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. 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. From the age of 16, Lee learnt the techniques of oil painting from Huang Qingquan. His first oil painting, The Shuanglin Temple (1929), demonstrated an early aptitude for perspective and composition.
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.
In 1932, he moved to Jakarta to become the art editor of a Chinese paper, Shibao, which he left the following year to become a designer at established publishing firm Koiff and Company. Lee left the company in 1936 and set up an advertising agency, Linto Reclame Bureau, with friends.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Holland 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 Netherlands, 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.
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.
Return to Southeast Asia
When Lee returned to Indonesia in 1952, his artistic technique had reached a level of maturity hitherto unseen. 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.
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 endeavor that culminated in a five-volume book collection.
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 1967 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.