AOTM: Self Portrait by Lee Cheng Yong

AOTM: Self Portrait by Lee Cheng Yong

Every month, we feature artwork from Penang State Art Gallery’s permanent collection.

By Kay Lynn Chua

Lee Cheng Yong, Self Portrait, 1941, Oil, 43x31cm
Image courtesy of Penang State Art Museum

Lee Cheng Yong (born 1913) is frozen in time in this post-Impressionist style portrait of his 28-year-old self. One of the pioneer artists who made tremendous contributions to the early development of Malaysian art, Lee was influenced by Chinese brush art, French Impressionism and German Expressionism. He was hailed as one of the most versatile artists of his time, with works ranging from gouache landscapes, oil portrait paintings to sculptures (notably, one of Malaya’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman).

After receiving his art training in Shanghai, 19-year-old Lee returned to Penang in 1932 and later became the president of the Penang Chinese Art Club in 1935, an art educator at Chung Ling High School, and an artist that garnered the attention of fellow artists and collectors. His ability to generously share his knowledge and skills produced prominent proteges like Chong Hon Fatt and Chai Chuan Jin.

In Self-Portrait, Lee is wearing a white suit and looking straight at the viewer. His dressing and slicked back hair allow us to believe that at 28, he is already a skilled and distinguished professional. Lee’s use of subdued tonality here pays homage to post-Impressionist traditions. The deep purple background mimics the rhythmic brush strokes of Van Gogh, giving even the simplest of backgrounds three-dimensional value and texture. Despite the dull colours used in his painting, the figure resonates life and warmth, a quality that lies in Lee’s ingenious technique of juxtaposing dark colours against light ones.

The figure looks expressionless and lost in thought. What was the artist thinking? Where was the artist while painting this? Was this really what the artist looked like when the painting was made? We have to make our presumptions, and it is this joy of not being fully certain that pulls us back to this piece, again and again.

Kay Lynn Chua is a practising artist with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art from the California Institute of the Arts. Her other passions lie in teaching young children and writing about art.