How Shell helped make Cheong Soo Pieng a national artist
Scott Anthony, co-author of the recently published Shell Art & Advertising, reflects on Shell's striking international legacy, and in particular the company's support of South East Asian artists, including Singapore's Cheong Soo Pieng...
Cheong Soo Pieng, Singapore, 1962, Shell Heritage Art Collection.
Now that the Asian art market is worth tens of billions a year, and that the standing of Nanyang artists like Cheong Soo Pieng is widely acknowledged, it’s easy to lose sight of how rapidly fortunes in Asian art have changed. It is difficult to imagine there was a time when Soo Pieng was not an internationally respected South East Asian artist. Yet it could easily have been different.
The first decades of Soo Pieng’s life had been disrupted by the Sino-Japanese War. In 1946 he fled from Xiamen to Malaya where he spent the next seventeen years teaching at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. In 1961, having finally freed himself from teaching, Soo Pieng hoped to travel, reflect, and develop his practice.
But his ambitions quickly ran into trouble. First, his great patron, Loke Wan Tho, the Cathay film mogul, died in a plane crash. Then there was the social and economic tumult which followed Malaysian independence in 1963 and the abrupt expulsion of Singapore two years later. Without new patrons, Soo Pieng’s career could have fallen apart. This is where Shell came in. For international businesses, sponsorship of the arts became a useful tool for building relationships with new and emerging social elites.
More broadly, oil companies were particularly important in bridging the collapse of political empires, the rise of new nationalisms, and the coordination of emerging global markets. This was true in terms of both the modern development of the natural world – logistics, fertilisers and pharmaceuticals – as well as modern social developments in housing, education and employment. By the 1960s Anthony Sampson described the oil companies as the world’s private government. Shell’s fleet was at that time bigger than any navy, its earnings higher than Switzerland’s GDP.
In 1965, Shell began commissioning world artists for its 'Ports of the World' series. Their aim was to try and capture both the cosmopolitanism and the local flavours of the modern port city. Cheong Soo Pieng was the artist chosen to represent Singapore.
At a time when funding for the arts was at a low ebb, Shell’s patronage proved especially important, not just to Soo Pieng, but to the development of modern art and design across the post-colonial world. In Britain, Shell’s far-sighted commissioning of important mid-century artists like Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, and Edward McKnight Kauffer has long been recognised. But the extent to which this was part of a much larger international phenomenon is massively under-appreciated.
Erhabor Ogieva Emokpae, Lagos, 1963, Shell Heritage Art Collection.
For 'Ports of the World', Shell’s commissions stretched from Vancouver to Sydney: Avish Chandra painted Bombay, Willi Chen painted Port of Spain and Erhabor Ogieva Emokpae painted Lagos.
Soo Pieng proved an inspired choice for the project. At the heart of Soo Pieng’s aesthetic was the aim to develop a visual idiom able to interpret the heterodox uniqueness of South East Asia. In pursuit of this goal, he borrowed freely from a mix of both Asian and Western artistic styles. Relatedly, Shell sensed Singapore was a place of ‘massive confusion’ with the old world of Hindu temples, Malay mosques and Chinese food stalls being supplanted by the rapid urbanisation set in motion by the development of Jurong Industrial Estate. There proved to be a surprising amount of common ground.
In Singapore, Shell was (and remains) a critically important economic presence. Lee Kuan Yew’s father was employed by Shell, and there is an argument that parts of the national post-colonial Civil Service took ideas and inspiration from facets of Shell's corporate bureaucracy. For several decades the company continued to promote emerging South East Asian artists through the Shell Discovery Scheme. Shell products were even important to the development of the acrylics, thinners and pigments used in Soo Pieng’s work. In the twentieth century, the relations between people, places and cultures were fundamentally reshaped by oil.
Shell Films, Shell films visit Africa and S. E. Asia, 1962, Press advertisement, Shell Heritage Art Collection.
Soo Pieng’s commission was a great success. He had already produced an enormous kampung scene, ‘Resting I’, to be hung outside the Chairman of Shell Singapore’s door. Shell subsequently commissioned or purchased at least five further pieces, including one of his now trademark paintings of Balinese women.
Eventually, the post-colonial government stepped in where Shell left off. Soo Pieng’s work appeared on stamps, and he received enormous commissions for public artworks from Singapore Telecommunications and the Singapore Tourist Board. Unfortunately, these commissions appear to have been lost, but his 1978 painting Drying Salted Fish can currently be found on the Singapore $50 note.
Corporate patronage is not a fashionable topic. We instinctively feel more at ease studying big patrons – the Rockefellers, Gulbenkians, Carnegies – than the records of commercial organisations. But art is obviously much more than the story of outstanding artists and their equally outré patrons. In fact, it seems likely that Cheong Soo Pieng would not have become 'Cheong Soo Pieng' without the support of international corporations and the types of commissions they prioritised.
Now a favourite of wealthy collectors in Singapore, Taiwan, and Indonesia, in the crudest financial sense, Shell’s investment in Soo Peing’s work has paid off handsomely. Just as development economics gave way to financialisation, Soo Pieng’s art is now more likely to be collected by major Asian banks than international manufacturing corporations. Recently, the discovery of one of his minor works helped bail out a school in Leicestershire, UK.
Cheong Soo Pieng (1918-1983), Resting.
Photograph: Cheong Wai Chi. Copyright of the Artist's Estate.
In the 1950s, Soo Pieng’s work had been praised for its ‘international’ qualities. But ‘the internationalism’ of his mix of modern idioms and romantic nostalgia has proved amazingly adaptable. Born in China, Soo Pieng fled to Malaya, loved Europe, was fascinated by Bali, but by the time of his death in 1983 he was already being written into history as one of Singapore’s major national artists.
We might even argue that the building blocks of Singapore’s public art owe something to the cultural precedents created by international corporations like Shell in the mid-century. It turns out Organization Man may have been a more influential and radical cultural presence than we have been prepared to accept.
You can get your copy of Shell Art & Advertising now. Click on the book cover below:
Publication Date: 6th September 2021
Trim Size: 249 x 270 mm
Illustrations Note: Includes 120 colour and 50 b&w illustrations