NGUYEN GIA TRI, The Fairies, c. 1936, lacquer on board, 290 × 440 cm. Collection of Géraldine Galateau, Paris. Courtesy National Gallery Singapore. 

Reframing Modernism: Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond

National Gallery Singapore
Singapore Thailand Indonesia Malaysia Vietnam France

Though less than a year old, Singapore’s sprawling new National Gallery (NGS) is already disrupting the regional arts scene with no less than three significant exhibitions. Two of these are the gallery’s comprehensive inaugural shows, which trace the development of Singaporean and Southeast Asian modern art [a review of one of the exhibitions, “Siapa Nama Kamu? Art in Singapore Since the 19th Century,” can be read here].

Currently, in NGS’s newly unveiled Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, the museum has introduced another lavish visual treat, titled “Reframing Modernism: Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond,” which runs until July. Co-curated by the NGS and Paris’s Centre Pompidou, the 1,900-square-meter exhibition involves over 200 paintings by 48 artists from Southeast Asia and Europe, where works by the likes of Picasso, Chagall and Kandinsky hang alongside paintings by celebrated Southeast Asian artists such as Le Pho, Latiff Mohidin, Cheong Soo Pieng and Georgette Chen.

The NGS is dedicated to the study and research of Southeast Asian modern art—something no other public institution has previously undertaken. “Reframing Modernism” takes on the challenge of reinterpreting modernism in the context of Southeast Asian art: as NGS director Eugene Tan writes, “The story of modernism around the world is often told as one of influence: how styles from the West influenced art elsewhere, which creates an implied hierarchy.” The show’s curators contend that, while Southeast Asian artists were influenced by Western-centric modernist style, their aesthetic was further driven by social and cultural issues unique to their local region. Structurally, the show presents an absorbing and lucid reassessment of the conventional Western narrative on Southeast Asian modernist artists; visually, it formulates a fresh paradigm for assessing the region’s modern art.

In a distinctive turn, the show’s narrative is neither chronological nor development-based, nor about influences per se; rather, its pedagogy constitutes fluid but clear connections between specific European and Southeast Asian painters based on certain “essential visual, conceptual or social problems.” To accomplish this, NGS successfully generates an aesthetic and conceptual vocabulary accessible to the layman. “Reframing Modernism” introduces the movement through succinct wall text, supported by a well-designed exhibition app. Tan first lays out a scholarly but non-pedantic discussion on the anatomy of modernism, as both intellectual movement and aesthetic practice. Modernism in Western art, we learn, was in essence a rejection of tradition; and modernism in Southeast Asian art went beyond mere appropriation of that style—it was embraced as a conceptual filter for social criticism that reflected, for example, personal, ethnic or anti-colonial attitudes.

S SUDJOJONO, Maka Lahirlah Angkatan ’66 (Hence was Born the ’66 Generation), 1966, oil on canvas, 98.5 × 84 cm. Collection of Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics, Jakarta. Copyright Rose Pandanwangi Sudjojono. Courtesy National Gallery Singapore. 

The paintings in “Reframing Modernism” are cast as a dialogue of interconnectivity among a fairly evenly balanced number of European and Southeast Asian artists, and the show’s first “conversation” is launched with a massive ten-panel lacquer work titled The Fairies (c. 1936) by Vietnamese artist Nguyen Gia Tri, who re-envisions traditional lacquer as a modern medium. This wall-sized piece faces a modest oil painting by Matisse named Interior in Yellow and Blue (1946). Both are expressive in line and form, and their respective, distinct mediums—thick layers of lacquer versus thin washes of oil paint—generate planes of color, which serve as triggers for speculation and analogy between two ostensibly dissimilar works. The exhibition goes on to draw distinctions and relationships among many other works that involve a wide array of conceptual issues: the infusion of indigenous elements with modernist techniques; differing stylistic energies; representational versus abstractive attitudes; the emergence of the avant-garde; the handling of sociopolitical content; the physicality of paint itself. The violent and surreal impastos of Indonesian artist Affandi, for example, are juxtaposed with the dreamy delicacy of French artist Marc Chagall. The practices of French painters Andre Fougeron and Edouard Pignon are highlighted for their distinct political concerns, which are relative to the anti-colonial realism of Indonesian artist S. Sudjojono . . . and so the discourses continue.

WASSILY KANDINSKY, Impression V (Park), 1911, oil on canvas, 106 × 157.5 cm. Collection of Centre Pompidou, Paris. Courtesy National Gallery Singapore. 

Each artist is accompanied by an engaging write-up, a balanced dose of art history and personal anecdote, which also proposes complementary, disparate and at times unexpected links among individual practices. This interactive stratagem invites visitors to compare and “make their own connections” between the paintings. One such tactic relates Singaporean painter Georgette Chen with French artists Jean Launois and Albert Marquet, who are all inveterate travelers and whose diverse handling of similar semi-realistic, sometimes exotic scenes is juxtaposed through peculiarities in brushstroke, composition and color. (Chen, it should be mentioned, is the only artist in this show with works in the collections of both Centre Pompidou and NGS.) Through such affiliations, the exhibition encourages organic, rambling exploration, rather than a mechanical slog through hierarchical arrays of imagery.

SOMPOT UPA-IN, The Politician, 1958, oil on canvas, 75 × 57 cm. Collection of Sompot Upa-In Estate. Courtesy Khun Isr Upa-In. 

In another matrix of the exhibition, visitors retrace their steps once or twice to consider expatriate painters Leonard Foujita of Japan and Le Pho from Vietnam, who exhibited together in Paris. Their approaches are contrasted stylistically to that of French painter Pierre Bonnard, in terms of flat perspective, Asian ink painting and lyrical palette. Further on, a selection of works by Wassily Kandinsky, ranging from figuration to abstraction, propel the exhibition into more expansive studies and comparisons. Textural approaches to Cubism are considered via the sgraffitoed work of Thai artist Sompot Upa-in and sand-injected paintings of Georges Braque, one of the movement’s French founders. Picasso’s The Cat and the Rooster (1953) instigates a narrative on stylistic vitality and symbols of aggression—concepts associated with, among others, the myth-infused canvases of French artist Jean-Michel Atlan, and the vernacular abstractions of Malaysian painter Latiff Mohidin.

These refreshing and intriguing perspectives are only a few of the notional associations that define “Reframing Modernism.” For art students, and art lovers, the show requires more than one visit, though one drawback is its relatively short exhibition run in Singapore (although there are ongoing discussions about a touring exhibition). One consolation, however, is that another NGS-partnered exhibition will open in October at the museum, this time with Tate Britain, which will focus on art of the British empire.

Reframing Modernism: Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond” is on view at National Gallery Singapore until July 17, 2016.