Lee Man Fong



Lee Man Fong (b. 1913, Guangdong, China–d. 1988, Jakarta, Indonesia) was a prominent artist based in Indonesia and Singapore. Primarily working with oil paintings, Lee was associated with the Nanyang style, which blends Chinese techniques and subjects with Western composition styles and mediums.

Early life and education
Born in Guangdong in 1913, Lee was three years old when his family emigrated to Singapore.1 His father, Lee Lingxi, managed a shop selling Western-style clothes and Chinese furniture on High Street.


Lee was educated at Yangzheng School and St Andrew’s School. At the former, he was taught to sketch life forms by Mei Yutian, a master in the Lingnan style of Chinese brush painting.2 From the age of 16, Lee learnt the techniques of oil painting3 from Huang Qingquan. His first oil painting, The Shuanglin Temple (1929), demonstrated an early aptitude for perspective and composition.4

Move to Indonesia and career
After his father died in 1930, Lee drew cartoons for newspapers and worked for advertising agencies, where he painted lacquer billboards and designed advertisements.5


In 1932, he moved to Jakarta to become the art editor of a Chinese paper, Shibao,6 which he left the following year to become a designer at established publishing firm Koiff and Company.7 Lee left the company in 1936 and set up an advertising agency, Linto Reclame Bureau, with friends.8

In August 1937, Lee met Lie Muk-Lan, a music graduate of Shanghai’s prestigious College of Arts in Jakarta. They married in January 1938 under the auspices of the Chinese Consul-General in Singapore before returning to Jakarta. Their son Lee Rern was born in 1938 and daughter Lee Ie-Ling in October 1941.9

Artistic career
Even as he established his name in advertising, Lee never gave up on his artistic pursuits. In 1936, he exhibited his paintings for the first time at an exhibition organised by the Dutch Indies Art Association. When Dutch governor-general B. C. de Jong purchased Lee’s Telaga Warna, or Coloured Lake, the previously unknown Chinese artist’s name was put on the radar of art circles in Indonesia and Holland.10

In 1941, Lee left the world of advertising to become a full-time artist. He spent three months painting in Bali and organised his first solo exhibition in Jakarta before travelling to Singapore to meet acclaimed Chinese artist Xu Beihong.11

During the Japanese Occupation of the Dutch East Indies, Lee was arrested and imprisoned by the Japanese military government because of his involvement with the underground revolutionary Fu Xing She (meaning "Restoration Society" in Chinese). His prison jailer, Takahashi Masao, had studied art and befriended Lee. Takahashi secretly smuggled brush and paper for Lee and even attempted to obtain an early release for the young artist but to no avail. Lee was eventually released after six months as he had not committed any crime against the Japanese.12

During the Occupation, Lee also befriended Sukarno, a young Indonesian officer who later became independent Indonesia’s first president. According to Lee, Sukarno often drove him to art galleries, where they would discuss the works on display.13

Time in Holland
After the end of the Japanese Occupation, Lee was commissioned by Dutch viceroy Hubertus van Mook to paint a portrait of his wife. Impressed by the resulting portrait, van Mook personally recommended Lee for a Malino scholarship to Holland14 despite his mature age of 34, his lack of formal art training and his status as a foreign immigrant of neither Dutch nor native Indonesian descent. Accompanied by his wife, Lee spent six years in the Netherlands15, though his scholarship only covered three years of his stay there. Between 1946 and 1952, Lee held four solo exhibitions in Amsterdam and The Hague, and participated in an international Salon (art exhibition) in Paris.16

Lee’s study of the original works of European masters such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Vincent van Gogh was reflected in his works of the period, such as Man with a Pipe (1949) and The Ballerina (1950), which featured dramatically spot-lit subjects, vigorous brushwork and rich colours.17

Return to Southeast Asia
When Lee returned to Indonesia in 1952, his artistic technique had reached a level of maturity hitherto unseen.18 He largely produced works of Indonesian subjects such as The Balinese Youth (1952) and The Rojak Seller (1953), perhaps reflecting his subconscious longing for these familiar subjects after a six-year separation.19


In 1961, Lee became art consultant to the Indonesian presidential palace and chief curator of its collection, positions facilitated by his experience and friendship with President Sukarno. From 1962 to 1964, Lee restored and catalogued the presidential and the state collections, an extensive endeavour that culminated in a five-volume book collection.20

Lee returned to Singapore in 1967 at the request of his aged mother and made Singapore his home base for the next 20 years. While in Singapore, Lee held two high-profile solo exhibitions at the Victoria Memorial Hall in 196721 and in 1981.

