I t is fitting that Sir Run Run Shaw would have had an extraordinary collection of art. With his instinct for the cinematic and keen eye for talent, he brought a similar powerful sensibility to the different areas of his life, whether it was as a connoisseur of art or as a philanthropist dedicated to the advancement of education, healthcare, and science. Looking at the works of Shaw’s collection, one might recognize ideas that reflect the rise of the media pioneer’s career in film and television industry, from his early start in Southeast Asia to later when he brought Chinese-language films of Singapore and Hong Kong to audiences around the world.
Several works from the Sir Run Run Shaw collection will be presented at Sotheby’s Chinese Paintings, Chinese Works of Art, and Modern Art auctions in Hong Kong this April. Together, this season’s offering could be considered one of the best single-owner collection series from Asia. The highlight of the Modern Evening Auction will be Chen Yifei’s epoch-defining masterpiece Banquet, joined by works by Cheong Soo Pieng and Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merprés, masters who lived and worked in Southeast Asia.
"I have eyes of a painter, and I always cherish the curiosity of a child for any beauty in life."
Beauty is the thread that connects the diverse works of Chen Yifei. In his paintings of musicians, a key body of Chen’s work from the 1990s, he often depicts women performing solo or ensemble on classical instruments. Banquet is an important example from this period; completed in 1992, the painting depicts the visual manifestations of ultimate Chinese beauties, every poised fingertip emanating femininity, the slenderness of their exposed wrists accentuated by such luminous complexions and warm shadows. Adding to the very mystery of the painting, the ensemble woodwind players at the titular banquet appear entirely disengaged, each levelling faraway gazes in solitary directions, emphasising their distance and unattainability.
The rise of Chen Yifei marked a pivotal point in the history of modern Chinese art. When he flew to New York in the 1980s, he was according to Art News, “the first New Chinese artist studying in the U.S." He began making art in China, and then was embraced by the rest of the world. Chen's outstanding talent and assiduous work ethic garnered his works international recognition and acclaim. During his study abroad in the United States, Chen took part in restoring many great masterpieces. Having gained a deep understanding of Western Classicism and its Realism traditions, Chen began his own series of paintings of Western musicians infatuated in their world of symphony. Subsequently, the subject matter adapted a Chinese cultural context to which Chen was intimately familiar.
Music at the Banquet: A Chen Yifei Masterwork from the Shaw Collection
Distinguished for his blend of classic realist and romantic styles, Chen’s paintings fused elements of his diverse influences, refining each technique to the highest level and shaping the visual history of an era. Most of these classic paintings are grouped into series; his revolutionary paintings were created before China’s ‘Reform and Opening’, the Musician series after his move to the United States, and his Beauties, Old Dreams of Shanghai, and Tibet series from the 1990s. The best works in each of these respective series depict multiple figures. Banquet is the only known work portraying five beauties, and it seems to have been directly inspired by Night Revels of Han Xizai a masterwork of Chinese painting from the 10th century.
Painted at the artist’s creative peak, Banquet marks a key moment at the height of Chen Yifei’s personal achievements as well as the rebirth of Chinese art. While his eyes were opened to the many sights during his sojourn abroad in North America and in Europe, these beautiful visions would ultimately drawn him back to the history and culture of his homeland. Banquet embodies this late 20th-century nostalgia, steeped in the traditions of former age, as Chen conscientiously filled in the historical voids and cultural fault lines from the Cultural Revolution with his brush. The painting’s pitch-black background evokes a stage, placing the viewer in the audience. This work makes use of the poetic voids in Chinese ink painting, while the search for a way to depict music faintly echoes Western abstract and conceptual art and demonstrates Chen’s extraordinary flair for the dramatic.
In 1992, the year after the painting was completed, Banquet graced the cover of the Christie’s Swire Hong Kong Contemporary Chinese Oil Paintings catalogue and was purchased by Sir Run Run Shaw for close to HK$2 million. This sale broke the artist’s auction record and set a new one for any Chinese oil painting at an overseas auction at that time.
“Like his contemporaries who came from South China and built their lives and communities in Singapore and Malaysia, Cheong Soo Pieng came and created visions – visions that have become part of our cultural heritage.”
