Cheong Soo Pieng - A Pioneer to Integrate the Western and Oriental Traditions


Cheong Soo Pieng was among the first-generation Singaporean artists and one of the pioneers of the Nanyang style of art. Trained at the Xiamen Fine Art Academy and the Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts in Shanghai, Soo Pieng relocated to Singapore in 1946. He established an art practice marked by an integration of western and oriental traditions, and constant experimentation with different styles and mediums that resulted in exciting, new styles of abstract and figurative art. His traveling experience extended from China, Singapore to Malaysia, Europe and Indonesia and his creations varied from multi-medium paintings to sculptures in widespread forms. This article will analyse certain styles of the artist in his specific phases with a few masterpieces in our private collections as the illustration.


The trip that Cheong Soo Pieng made to Bali in 1952 together with Chen Wen Hsi, Liu Kang and Chen Chong Swee had made a remarkable chapter in the Southeast Asian art history. Their minds are opened by the intuitive experience and inspired agitation with the strong visual impact by the local landscape and environment. They had thereafter developed the Nanyang style to express the decorative and ritual customs that had reformed the aesthetic style of Singapore.


Soo Pieng extended his travel territory to Sarawak, Borneo in 1959, and worked out a batch of drawings of local figures and landscapes on Dyak and Kayan tribes. In Soo Pieng’s drawings, the families with elders and youngsters, mothers and boys are working on their harvest, or enjoying the leisure; some in exaggerated headdress and heavy earrings. The overseas tours had accumulated original subjects that inspired his creations in subsequent years. Soo Pieng repeatedly pondering over his very initial impressions to recreate these sceneries on paper, canvas and various medium to leverage on its material property, to push the limit of his experiments, and we could find today a series of his works in very similar compositions and subjects but of different period and medium.


Photography was often overlooked by art historians and critics as an important tool to assist his composition. Soo Pieng was an avid photographer beyond his painter’s fame to have taken photographs for his subject and composition study. This related us to Dato Loke Wan Tho his patron who devoted to Cathay Organization, the kingdom of film from his hobby of photographing. We could always find in Soo Pieng’s works the sense of lens that foreground and mid ground connected for a multi-level depth.


Take the “Malay Boys” (Figure 1) as an example, this work was created in 1965. It follows a rich depth in perspective, represented by the Malay boys in close-range, the goat at the middle, and mothers and kids at vista that all have the intrinsic link. Goat is gentle in nature which connects the family in the core. Women and kids in the shelter as a contrast to the boys sat outside, which symbols their respective responsibilities in a family. The face of the boy with a detailed expression versus the women’s faces that artist deliberately left blank have formed a contrast of the real and virtual.


Cheong Soo Pieng had recreated his favourite compositions from earlier prototypes and sketch drafts. He created an oil painting in 1975, 10 years after he painted the ink version, in a very similar composition, that was published in his catalogue “Soo Pieng” in 1983 (Figure 2).

Soo Pieng spent 2 years in Europe since the end of 1961 and held his successful solo exhibition in Redfern Gallery London, a renowned gallery of more than 90 years by now. Another important solo show held at Redfern later part of that year was for Zao Wou Ki, the great master of Asian abstract painting. While this part of history now being re-examined, the market of Cheong Soo Pieng is still undervalued.


His works during 1962 to 1963 were purely abstract and most were expressing the sceneries of towns. He had an oriental way of approach and integrated the western and oriental elements successfully into the works during this period. Take the “Red Town” (Figure 3) as an example, this work was complete between 1963 and 1964 and artist painted a red sun to shine on a town. There are houses and bell tower in town, formed by black lines and warm surfaces on the canvas, looming into the darkness surrounded where the sky blended with trees and buildings. The top part was inspired by William Turner’s (1789 – 1862) style of lighting effect, the western temperament; and bottom part was the ink effect, the brush spirit from his oriental heritage. 

We now found many of Soo Pieng’s multi-medium works created between 1970 and 1975. He had worked with large enthusiasm beyond traditional mediums such as paper, canvas, pigment and brush and shown great interest in those non-traditional mediums, like wood board, metals, glass and sands which he applied on his “metal relief” series. It seems that he was much inspired by George Braque (1882 – 1963) in his early days especially when traveling in Europe in early 1960s and he absorbed more nutrition from Fauvism and Cubism as well.


Braque was initially of Fauvism, then to Analytical Cubism and eventually Composite Cubism and enjoyed a very high status in France modern art society. Cubism deprived the social property of people, treated them as general objects to depict. It stemmed from two diametrically opposite effects, namely the primitive style and analytical science, started to explore the material structure with multi areas, broke the traditional concept of volume, created a new modelling language according to the development of science and modern thoughts, eventually bridged the past with future and triggered the evolution of modern art. Braque's cubist works combined wisdom and delight, built sophisticated styling and gave rich textures, and their characteristics had reflected abstinence, order, harmony and the passion for creation. The “metal relief” series by Soo Pieng had exactly expressed his interpretation of the composition, texture, creation and passion in Braque style.


Braque had focused on the diversity of textures. "The relationship between colours and other materials had been taken into consideration carefully in the paint treatment, especially that he had considered on the substance of the materials when preparing the right mediums. In short, he is getting away from comfortable and traditional way of painting, and gradually pursued the expression of his subjects. "(Vallier’s interview).


Soo Pieng’s “Contemplation” (Figure 4) in 1970 was a very successful work of metal relief. The artist painted a bigger wood panel into dark grey and used it as the base, another panel into khaki colour and laid it on top, a gap left between the panels with the original wood texture exposed. Echoes with dark grey, metal sheet on top of the base khaki panel has been cut and arranged in oval, rectangular, triangular and trapezoidal shapes. Metal strips are bent into arcs in different roundness, put the space into several segments; or straightened again to form a narrow balance line in the lower part. Copper patches and nails accumulated in the space segments or some area left blank. Colours, shapes, composition and materials have been blended well in the work. 44 years have left a layer of uneven patina on various mediums, which became a perfect interpretation of the co-growing of art and time.

Looking forward, as Singapore transforming from Asian financial centre to asset management centre, the island country has drawn more attention from worldwide. We will have the “SG50” celebration in 2015 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Independence of Singapore and the opening of the new National Gallery. The government is promoting Singapore not only as an important economy but also an international hub for regional art. Elite from the region and also global wise has zoomed in towards Singapore artists. An enhanced taste and more wealth will bring the art collection to the new era, and we may see in next decades the popularization of abstract and semi-abstract art that drive the new growth. Cheong Soo Pieng as the old master among first generation pioneers will be outstanding for being a distinguished Asian abstract artist.


Allison Liu

Dec 2014