"As a major Nanyang artist, Soo Pieng's portrayal of Southeast Asia has often been assessed with reference to the pivotal 1952 trip to Bali with fellow artists Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee and Liu Kang."
YEO WEI WEI, SENG YU JIN, GRACE TNG, Cheong Soo Pieng: Visions of Southeast Asia, THE NATIONAL ART GALLERY, SINGAPORE, 2010, P. 9
Cheong Soo Pieng's experiences in the fifties changed the way he portrayed Southeast Asia. He was most innovative in his interpretation of the female figure, retaining the angularity and the black outlines that defines Chinese ink paintings, while expressing a decidedly Southeast Asian singularity: elongated limbs, almond-shaped eyes, chiselled jaws and golden skin. A 1950 sketch of a wayang kulit (shadow puppet) suggests an early fascination with the elongation of forms, which his trip to Bali in 1952 reinforced and brought to fruition and maturity.
Cheong Soo Pieng said, "I went [to] Bali on a sketching trip, and there I was fascinated by the scenery and by the Balinese women. I discovered that Balinese women are the ideal subject matter for me, and I made a good number of paintings, modern in feeling and to my own liking, many of which I do not wish to sell." (ibid., p. 92). The present owner recalls Cheong Soo Pieng giving an anecdote about the sitter being the first Balinese maiden he painted, thus the present work was originally in the artist's personal collection and was hanging at his studio at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts for some time before he agreed to part with it.
Untitled (Balinese Girl) exemplifies Cheong Soo Pieng's new aesthetic perfectly. Furthermore, it underlines a greater and more fundamental change, which is the freedom to veer away from the traditional constraints and ideological concerns of Chinese paintings. While he didn't completely adopt Cubism, nuances of the movement can be felt in spirit, primarily in the construction of lines and picture planes. Soo Pieng did not deconstruct the female form into geometric forms, like Braque or Picasso. Rather, like Modigliani, he transformed it into deft, fluid lines, rendering it a flat but sculptural effect. What seemed most important to Soo Pieng, however, was to infuse the vernacular essence of Bali into this unique artistic incarnation, which he accomplished successfully with colours. For example, the figure's batik's rich vermillion red recalls the petals of hibiscus flowers; the fresh green of the figure's sash echoes the lush foliage; the girl's ochre skin illustrates the warmth of the golden sun. These colours are typically Balinese and has characterised the palette of another great artist living in Bali, Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès. When Soo Pieng showed his Balinese oeuvre in Singapore, the result was something completely out of the ordinary, particularly for an art scene more familiar with sceneries and still life.
Cheong Soo Pieng's masterful integration of multicultural elements – Chinese, Western, Malayan, Singaporean, Indonesian – laid the foundation for the Nanyang style. It is due to Cheong Soo Pieng's astuteness and vision that it is still relevant in the present day as an insightful perception of Southeast Asian, and specifically, Singaporean, culture. Untitled (Balinese Girl) is a rare and important example of this achievement and is a testament to the seminality of Cheong Soo Pieng's sojourn in Bali.
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