Cheong Soo Pieng
Perhaps Singapore’s most accomplished and prolific painters, Cheong Soo Pieng’s (1917-1983) oeuvre spanned more than four decades and various painting media, demonstrating both significant technical prowess and Cheong’s immensely broad scope. A keen educator, Cheong’s teaching stint at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts cultivated a generation of Western media artists and secured for Singaporean painters a spot in global art history.
The earlier paintings of the 1950s-60s were empathetic and introspective representations of the peoples, landscapes, and customs of Singapore and the broader Southeast Asian region. His pioneering efforts was monumentalised in the fabled 1952 trip to Bali where Cheong, with fellow pioneer artists, consolidated their ideas and presented the ‘Nanyang style’ – Singapore’s first distinct painting style. By intelligently melding together painting traditions of the East and West – which includes pictorial and compositional conventions, media, and techniques – Cheong created a body of work expressed through the polyphonic gaze of Southeast Asia’s new diasporic residents.
Cheong’s innovations did not stop there. A trip to Europe in 1962-3 allowed Cheong to rethink the relationship between his art and ethnicity, represented through an exploration of ink aesthetics. Upon his return, Cheong embarked on a spirited period of discovery, attaining new stylistic innovations in oils and inks. Cheong broadened his visual vocabulary with new media, including batik, collage, cloisonné, metalwork, and found materials, updating his modernist paintings to be in conversation with a new generation of artists. Perhaps influenced by Singapore’s industrialisation and urbanisation, these artworks seemed to explore the interplay between organic and more regular, mathematical forms. This period was marked by an increased focus on abstraction, departing from earlier Cubist-inspired modes toward a more idiosyncratic style.
The late 1970s saw a return to Cheong’s earlier practice, focusing on Southeast Asian subjects, particularly of Malaya, Sarawak, and Bali. Cheong stylised these figures by depicting them with long, exaggerated limbs and almond-shaped eyes, drawing influence from both wayang kulit puppets and modernist artists such as Amedeo Modigliani and Alberto Giacometti. This was to become Cheong’s most emblematic series. An increasingly reflexive Cheong played with the ways of seeing embedded within the oil and ink traditions. In his oil paintings, Cheong used a variety of framing features to form pictures within pictures, emphasising the multi-varied lenses through which the Southeast Asian subjects had been viewed over the years. With inks, he localised the ink tradition by creating Nanyang scrolls, complete with indigenous material culture, and grounded his identity as a diasporic Chinese artist.
Cheong died suddenly in 1983, bringing an abrupt end to a developing practice that was still seeing immense promise. Today, his legacy is assured, and his art and practice remain a cornerstone of Singapore’s art history. He is internationally recognised as one of Singapore’s most important pioneering artists, one who perhaps most successfully blended together the various art traditions that converged onto this region.
His ink painting Drying Salted Fish is featured on the back of the Singapore $50 banknote, available for all to admire.