RESEARCH & ESSAY.
As the pioneer artist of Indonesia-Singapore, who was born in Guangzhou, China, Lee Man Fong (1913 – 1988) started learning painting since his childhood. He and his parents moved to Singapore in 1917 and studied at the Anglo-Chinese School until 1929 before relocating to Dutch East Indies in 1932. He studied the Lingnan (岭南) style of Chinese brush painting under Mei Yutian, and oil painting under Huang Qingquan. His first career was a Dutch advertising firm Kolff, and then was a Chinese pianist in Batavia, now Jakarta. In 1941, Lee Man Fong was fully dedicated to be a professional painter. He was the best Chinese artist especially skilled in painting animals, natural landscape, figures and village narrative by showcasing cultural aesthetic art.
Entitled to “Lord Tiger standing on the rock”, the present piece is one of Lee’s cultural aesthetic works associated with the Nanyang style executed in synthesis of Chinese technique and subject with Western composition styles. The tiger is painted exquisitely in detail showing a valorous profile standing up on the rock. The animal is featured with its woolly dense skin with meticulous expression of yellow and black stripes alternately, while its beast-like head seems a ferocious entity representing the courage and dignity. The tiger is executed with fine brushwork detail each strand of hair, giving it more realistic with three-dimensional appearance. As the focal point, the tiger is painted in highly detailed brushstrokes that is displayed on a simple landscape as its background executed in freely manner. The technique suggests that Lee employed a fused “gongbi” (工筆)or careful realist technique and “xieyi” (寫意) or freehand style. The blank area on the upper side is inscribed with classical Chinese calligraphy and stamp from the artist suggesting that the artist was inspired by the characteristics of Chinese painting techniques and styles. Executed with the fusion of “gongbi” and “xieyi” techniques on the present piece, this artwork represents the spirit of traditional style of Chinese watercolor and ink painting on paper or silk with European artistic influences.
Tiger is a part of traditional Chinese subject derived from the earliest China periods in 7000 years ago. The tigers were commonly found in ancient China periods, where they could be now found in Kuangtung and Manchuria areas. Just as the dragon is chief of all aquatic creatures, the lion symbolizes the lord of all land animals. It is considered as the king of the wild beasts epitomizing magisterial dignity and acumen that is frequently as a model for courage and bravery of soldiers dealing with danger and terror from enemies. This is why in former times Chinese soldiers were occasionally dressed in imitation tiger-skins, with tails and all complete. Before Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), according to an ancient book, tiger represents “yin” and the dragon denotes “yang”, and both of these creatures are commonly associated with Taoism revering the tiger spirit as Lord Tiger or Hu Ye (虎爺) in order to curse spiritual enemies.
In early 20th century, the celebrated Chinese painter, Wu Cho Bun (Chinese: 胡藻斌; 1897–1942) was famous for painting tigers in China. He got married with his second wife “Ng Wai-chun” in Singapore and bore three daughter and one son. In 1931, he started working in Singapore as the Art Editor for the Singapore Daily. It should be confirmed that Lee Man Fong met in person with Wu Cho Bun and he esteemed Wu’s tiger subjects and style painted in ink and color on silk when Lee’s childhood and youth. As the tiger’s grandeur, the Wu’s tiger masterpiece was then donated to the National Palace Museum (see fig.1). Thus, the present piece was probably one of Lee’s works inspired by Wu Cho Bun’s painting tigers. Lee’s works depicted with tiger have been highly sought-after art in the prime auction houses. For example, his work entitled to “Two Tigers” with Chinese inscription painted in 1978 (size: 104 x 51 cm) was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 6th October 2014, lot. 395, for HK$1,060,000; or equivalent to US$136,634, including buyer’s premium, or US$ 109,564 (HKD 850,000) excluding buyer’s premium (see fig. 2). The Lee’s tigers subject painted in different style soaks in art market. Compare the similar subject entitled to “The Tigers” depicted with two tigers that was sold at Masterpiece Fine Art Auction at Sheraton Tower – Singapore, 21st July 2013, lot. 211, initially estimated between SGD120,000 – SGD180,000 or equivalent to US$94,788 – US$142,182, and sold for SGD 160,000 or equivalent to US$126,384, excluding buyer’s premium (see fig. 3).
CATALOGUE ENTRY.Man Fong