In 1987, Lee held his final solo exhibition in Singapore at the National Museum Art Gallery and donated proceeds from the sales of his paintings, prints and catalogues to the National Kidney Foundation.22

Legacy
Lee, a permanent resident of Singapore, passed away in Jakarta in 1988 of a suspected heart attack,23 leaving behind his widow, a son and a daughter, and four grandchildren.24


Forgeries of Lee’s work were common even during his lifetime. In 1992, his painting depicting two richly dressed Dayak women, Sisters (1978), was the subject of much controversy when its authenticity was contested by his daughter and son-in-law, forcing its withdrawal from an auction at the Singapore Art Fair. The controversy remains unresolved with Lee’s family and the owner of Sisters maintaining their conflicting positions on the authenticity of the painting.25

Lee’s legacy as a pioneer artist of Singapore has also been disputed. Although he was included as one of eight Singapore pioneer artists in a video produced by the Ministry of Community Development in 1989, Lee’s name is not usually included with the more familiar names of Cheong Soo Pieng, Georgette Chen and other painters when the Nanyang School is discussed, despite the parallel themes of their work. The debate of whether Lee is a Chinese, Indonesian or Singaporean pioneer painter was raised again at a three-hour forum on his life and works held in 2005 at the Singapore Art Museum, with no clear resolution.26

Despite these debates, Lee’s mastery at the blending of East and West in his oil paintings is not under question. His works remain highly sought-after and are found in both public and private collections internationally. In April 2010, Lee’s Bali Life (c. 1960s), was sold for a record HK$25.3 million (S$4.1 million) at a Chinese contemporary art auction held by Sotheby's in Hong Kong, becoming the most expensive Southeast Asian artwork on auction.