Sir Run Run Shaw’s personal connections with Singapore and his immense legacy is poignantly represented by Brother and Sister, an enchanting vignette of local everyday life through the lens of the Chinese-born artist Cheong Soo Pieng. This work exemplifies a distinctive visual style marking the mature and final phase of Cheong Soo Pieng’s celebrated artistic career.
Recognised as a visionary who spearheaded the Nanyang Art Movement, Cheong’s paintings evoke paradise, with the presence of family and community deep in his works. As a result of his classical training in Xiamen and Shanghai, as well as keen observations travelling in Europe and Southeast Asia, Cheong developed a voracious appetite for experimentation. Brother and Sister is a quintessential example of Cheong’s iconic stylization from a sought-after period in the artist’s diverse oeuvre. In a moment of serene tenderness, a young boy and his older sister sit together at table, perhaps sharing an afternoon snack. Cheong Soo Pieng was inspired by the theatricality of the Indonesian shadow-puppet plays and translated this cinematic quality in the present painting, “backlighting” the figures’ elongated limbs against the lush backdrop, radiating with gold pigments.
The asymmetry of Cheong’s painting is unusual, as it creates a dynamism rarely seen in the artist’s late works on the market. The simplified geometric dark brown, blue and green shapes echo Cheong’s explorations of Cubism in the late 1950s and 1960s. By distorting the picture plane and playing with spatial dimensions, the artist revisits the abstracted grid-like landscapes he created following a pivotal trip in Europe. These thoughtful interventions in Brother and Sister allows Cheong to display a culmination of artistic explorations from various moments in his life.
Another key part of the Shaw collection, three paintings by the Belgian painter Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès express a love of Bali and all its enchantments within. Three Balinese Women in the Garden is a mature work from the final few years of Le Mayeur’s life, which rejoices in the artist’s most quintessential themes of flora, vibrant local culture, and graceful Balinese women. It portrays a precious moment in time, wherein two carefree Balinese dancers effortlessly dance together among the adumbral garden, moving in harmonious synchrony and exemplifying the landscape’s nebulous tranquility.
Following the footsteps of French artist Paul Gauguin, Le Mayeur travelled to Tahiti in search for unadulterated paradise and artistic inspiration. He later made his way to Bali where he found his own endless vat of imagination that would nurture his creative soul. The composition of Two Balinese Women with Offerings, Sanur Beach was likely influenced by the Gauguin’s iconic Tahitian compositions featuring stylized women up close, inhabiting their natural milieu as they carry on with their circadian tasks with solemn expressions. The two women in Le Mayeur’s painting are engrossed in their creative task of meticulously preparing offerings of fruits and flowers, which they would later carry on their heads and present to their local deities. The scene overlooks Sanur beach, by which Le Mayeur’s home and studio was situated.
A brief divergence from his sun-drenched opus, Four Balinese Women in the Interior of the Le Mayeur house, Sanur, Bali is one of the exceptional interior pieces that attest to the artist’s ability to work with varying degrees of light. Shrouded in the muted light within the interior, the foreground of the present lot provides a soothing repose from the endless sunlight that characterized Le Mayeur’s works. Even within this cool shelter, the scene is permeated with the recognizable, heated glow experienced in his paintings. This is the only known work that features both the interior of Le Mayeur’s celebrated studio as well as its exterior, including his terrace, garden, and view of Sanur beach. These three paintings by Le Mayeur, as well as the poignant work by Cheong Soo Pieng, represent Sir Run Run Shaw’s strong historical and personal relationship with the Southeast Asian region.
Sir Run Run Shaw was not only a pioneer in the film and television industry, but also a consummate patron of the arts and a dedicated humanitarian. In 2002, he and his wife, Mona, founded The Shaw Prize, an international award to honour individuals who achieve significant and distinguished advances in their respective fields. With a rich history of benevolence, The Shaw Foundation Hong Kong remains committed to furthering the aims of Mr and Mrs Shaw by continuing to focus widely on advancing societal progress and enhancing the quality of daily life for the betterment of society in general.