SINGAPORE – Dr Lee Hung Ming is likely the only ophthalmologist in the world who specialises in collecting the artworks of pioneer artist Cheong Soo Pieng.
He is also one of the fastest – his collection of more than 30 works was acquired in about two years, from the start of 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The prominent eye surgeon, 58, says: “It was during the pandemic that I had more time and energy to revisit my passion.”
To build his collection, he acquired works from auction houses including Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Larasati Auctioneers. He consulted gallerist Ho Sou Ping of artcommune gallery, whose network of art collectors includes many fans of Cheong.
But, as Dr Lee found out, even the offer of a good price was sometimes not enough to persuade these collectors to part with their paintings.
“There were a lot of rejections. Genuine collectors are not going to sell,” he says. But he persisted, as he maintains: “A collection needs to have breadth and depth to tell a story. A complete story.”
For now, he has set out to collect as many works as he can that show the evolution of Cheong’s artistry, after hours of research on the artist.
One of his acquisitions is a painting called Mother And Child, dated 1952. It is painted in a manner often referred to as the Nanyang style – a fusion of Eastern and Western styles with the evident influence of artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.
This painting bears the hallmarks of that style, including nativistic themes and bold colours and brushwork.
Dr Lee notes that 1952 was an important year because it was then that Cheong, as well as fellow pioneer artists Liu Kang, Chen Wen Hsi and Chen Chong Swee, travelled to Bali, which had a big influence on the Nanyang style of painting.
He adds that Cheong’s style continued to evolve afterwards. In his collection is an oil painting called The Harbour Kelong, dated 1961, which marks the year of another seminal trip Cheong took. This time, it was to Europe, where he encountered the works of a different genre, including those of the Chinese-French abstract artist Zao Wou-Ki.
In Europe, Cheong started painting much larger abstract landscapes, including Vision (1963), a “jumbo size” abstract cityscape that Dr Lee believes was painted in England.
On his return to Singapore in 1963, Cheong experimented with three-dimensional and relief works too, often using found objects, a practice associated with the early-20th-century Dada art movement.
Dr Lee collected examples of this period too, in the form of Construction (1969), an assemblage of construction materials like metal pipes and bolts, and a painting called Plan Construction (1973), which has strips of collaged painted canvas that look brutally assembled. He also bought an unusual cloisonne-like artwork from 1974 called Lady.
Interestingly, in a 1980 interview, the artist said: “Arts of the 1980s should include applied arts, including the representative arts of the Nanyang. The only way for a Nanyang style to emerge is to start working from these materials.”
One of Dr Lee’s most prized acquisitions is an oil painting called Resting. Painted in 1977, when the artist was 60, it depicts two Balinese women in a style most associated with the artist.
“This remarkable painting conjures and conveys an amazing sense of peace, spirituality as well as oneness and harmony with nature, and it always compels me to stare at and admire it for long periods,” he adds.
This painting’s themes are still nativistic, but the characters are elevated in status and no longer simply village women. The background is highly detailed, with depictions of Hindu gods that seem to watch over the women, who seem almost regal.
At this time in the late 1970s, Cheong, who was born in Xiamen, China, in 1917, may have been reassessing his Asian heritage. In 1979, he even travelled to China. Then, in 1981, he held a solo exhibition in Taiwan.
Dr Lee’s painting from this period, titled YehLiu, Taiwan (1981), is done in Chinese ink on rice paper and is striking not only for its synthesis of styles, but also because its Western influence, as seen in some of the brushwork, is now much more subdued.
Indeed, there is so much variety in Cheong’s work that Dr Lee believes there could be up to 10 distinctive artistic styles throughout the artist’s life, and he has made it his mission to collect them all.
“I am still looking for more paintings,” he adds.
Cheong’s work is not cheap. Transactions in 2022 at auction house Sotheby’s show artworks sold from around $60,000 for an ink painting on paper to $640,000 for an oil on canvas. In March, Cheong’s Satay Seller (1982) sold for $1.06 million at Larasati Auctioneers.
While Dr Lee will not reveal how much he has spent on his new art collection, he does say it has all been insured. “If a collection has reached a significant absolute value or a significant percentage of one’s net worth, then it makes sense to insure the artworks.”
He also hopes to share his collection with the public soon. “Together with a few art collectors, we plan to stage a Cheong Soo Pieng exhibition next year so that Singaporeans will have the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate his works,” he reveals.
For now, he takes good care of his collection, checking for water marks, mould or any deterioration in colour and brightness. “Once any defect is found, you can send the artwork to the professional restorer.”
He also ensures the artworks are kept in well-ventilated areas away from direct sunlight and in areas with relatively constant humidity and temperature.
He adds: “All the artworks are going to outlast us. I am just a temporary custodian of them.”