a sideways glance. The hazy background is painted in the Chinese xieyi tradition, characterized with highly expressive brushstrokes with widely varying intensity of colour, as if light has been refracted through low clouds in a late morning light to render the entire scene with a delicate translucence. Furthermore, Lee’s figures are surrounded in a luminescent white outline, as if glowing from within, suspended in a dreamscape of undisturbed tranquility. Lee sought to capture atmosphere and the unyielding spirit of place; in his own words: “Paintings are the flowers of cultures. They speak without words. They are not limited by time, nationality, or language. They have souls of their own.”2
When Lee Man Fong was active, figurative painting had taken on a sociopolitical dimension in many circles. The quest was for the monumentality of epic painting in the Western tradition, as his contemporary S. Sudjojono aimed to achieve. Though Balinese Procession is not radical, it is certainly compelling in the intimacy of its purpose: to envelop its viewers with the quiet, immersive warmth of man, nature and place.
1 Lee Man Fong: Oil Paintings Volume II. Art Retreat. Singapore, 2005. p. 26.
2 Michelle Loh, The Oil Paintings of Lee Man Fong: The Pioneer Artist of Indonesia and Singapore, Beyond Colours, Singapore, 2014. p. 11.
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