A Painting in Western Technique and Chinese Art Format: Gibbon with Her Babies on Rockwork and Tree

A Painting in Western Technique and Chinese Art Format: Gibbon with Her Babies on Rockwork and Tree

Research & Essay

The painting art can be traced back to pre-historic periods, which the human’s fingers were used as a paintbrush on the cave walls. When it comes to a steady movement of painting art world in nineteenth century, Indonesian artists learned and mastered the styles of European painting. Watercolors is one the most frequently medium to use, and their works bare the gorgeous landscape and romantic themes, which was similar to European paintings.

A Painting in Western Technique and Chinese Art Format: Gibbon with Her Babies on Rockwork and Tree
A Painting in Western Technique and Chinese Art Format: Gibbon with Her Babies on Rockwork and Tree

In modern era, there were numerous talented watercolor artists in Indonesia, and they increased on daily basis in the post-war II eras. However, there was a unique style of painting that combines the European art techniques with Chinese art format, like what a Chinese-born artist, Lee Man Fong executed on the present work. This artist’s oeuvre was considered as one of the newly born works in post-war era influenced by real rendering technique, ink philosophy, Western technique of oil on canvas, social change of surrounding environment but it was composed in Chinese art format. The present artwork was acquired by the father’s owner directly from the artist in 1964, one year prior to the turbulence and assassination of members of the Indonesian Communist Party in 30th September 1965. The owner said to the author that this painting brings him closer to a sublimity taste, and the author said that this aesthetic legacy also shares the traditional Chinese painting format and Western technique with an effusive cultural Chinese message.

Entitled “Gibbon with Her Baby on Rockwork and Tree”, Lee Man Fong meticulously painted the animals by featuring their short tail, long hands, and the body covered with white-shaded beige fur, while the upper side of its head and face are painted in blackish. Two large gibbons are depicted in squatting on an oak tree branch and precipitously rocks, which one of them shows enfolding her baby and another biting the food. Large rock and oak trees around them are depicted in whitish green-shaded dark with the green and beige background. On the upper right of the painting, the artist writes his signature in black Chinese character with a red square seal mark, while red rectangle seal mark is also written on the upper right side.

Born in Guanzhou, China, in 14th November 1913, Lee Man Fong trained both in China and in Western Europe. He lived much of his life in Indonesia, and developed a principally style that blends together a variety of sources for his quite yet passionate vision. Like the present work, the artist frequently turned Chinese brushwork and technique in Nanyang style, but he depended on Western visual practices. The present work certainly was completed after the artist studied the original works of European masters such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Vincent van Gogh when he received the Malino scholarship to Netherlands. Like the present work painted in 1964, Man Fong blended Western art technique with Chinese painting art format expressing a tendency to create the atmospheric effect prevalent in Chinese style ink on paper paintings. To show characteristic taste of Chinese arts, Man Fong embellishes the flavor of tastes by applying the xieyi free-hand style to the twigs of the trees, emitting natural result of the beauty. The artist then combines it with a careful realist style or Gongbi style on the animal figures that represent the beauty of art in Western technique of oil on canvas.

On the present work, the artist also composes the multiple representations of perspective creating a dynamic composition that encompasses the viewer in full. The focal point on the present work is not fully the landscape, but it is that of animals in nature around rocks, and trees depicted in crisp detail scrutinizing the viewers of this work. By gazing into the focal point, the animal figures transform from crisp detail to soft brushstrokes on background that establish linear depth. Lee Man Fong experimented with Eastern-style oil painting at the age of 25 in 1937 and decisively committed himself to the incorporation of eastern elements in his paintings in the 1940s. The gibbon’s images are depicted in detail and beautifully full of allure. The gibbons are exquisitely rendered, and the technique of laying on paint or pigment are applied thickly so that it stands out from a surface glaring a great sense of verisimilitude. They are also depicted colorfully alive, vividly realistic and capable of evoking intense emotions despite some parts of old tree and its twigs on this work are painted in slightly simple narrative. The artist set the varied poses of gibbons with their realistic expressions and actions that are complemented by the expressive texture of fur rendered ingeniously with light and dark as well as wet and dry application of paint. The brushstrokes for the oak trees branch and precipitously rock in the setting are also exhibited in natural and precise format.

By taking the Chinese root sources of his works frequently, Lee Man Fong represents the subject on this work that gibbon on the present work is cultural symbol of wealth and abundance and celebrated as one of its most important animal symbols. As one of the painter’s favorite animal painting subjects, the gibbon or apes is a Chinese cultural symbol of fun, activity, charm and an energetic nature and it is celebrated as one of its most important animal symbols. In his considerable oeuvre, Lee Man Fong oftentimes created a significant number of animal paintings which express the importance and continuing relevance of Chinese culture and its meaning in his life and works.

The gibbon or monkey is considered as one of important subjects playing the significant roles in Chinese culture for over two thousand years. The pictorial painting depicting the gibbons were available on Chinese hanging scroll ink on silk in the Southern Song dynasty (1127 – 1279 AD). For example, a Hanging Scroll ink on silk entitled “A Gibbon with Her Baby on A Pine Branch”, was painted by the Chinese artist Muqi (1210 – 1269 AD) during Southern Song dynasty (see fig. 1).1) In the Ming dynasty, the gibbon images also appeared on the handscroll paintings on paper. See the scroll entitled “Gibbons at Play” was painted by the Xuande emperor of Ming dynasty in 1427 AD, and now is in The National Palace Museum, Taipei (see fig. 2).2) The Xuande Emperor of Ming dynasty was known as an accomplished painter, particularly he was skilled at painting animals like the gibbons on the present work.

The visualization of the subject on this work indeed exceptionally draws people’s attention to Lee’s ability to be a talent artist presenting the animal life in teaching affection, yearning and relationship care for human life. Man Fong also reveals the legend of gibbon as the symbol of the power of innovation and being able to quickly solve the problems as well as conceive how to socialize well in order to be able to achieve their goals expeditiously. Gibbon has become Lee’s beloved and highly sought-after work in Europe and Hong Kong. Compare a similar style of the artist’s work but in different composition and medium entitled “Monkeys” (122 x 61 cm) painted oil on masonite board in 1978, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 5th April 2015, lot. 441. The lot was sold for HK$ 375,000 or equivalent to €44,475, initially estimated between HK$ 300,000 – HK$ 500,000 (see fig. 3). However, the subject depicting the gibbons like on the current Lee Man Fong’s work is extremely rare for its medium of oil on canvas, as opposed to Lee’s more common working in oil on masonite board. Entitled “Gibbon with Her Baby on Rockwork and Tree”, the present work exceptionally painted oil on canvas is one of the most celebrated Lee’s gibbon paintings derived from ancient Chinese “gibbon” handscroll paintings of all times of his life and career. The artist’s work painted oil on canvas were completed albeit in a small number, and it was sought-after by collectors. For example, Lee Man Fong’s painting oil on canvas “Bali Life’ (82,5 x 184 cm, painted in 1974) was sold for HK$35.96 million ($4.7 million) at Christie’s in Hong Kong that set a record for the artist.


  1. Gibbon paintings in China, Japan, and Korea: Historical distribution, production rate and context, Gibbon Journal Nr. 4 – 2008, Thomas Geissmann, Anthropological Institute, University Zürich-Irchel, Winterthurerstr. 190, CH–8057 Zürich, Switzerland, 2008, p. 2.

  2. The gibbon in China: an essay in Chinese animal lore, Robert Hans van Gulik, E.J. Brill, Leiden, Holland, 1967, p. 95

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