Cheong Soo Pieng
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Cheong Soo Pieng (b.1917, Amoy, China - d. 1st July 1983, Singapore), was one of Singapore's pioneer modern artists, and a key proponent of the Nanyang style of art. He is known for his paintings of Malay women depicted with elongated limbs. Having taught for many years at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, he has influenced many of his students as well.
The youngest of seven children, Cheong Soo Pieng started studying art at age 16, in the Xiamen Academy of Fine Art. It is noted that his parents neither encouraged nor discouraged his pursuit of the arts. After graduating three years later, he moved to Shanghai for further studies. However, his time at the Sin Hwa Academy of Fine Art in Shanghai was disrupted by the Sino-Japanese war. The Japanese destroyed the school in 1938. Hence, Cheong Soo Pieng returned to the Xiamen academy to teach. He held his first solo exhibit there in 1942. At that time, the artist painted primarily in watercolours as he had little opportunity to paint with oils, oil paints being hard to find. Cheong Soo Pieng decided to leave China in 1945, and spent some time in Hong Kong before relocating to Singapore in late 1946. He quickly gained employment at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, teaching for over 20 years there before becoming a full-time artist in his late 40s.
Whilst known as a dynamic teacher, Cheong Soo Pieng's first commitment has always been to art-making. His innovative spirit has been recognised as a major influence on Singapore modern art. In a short span of time his works had progressed through several phases: From post-Impressionist to Cubist to abstract, semi-abstract and more. They showcase his versatility as an artist. He was especially fond of early Egyptian and primitive art forms, and liked to paint squirrels.
Cheong Soo Pieng was often said to be a man of few words, who valued his privacy, led a simple lifestyle and let his artworks speak for themselves. In fact, some have dubbed him a journalist's nightmare. He had never been interviewed in-depth by the English press.
He formulated his distinctive style of painting Malay women after a 1959 trip to the Dayak longhouses of Borneo. Besides painting both in the Eastern and Western techniques of Chinese ink and oils, Cheong Soo Pieng also sculpted and crafted metal installations. But it is his Nanyang-style paintings in particular that have received much attention. The techniques used are recognised as a creative blend of West and East, and the subject matter was inspired from his Southeast Asian surroundings hence the term Nanyang or South-Seas style. He was one of the first artists to paint in this theme. Inspiration for this stemmed from a Bali trip in 1952, which he embarked with three others: Liu Kang, Chen Wen Hsi and Chen Chong Swee.
A favourite with critics and curators, many have lauded Cheong Soo Pieng's works, calling the artist a pacesetter and a dominant figure in Singapore's modern art scene. To recognise his contributions to Singapore's art history, the National Museum Art Gallery organised a retrospective exhibition of his works in 1983. Unfortunately he did not live to see this: four months shy of the exhibit, he died of heart failure on 1st July 1983 at the age of 66.
For Soo Pieng, art is the beginning, the end, and the meaning of all life. He has no other interest. (Frank Sullivan, art writer).
1933-1935: Xiamen Academy of Fine Art
1936: Sin Hwa Fine Art Academy (Shanghai) until studies were disrupted by Sino-Japanese war. The school was destroyed in 1938.
1947-1961: Teaches at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts
1948: Part-time lecturer at Chinese High School
1952: Travels to Bali with Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Liu Kang
1959: Travels to Borneo and is inspired by the Sarawak lifestyle
1961-1963: Travels through Europe, holding exhibitions in London, Oxford and Munich
1963-death: Full-time artist
1962: Meritorious Public Service Medal, Singapore
1942: First solo show of watercolours in China.
1953: Paintings on Bali exhibition in Singapore, with Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Liu Kang.
1956: Holds first solo exhibitions in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang.
1962: Holds exhibitions in London and Munich. Represented Singapore in the Commonwealth Art Today Exhibition organised by the Singapore Art Society, held at the Commonwealth Institute, London.
1963: Holds exhibitions in London and Oxford
1964: Sets up an art studio in Zion Road giving private art lessons to pupils.
1965: Paintings are shown at the Commonwealth Arts Festival in Glasgow and Dublin.
1966: Participates in the Malaysian Art Exhibition in London, Cologne, Berlin, Hamburg.
1967: Twenty years of his art, a solo exhibition at the National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, in honour of his 50th birthday. Also exhibits at Sculpture 67, Singapore's first sculpture show.
Wife: Ng Lay Sian
Children: Two sons, Cheong Wai Chi and Cheong Teng, and one daughter Leng Guat
Grandson: Cheong Yang
Granddaughters: Wan Chen, Wan Ting and Wan Er
Cheong, S. P. (1956). Cheong Soo Pieng: Catalogue of an exhibition of paintings [Microfilm: NL 12111]. Singapore: Straits Commercial Art Co.
Cheong, S. P. (1980). Soo Pieng (Paintings of Cheong Soo Pieng). Singapore: unknown.
(Call no.: RSING 759.95957 SOO)
Cheong, S. P. (1983). Soo Pieng. Singapore: Summer Times Publishing.
(Call no.: RSING 759.95957 CHE)
Gretchen, M. (1983, November 9). Looking back over 30 years. The Straits Times.
Obituary for Cheong Soo Pieng. (1983, July 3). The Sunday Times. p. 30.
Sabapathy, T.K. (1983, August 2). New styles from a turbulent era. The Straits Times.
Tribute to pioneer artist. (1983, July 5). The Straits Times, p. 9.
Biotechnics.org. (n.d). Cheong Soo Pieng notes. Retrieved October 31, 2006, from http://www.biotechnics.org/2cheongsoopieng.html
Hsu, M.C.F. (1999). A Brief History of Malayan Art. Singapore: Millennium Books.
(Call no.: RSING 709.595 HSU)
Singapore Mint (1994). Reminiscence of Singapore's Pioneer Art Masters: Liu Kang, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi. Singapore: Singapore Mint.
(Call no.: RSING 759.95957 REM)
The information in this article is valid as at 2006 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.