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Visual Arts

Cheong Soo Pieng

One of the seminal pioneers of the Nanyang style.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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I do not search for it (style) consciously or create it deliberately [...] It is a way of bringing order and intelligence to what an artist is doing. It is a memory marker and also a means of connecting different ideas and emotions, fusing them into a creative force.

The Straits Times, 2 Aug 1983.

Cheong Soo Pieng was a first-generation Singapore artist and one of the seminal pioneers of the Nanyang style of art. Trained at the Xiamen Fine Art Academy and the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai, Cheong relocated to Singapore after World War II and taught art at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts for many years. During this time, he established an art practice marked by a unique integration of Western and East Asian traditions, and constant experimentation with different styles and mediums that resulted in exciting, new styles of abstract and figurative art. He is best known for his series of Balinese paintings depicting languorous women with elongated limbs and almond eyes, and remains celebrated nationally and internationally today.

Cheong Soo Pieng was born in Xiamen, China in 1917, the youngest of seven children. He studied art first at the Xiamen Fine Art Academy in 1933 under Lim Hak Tai, and then at the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai in 1936. Six months later, his studies were disrupted by the Sino-Japanese War that preceded World War II, and the academy was destroyed in the war two years later.

Undeterred by the war, Cheong taught art while honing his painting skills, using mostly watercolours and Chinese ink, as oils were a rare commodity during those times of strife. His hard work paid off in 1942 when he held his first solo exhibition of watercolour works. In 1945 he went to Hong Kong, and a year later, migrated to Singapore.

In Singapore, Cheong—like other migrant Chinese artists—found employment teaching art at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, which was headed by his ex-teacher at Xiamen Fine Art Academy, Lim Hak Tai. He taught there from 1947 to 1961, concurrently also teaching part-time at the Chinese High School from 1948. Oils were more readily available to Cheong in Singapore and he began his art practice in Singapore experimenting a great deal with oils, delving into the conceptualisation and creation of new aesthetic expressions better suited to his new home.

Cheong found great inspiration in the landscapes and people of Singapore and the region. Subjects in his paintings included coastal scenes with kelongs, people watching puppet shows, and people going about their everyday lives. His vast collection of sources of cultural and aesthetic inspiration was also often fuelled by his travels abroad. These included the historic trip to Bali with Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Liu Kang in 1952 that birthed the Nanyang style of art, and other trips around the region from the ’50s to the ’70s.

In 1961, Cheong retired from teaching to become a full-time artist, and went on a extensive tour of Europe (which he was visiting for the first time) and stayed for a year in London, during which he visited many galleries and museums and became one of the first Singaporean artists to hold a solo exhibition in London.

From the ’50s to the ’80s, Cheong experimented with Western, East Asian and Southeast Asian styles, motifs and techniques, merging influences such as Fauvism, Cubism, traditional Chinese ink painting, wayang kulit and abstract art in unique and diverse ways. He also explored the use of various media, from painting to ceramics to sculpture, even using found objects such as discarded bicycle bells, a hospital kidney dish and window grilles in collages, sculptures and mixed media installations.

His experimentation went through different phases from oil in impasto during the ’50s to works of Chinese ink in the early ’60s, to oils in the mid '60s, to post-London abstraction and two-dimensional collages and sculptures in the late ’60s, to mixed media sculptures, ceramics and abstraction in the ’70s, to painting on ceramics, and a return to traditional Chinese ink painting after a trip to Guilin, China in 1979. Cheong had by then become a respected and well-regarded painter whose influence could be seen in the works of younger painters.

Throughout his career, he held 18 acclaimed solo exhibitions in Singapore and around the world, and received many honours. In 1962, he was awarded the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) by the Singaporean government for his contributions to Singapore art. In 1967, the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia featured Cheong’s works in the first of its retrospective exhibitions. In 1977, his oil painting, Mother and Daughter was made into a UNESCO first day cover, the first time this honour was bestowed on an artist from Singapore.

In 1983, Cheong passed away at the age of 66 due to heart failure. His legacy continues to be remembered through posthumous exhibitions of his work by the National Museum Art Gallery in 1983, the Singapore Art Museum in 2010, and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 2013. Cheong’s legacy also lives on through his 1978 oil painting Drying Salted Fish, which can be found alongside fellow Singapore artist Chen Wen Hsi’s Two Gibbons Amidst Vines on the Singapore $50 note.

Timeline

1917

Born in Xiamen, China.

1933 to 1935

Attended Xiamen Academy of Fine Arts.

1936

Attended Xin Hua Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai, China. Studies disrupted by Sino-Japanese War six months later.

1942

First solo exhibition of watercolour works in China.

1945

Moved to Hong Kong.

1946

Moved to Singapore.

1947 to 1961

Lecturer, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

1948 to 1961

Part-time lecturer, Chinese High School.

1952

Went on an artistic field trip to Bali, Indonesia with fellow visual arts pioneers Liu Kang, Chen Chong Swee and Chen Wen Hsi, resulting in the birth of the Nanyang style.

1953

Participated in group exhibition Bali: Liu Kang, Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee, Cheong Soo Pieng, British Council, Singapore.

1954

Featured in the inaugural issue of the Singapore Art Society journal The Singapore Artist.

1955

Four Artists to Bali exhibition in UK, with Chen Wen Hsi, Chen Chong Swee, Lim Hak Tai, Tay Wee Koh and Suri bin Mohyani.

1956

Held first solo exhibitions in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Malaysia.

1961

Retired from teaching. Became a full-time artist.

1961 to 1963

Travelled through Europe, held solo exhibitions in London, Dublin and Glasgow, UK, and Munich, Cologne, Hamburg and Berlin, Germany.

1962

Received Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal).

Singapore representative, Commonwealth Art Today Exhibition, Commonwealth Institute, London. Organised by the Singapore Art Society.

1964

Set up an art studio in Zion Road, Singapore to give private art lessons

Commissioned by the Tourism Promotion Board to produce a work representing Singapore’s cultural diversity. The commission, Singapore Life, was Cheong’s largest work.

1965

Exhibited works at the Commonwealth Arts Festival in Glasgow and Dublin, UK.

1966

Participated in the Malaysian Art Exhibition in London, UK, and Cologne, Berlin and Hamburg, Germany.

1967

Solo exhibition, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, in honour of his 50th birthday.

Exhibited metal reliefs at the First Sculpture Exhibition.

1969

Exhibited metal reliefs at the Second Sculpture Exhibition.

1975

Daughter and Mother nominated for a United Nations postage design.

1977

Daughter and Mother made into a UNESCO first day cover, the first time this honour was bestowed on an artist from Singapore.

1 Jul 1983

Passed away at age 66 in Singapore due to heart failure.

1983

Retrospective solo exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery.

2010

Bridging Worlds: Cheong Soo Pieng exhibition, National Art Galllery, at the Singapore Art Museum.

2013

Exhibition of sketches and paintings at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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