These painters are distinguished by their extraordinary sensitivity to their own reactions to colour, by a tendency to decompose tones, and by their attempts to imbue their canvases with intense light.
So wrote Félix Fénéon in his 1887 essay about the French Impressionists' approach to light and colour and how it was developed by the following generation of Neo-Impressionists.1 The same could be said of Cheong Soo Pieng. His sensitivity to light and colour in his radiant Harvest, 1980, has resulted in a painting that glows. It was exhibited at his retrospective at the National Gallery Singapore, in 2010. This was the second retrospective show after his untimely death in 1983. Now on the market for the first time, having resided in Soo Pieng's family's collection, Harvest is a major work executed in his late, canonical style.
Soo Pieng was a ravenous scholar who read and travelled widely, and who knew his art history as a lecturer in Western Art and art teacher at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art from 1947-1961.2 Harvest is flooded with golden light reminiscent of Claude Monet's autumn scenes painted at Argenteuil in the 1870s. There is also a monumentality in the figures occupied in the harvesting – a genre scene of companionship and collaboration through hard labour that has the air of a bucolic figurative landscape. It recalls Jean-François Millet's The Gleaners, 1857 (Musée d'Orsay), which was on display in the Louvre when Soo Pieng was travelling in Paris in 1962 and which he would have known through his teaching.
The painting equally exhibits the 'Five Tints' subtleties of Chinese ink painting, albeit that the medium used here is oil paint rather than Chinese ink. The structuring of the image takes place through black inks conceived not as a range of monochromes but as an array of colours and textures, from strong to light and from wet to dry. The notion that black is a range of colours is very different in conception from the Western notion of black being a monochrome that varies in tonal value. In addition, the layers and textures Soo Pieng uses could be interpreted as the second principle of the 'Six Canons of Painting' (Gu huapin lu) by 6th century scholar Xie He – 'Structuring with the brush'. Brush marks fill the entire canvas and Soo Pieng manages to tease a calligraphic stroke from oils on canvas as convincingly as ink on paper; this is most evident in the ears of rice in the left foreground.
The figuration is typical of the style that Soo Pieng used frequently from the early 1970s, with the thin-armed, large-headed forms drawn from a confluence of Dayak dolls and wayang kulit puppets. The long-sleeved blouses that the women wear create a fuller, less cylindrical shape to represent their torsos in comparison to other works of this period and oeuvre, such as Mother's Devotion, 1975 (sold at Larasati 9 July 2023 for SGD 429,440). This, as well as the pronounced linear recession evident through the diminutive figures in the background, lends the painting a more pronounced hybridity with traditional Western painting conventions. Further comparison could be made with Rice Pounding, 1980 (sold Larasati 19 November 2022 for UK £ 409,920), which has an air of magical realism that contrasts with the golden-hued idealism of Harvest. Of the many Soo Pieng works sold at Larasati, this is the one that is most anchored to the trope of figures in a landscape, where the landscape recedes deep into the picture plane.
Harvest stands as testament to the hybridity of Soo Pieng's practice as a painter. He draws upon artistic sources that are varied and international to create images that, in the spirit of Nanyang, capture the place and space of Southeast Asia. His themes – in this case the way collaboration and companionship aim to lighten the load of agricultural labour – are universal yet they are particular in their evocation of the lives of ordinary people living at the edge of the Southern Seas.
CHEONG SOO PIENG: Bridging Worlds at National Gallery Singapore, September 15 to December 26, 2010.
Consultant Lecturer, Sotheby's Institute of Art
Course Leader, University of the Arts London
Senior Lecturer, City & Guilds of London Art School
The essay was published in the Brussels-based magazine L'Art modern. It is translated and reproduced in Charles Harrison et al. Art in Theory 1815-1900, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998, pp.966-967.
Mar Gomez Lobon, 'A Life of Experimentation: An insight into Cheong Soo Pieng's painting materials and techniques', Singapore: National Heritage Board, p.1. Online: https://www.roots.gov.sg/en/resources-landing/publications/Heritage-Conservation-Centre/The-Life-of-Experimentation--An-insight-into-Cheong-Soo-Pieng-painting-materials-and-techniques