Lot Details

LOT 920

Cheong Soo Pieng
(1917 - 1983, Singaporean)

Kampung Life
painted in 1975
oil on canvas
100 x 82 cm
signed in Chinese characters on lower right, signed and dated on the reverse

SGD 400,000 - 500,000
USD 288,000 - 360,000

This lot is accompanied with certificate of authenticity issued by Mr. Cheong Wai Chi, son of the artist.

- SOO PIENG, 1980 exhibition catalogue published by artist and designed by Yu Loong Ching. Illustrated in colour, plate no. 2.
- SOO PIENG, 1983 Summer Times Publishing. Illustrated in colour, plate no. 8.

ARTIST Art Magazine, Issue #47, April 1979, printed in Taiwan. Illustrated in colour on page 123.

Pick up point: Singapore

Lot Essay

Romance in "Kampung Life"

Sitting peacefully, a couple radiating intimacy and contentment is the beating heart of Kampung Life, 1975. Cheong Soo Pieng renders the man and woman in his signature style of figuration from the mid-1970s onwards, based on

wayang kulit puppets with spaghetti arms and tubular torsos, dark almond eyes set deep in ovoid faces, and the repeating motif of open hands extending at right angles from their forearms. Like the puppets on which they are based, the hands are at a fixed angle, and Soo Pieng arranges them parallel to each other, rhythmically anchoring the couple to the centre of the composition.

If eyes are the window to the soul, then hands are the gateway of mood. Here the hands express a mood of peacefulness through calm gesture. The gestural power of hands is something Soo Pieng shares with one of the rule-breakers in 20th century Modernism: the Austrian painter Egon Schiele (1890-1918). His elongated, emaciated nudes from around the period 1910 use the terminal gesture of hands frequently to express a mood of anguish that is consistent with the German Expressionist movement, which in turn goes back to the bodily expressiveness seen in German Renaissance altarpieces by the likes of Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531) or Matthias Grünewald (c.1470-1528).

Schiele's hands on awkwardly angled arms have the same sense of disconnection from the fixed torso as wayang kulit puppets, the shoulders and elbows of which are jointed to allow the dalang (puppeteer) to create a series of expressive shapes that range from fluid to jagged in order to carry the narrative of the drama. This is the point of contact between Soo Pieng and Schiele that goes beyond the well-established interchange between Asia and Western Modernism through the 20th century: Schiele is reported to have been fascinated by the collection of wayang kulit puppets belonging to his friend, the art historian Arthur Roessler (1877-1955). After Schiele mastered operating the puppets in Roessler's apartment, he was given one as a gift.1 Soo Pieng's relationship with Modernism, in effect, comes full circle through the very particular and culturally specific medium of the wayang kulit puppet.

The romantic mood of Kampung Life is built on more than the stillness of the couple and their gentle gestures. Colour is also a key factor. Strikingly, the canvas has an overarching golden glow, where the only points of strong local colour are the on the sarongs worn by the couple. The way the red and patterned textiles break through the burnished haze of the canvas surely imitates the way the painted leather of the puppets break through the yellow projected light on the wayang kulit screen when the dalang brushes the puppets against it during a performance?

Chinese symbolism is also culturally indicative of mood. Surrounding the couple are seven birds that appear to be doves – as indicated by the dovecot in the background – which in Chinese symbolism represent long life and fidelity because they pair for life. The seven doves suggest completeness or fulfilment, and their white and black simplified forms are perhaps associated with the yin and yang icon, embodying the feminine and masculine. The goat in the Chinese zodiac is an Earth element, associated with fidelity and honesty and representing stability. There are parallels in Christian symbolism too, with peace signified by the doves. Perhaps the dovecot itself is an extension of the significance of these forms, since it is a communal home that is used form year to year. The space given over to the architectural detail – here in the form of the dovecot – is unusual in this genre of Soo Pieng's oeuvre. More usually it is landscape, typically lush greenery, that forms the backdrop to human agency (see, for example, Waiting, 1981, sold in these rooms 22 March 2022 for SGD128,100). The message seems to be clear: all that matters are human bonds and the home.

Viv Lawes
Consultant Lecturer, Sotheby's Institute of Art
Course Leader, University of the Arts London
Senior Lecturer, City & Guilds of London Art School

1 Agnes Husslein-Arco and Jane Kallir, Egon Schiele, Self-Portraits and Portraits. London, Munich, New York: Prestel, 2011, p.16.

Condition Report

Painting is in good condition. Paint layer is in stable condition. Conservation works has been done before, such as: removal of surface dust, adhesive lining with linen cloth, stretch with new stretcher, backing with an acid free foam board and minor touch up. Artwork has been treated professionally, no further conservation work needed. The painting is offered with teakwood frame.

Please note that this report has been compiled by Larasati staff based solely on their observation on the work. Larasati specialists are not professional conservators; thus the report should be treated only as an expression of opinion and not as a statement of fact. We suggest that you consult your own restorer for a more thorough report. We remind you again that all work is sold 'as is' and should be viewed personally by you or your professional adviser before the sale to assess its condition.


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