RESEARCH & ESSAY
The piece is exquisitely painted with a boy and a girl riding a Water Buffalo. The buffalo is a tapering-horned animal like a bull walking gracefully, painted in black layered with brownish green on its leather parts. Wearing a wide hat and short-sleeve shirt with a towel hanging around his neck and pants folded on his leg, the boy is depicted guiding the Water Buffalo. His right hand holds the leash while his left hand holds a piece of rice straw. The girl greatly enjoys hitchhiking on the back as well with her left hand holding onto his shoulder. All these scenes are decorated with a large and old dried tree and rocks with weeds growing around the ground. Two lines of black vertical Chinese poems calligraphy and a red round seal mark are written on the upper right, and a red square seal mark is on the lower left.
As a painter born in Guangzhou, China, Lee Man Fong was inspired from the Chinese painting technique and subject. Decorated in slightly abstract in quality and skillfully painted with rendering technique through brushstroke, Lee is highly respect depicting this subject with Chinese traditional painting techniques through well-executed brushstrokes in the xieyi (寫意) or freehand style in trailing the traditional Chinese painting art. The freehand style, like on this painting, is also called Southern or Literary style that means “wrote ideas”, and the brushstrokes are closer to the strokes in calligraphy. From early twentieth century, especially with establishment of the Republic of China and lustrous painting art development in Indonesia, the technique was developed and widely influenced by Europe techniques. On the present work, Lee executed and integrated the technique and ideas of Western painting into Chinese painting tradition. Hence, this artwork tends to be simple, bold, and flowing: somewhat impressionistic, paying little attention to detail.
Lee Man Fong grasped the philosophy of the meaning of a water buffalo expressed into this work. The nature of the Buffalo tends to be very methodical and slow, but people who have this zodiac are able to approach projects or assignments slowly though surely to the best for them. Water Buffalo (Bubalus arnee) is a type of animal indicated as Chinese native buffalo living in swamp and wild. This animal is believed to be a tame animal for 4000 years ago in Chinese empires. Water Buffalo is symbolized as perseverance and patience because its nature and behavior are slow yet tenacious and continues to step forward for sure. Lee Man Fong highly fathoms the taste of traditional Chinese art combined with Western painting technique. He is able to put the philosophy notions and the symbol of wild Water Buffalo (Bubalus arnee) into the art of beauty to be able to be experienced by each level of enthusiasts of the Southeast Asian arts beauty.
The interest in Southeast Asian artworks market indicates the strong demand. Like the current piece, the theme “Riding a water buffalo” painted by Lee Man Fong have been become prestigious choice and appetite among the prudent collectors. For example, a similar subject and style to the current piece is a “Riding a water buffalo”, sold at Larasati Singapore, dated 9th April 2005, lot. 20, sold for S$117,000 (see fig. 1). Another, the Lee’s smaller painting (105 x 50.5 cm) depicted the similar theme to the current piece and dated 1977, is included in Oil Painting, Lee Man Fong, Vol. 2, Siont Teja, Art Retreat, Singapore, 2005, illustrated in color, p. 204. The piece was then sold at Borobudur – Singapore, dated 9th June 2012, lot. 165, estimated between S$100,000 to S$150,000 (SGD) and sold for S$292,800 or equivalent to US$227,564 (see fig. 2).
Oil Painting, Lee Man Fong, Vol. 2, Siont Teja, Art Retreat, Singapore, 2005, illustrated in color, p. 204.