LEE MAN FONG (1913-1988)
’Flute player on a buffalo and his friend’,
signed and dated 1952 upper left in traditional Chinese, board. 99 x 45 cm.
Provenance: acquired directly from the artist in the Netherlands.
Auction 8th of June 2017
Mounting the Ox, slowly
I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones
through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats
the pulsating harmony,
I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody
will join me.
(Riding the Bull Home, 6th poem from the Ten Ox-herding Pictures)
Born in 1913 in Guangzhou, China, Lee Man Fong was one of 10 children. At a young age, the family moved to Singapore, where Man Fong would eventually make ads and artwork to earn a living. In 1932, he moved to Jakarta, where he was inspired by both the ‘Nederlandsch-Indische Kunstkringen’ and the counter movement Persagi. In 1942, he was emprisoned because of his opposition to Japanese colonialism in Indonesia.
Following World War II, Lee Man Fong was introduced to Western painting in the Netherlands, and was inspired to mix Eastern and Westerm art forms, creating a unique artistic body of work. In 1945, he visited Bali, and was inspired to paint a series of Balinese oils in a Western impressionistic style, applying grey, brown and green hues in a rich impasto way, creating a non-romanticized view of his subjects. In the course of his career, he went back to his Chinese roots, painting in a much more calligraphic way. His record-breaking panoramic paintings depicting (a quite idyllic) Bali, typically coined ‘Bali Life’, are executed in a similar way. This style of painting has become Man Fong’s trademark.
The motif of a youth herding a water buffalo alludes to a famous Chinese twelfth-century cycle of parables known as the Ten Ox-herding Pictures, a series of short poems and accompanying images. In this cycle, actions such as looking for an ox and herding it represent some of the steps in the quest for enlightenment. The ten poems include searching the bull, discovering his footprints, perceiving, catching and taming the bull, riding the animal home, transcendence of bull and Self, reaching the source and returning to society. The ox-herding pictures had an immediate and extensive influence on the Chinese practice of Chan Buddhism. Lee Man Fong was well aware of this cycle of parables. The 6th poem, Riding the Bull Home, was one of his favorites to translate into paintings. We see the youth, accompanied by a friend, herding the bull who willingly carries the boy while listening to the sounds of his flute. In this part of Man Fong’s oeuvre, he celebrates the adagium of Less Is More; the transparent background of distant mountains and a steep rocky cliff, overgrown with wild vegetation, is very suggestive, only painted with a few fluent brushstrokes, all in natural tones of brown, green and blue. The bull seems to wonder which direction to go, but is encouraged by the boy and his musical guidance. Although his anatomy suggests a ferociously large animal, the lightness with which Man Fong paints the bull creates a light-legged and friendly character.
When Lee Man Fong lived in Jakarta, he was so respected as an artist that he was asked by President Sukarno to become his personal art advisor and editor of a 5-volume edition of Sukarno’s vast art collection, in 1964. In the introduction of these books, Man Fong summarized his vision on art as follows:
‘Painting is the flower of culture forming an expression without words, but with strokes that can communicate with anyone everywhere, without the limits of time, nationality and language.’
(Lee Man Fong, in: Lukisan Lukisan dan Patung Patung Kolleksi Presiden Sukarno dari Republik Indonesia, part I, Foreword, p. 18)
Gianni Orsini, May 2017
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