Author
Fiona Tan




References
1. Chua, R. (1987, Jan 1). The art of giving. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Leong, W. K. (2005, April 14). Pioneer Status. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee, M. F. (1984). The oil paintings of Lee Man-Fong: The pioneer artist of Indonesia and Singapore. Taipei: Art Book, p. 8. (Call no.: RSING 959.95957 LEE); Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum, Singapore. (1987). Lee Man Fong 1987. Singapore: The Ministry. (Call no.: RART 759.95957 LEE)
2. Sabapathy, T. K. (1988, April 11). Painter gave new life to old forms. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Sabapathy, T. K. (1988, April 11). Painter gave new life to old forms. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Lee, M. F. (1984). The oil paintings of Lee Man-Fong: The pioneer artist of Indonesia and Singapore. Taipei: Art Book, p. 12. (Call no.: RSING 959.95957 LEE); Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum, Singapore. (1987). Lee Man Fong 1987. Singapore: The Ministry. (Call no.: RART 759.95957 LEE)
5. Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum, Singapore. (1987). Lee Man Fong 1987. Singapore: The Ministry. (Call no.: RART 759.95957 LEE)
6. Chua, R. (1987, Jan 1). The art of giving. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Leong, W. K. (2005, April 14). Pioneer Status. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee, M. F. (1984). The oil paintings of Lee Man-Fong: The pioneer artist of Indonesia and Singapore. Taipei: Art Book, p. 8. (Call no.: RSING 959.95957 LEE)
7. Lee, M. F. (1984). The oil paintings of Lee Man-Fong: The pioneer artist of Indonesia and Singapore. Taipei: Art Book, p. 12. (Call no.: RSING 959.95957 LEE)
8. Lim, R. (1981, July 15). An artist's life. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum, Singapore. (1987). Lee Man Fong 1987. Singapore: The Ministry. (Call no.: RART 759.95957 LEE)
9. Lee, M. F. (1984). The oil paintings of Lee Man-Fong: The pioneer artist of Indonesia and Singapore. Taipei: Art Book, p. 12. (Call no.: RSING 959.95957 LEE)
10. Lee, M. F. (1984). The oil paintings of Lee Man-Fong: The pioneer artist of Indonesia and Singapore. Taipei: Art Book, pp. 8, 12. (Call no.: RSING 959.95957 LEE); Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum, Singapore. (1987). Lee Man Fong 1987. Singapore: The Ministry. (Call no.: RART 759.95957 LEE)
11. Lee, M. F. (1984). The oil paintings of Lee Man-Fong: The pioneer artist of Indonesia and Singapore. Taipei: Art Book, pp. 12–13. (Call no.: RSING 959.95957 LEE); Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum, Singapore. (1987). Lee Man Fong 1987. Singapore: The Ministry. (Call no.: RART 759.95957 LEE)
12. Lim, R. (1981, July 15). An artist's life. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee, M. F. (1984). The oil paintings of Lee Man-Fong: The pioneer artist of Indonesia and Singapore. Taipei: Art Book, p. 13. (Call no.: RSING 959.95957 LEE)
13. Lim, R. (1981, July 15). An artist's life. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Lim, R. (1981, July 15). An artist's life. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Sabapathy, T. K. (1988, April 11). Painter gave new life to old forms. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee, M. F. (1984). The oil paintings of Lee Man-Fong: The pioneer artist of Indonesia and Singapore. Taipei: Art Book, p. 8. (Call no.: RSING 959.95957 LEE)
16. Lee, M. F. (1984). The oil paintings of Lee Man-Fong: The pioneer artist of Indonesia and Singapore. Taipei: Art Book, p. 13. (Call no.: RSING 959.95957 LEE); Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum, Singapore. (1987). Lee Man Fong 1987. Singapore: The Ministry. (Call no.: RART 759.95957 LEE)
17. Lim, R. (1981, July 15). An artist's life. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum, Singapore. (1987). Lee Man Fong 1987. Singapore: The Ministry. (Call no.: RART 759.95957 LEE)
18. Sabapathy, T. K. (1988, April 11). Painter gave new life to old forms. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum, Singapore. (1987). Lee Man Fong 1987. Singapore: The Ministry. (Call no.: RART 759.95957 LEE)
20. Chua, R. (1987, Jan 1). The art of giving. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lim, R. (1981, July 15). An artist's life. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Sabapathy, T. K. (1988, April 11). Painter gave new life to old forms. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee, M. F. (1984). The oil paintings of Lee Man-Fong: The pioneer artist of Indonesia and Singapore. Taipei: Art Book, p. 8. (Call no.: RSING 959.95957 LEE); Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum, Singapore. (1987). Lee Man Fong 1987. Singapore: The Ministry. (Call no.: RART 759.95957 LEE)
21. Leong, W. K. (2000, June 4). Mystery over artist's identity. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Leong, W. K. (2005, April 14). Pioneer Status. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Sabapathy, T. K. (1988, April 11). Painter gave new life to old forms. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lee, M. F. (1984). The oil paintings of Lee Man-Fong: The pioneer artist of Indonesia and Singapore. Taipei: Art Book, p. 13. (Call no.: RSING 959.95957 LEE); Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum, Singapore. (1987). Lee Man Fong 1987. Singapore: The Ministry. (Call no.: RART 759.95957 LEE)
22. Chua, R. (1987, Jan 1). The art of giving. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Sabapathy, T. K. (1988, April 11). Painter gave new life to old forms. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Sabapathy, T. K. (1988, April 11). Painter gave new life to old forms. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Authenticity of Lee Man Fong painting still unresolved. (1996, April 13). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Leong, W. K. (1992, August 23). Sisters not Lee Man Fong's work, insist artist's family. The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Leong, W. K. (2000, June 4). Mystery over artist's identity. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Leong, W. K. (2005, April 14). Pioneer Status. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



Further resources
Deepika, S. (2012, May 22). Singapore's high-priced treasures. The Straits Times, Life!, p. C2. Retrieved March 15, 2013, from Factiva.


符致珊. [Fu, Z. S.] (2002). 李曼峰:从生活中来的画家 [Lee Man Fong: An artist drawing from life's experience]. 南洋艺术 [Nanyang arts], 8, 26-28.
(Call no.: RSING Chinese 700.5 NA issue Jan 2002 no 08)

Lee, M. F. (ed.). (1964). Lukisan-lukisan dan patung-patung kolleksi Presiden Sukarno dari Republik Indonesia [Paintings and statues from the collection of President Sukarno of the Republic of Indonesia]. Djakarta: Panitia Penerbit Lukisan-Lukisan dan Patung-Patung Kolleksi Presiden Sukarno.
(Call no.: RCLOS Malay 759.9598 SUK -[SEA] v. 1-5)

Sheares, C. (Script writer) & Ngo K.C. (Producer). (1987). Lee Man Fong and Huang Pao Fang [VHS videorecording]. Singapore: Ministry of Community Development and the National Museum Singapore.
(Call no.: RSING English 759.95957 LEE)



The information in this article is valid as at 15 March 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further resources on the topic.

 

Subject
Lee, Man-Fong, 1913-1988
Artists--Singapore--Biography
Painters (Art)
Singapore painters
Arts>>Visual Arts>>Painting
Personalities>>Biographies>>Artists
Painting
Artists
Painters--Singapore--Biography
Oil painters

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