SINGAPORE, May 1 — East meets West in an entirely new way at Reframing Modernism, an exhibition of modern art from South-east Asia displayed alongside their Western contemporaries. Running till July 17 at the recently opened National Gallery Singapore (restored from the former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings), the show challenges visitors to question their assumptions about Modernist art and to discover fresh connections between these artists.
Subtitled Paintings from South-east Asia, Europe and Beyond, Reframing Modernism is co-curated by National Gallery Singapore and Centre Pompidou, Paris. The former is represented by Director Dr Eugene Tan, Senior Curator Lisa Horikawa and Curator Dr Phoebe Scott; the latter by the National Museum of Modern Art — Industrial Design Centre’s Deputy Director Catherine David and Curator Dr Nicolas Liucci-Goutnikov.
Currently, the National Gallery Singapore has the largest collection of South-east Asian art in the world. Dr Tan doesn’t consider this feat as Singapore representing the region, necessarily, but building a platform to present Singaporean and South-east Asian art to the world at large. “To understand Singapore, we must first understand our surroundings and our neighbours. Now is a good opportunity and a very interesting time for art in this region.”
Reframing Modernism is presenting more than 200 paintings by 51 artists in three different galleries, each with their own themes of modernism. Works displayed include works by South-east Asian artists such as Georgette Chen (Singapore), Nguyễn Gia Trí (Vietnam), S Sudjojono (Indonesia), Hernando R Ocampo (the Philippines) and Tang Chang (Thailand), as well as European masters Vassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse from the Centre Pompidou collection.
Centre Pompidou’s David feels strongly about leading museums in South-east Asia building major collections. “It is not always the best to have everything in private collections. When work is curated in a public collection, you profit from the knowledge of the curators. You have the works showcased properly. How else would we pique the interest of the visitors?”
Besides public engagement, the careful positioning of Reframing Modernism is also crucial for the exhibition to carve its own niche and its own unique identity. Dr Liucci-Goutnikov explains, “What I have observed is that most museums and galleries try to collect a little of everything. As a result, you sort of see the same thing everywhere you go. Here, our goal is to focus on a specific region.”
David adds, “Given the small number of artists — 51 of them, half from Asia and half from Europe, we needed to have specific artists represent certain aspects. We had a lot of discussion and dialogue between both parties — in Paris, Singapore and Hanoi. In fact, we got the most done in Hanoi, possibly because we were all away from our respective offices and work demands. Also visiting the museums in Hanoi — seeing the lacquer art there — was inspirational.”
It is not that common for South-east Asian galleries to collect Western art, according to Dr Scott. “Rather, they are deep into Asian art. So this is also an opportunity for them to gain familiarity with Western art through the lens of regional art and how the two compares and are linked. What is their shared story?”
The first works we observe being contrasted in Gallery 1 — where the art is rooted in issues of society and revolution — are The Fairies (c. 1936), a 2.9 metres by 4.4 metres lacquer painting by Vietnamese artist Nguyễn Gia Trí, and Interior in Yellow and Blue (c. 1946) by French painter Henri Matisse.
Horikawa says, “Notice how Matisse employed strong lines and vibrant colours to create a flattened image. This two-dimensional quality is typical of modernist painting in Europe during Matisse’s time. Similarly, Trí’s work shares the same flatness. The fascinating difference is that, unlike Matisse, who used the traditional oil paints, Trí used lacquer, a traditional Vietnamese medium.”
There is an intuitive flow of artists represented from one gallery to the next. The connections between pieces of artwork is almost uncanny; this wasn’t entirely by accident. Dr Scott says, “Creating a network of bodies of work, from one artist to another is immensely challenging. Something as basic as the fact the paintings have to be hung on the wall — how do you then allow them to flow to the next body of work?”
In order to achieve this, the curators worked with Singaporean designers to create different pathways throughout the gallery. For example, in Gallery 3, which celebrates archetypes and symbolism, Malaysian artist Latiff Mohidin’s Pago-Pago series and French-Algerian artist Jean-Michel Atlan’s paintings complement each other. Both artists were inspired by totemic motifs — the former by the cultural and natural world of South-east Asia; the latter by his Judeo-Berber heritage.
“This way you can sort of see another artist through the corner of your eye just as you’re about finish viewing one artist’s work,” says Dr Liucci-Goutnikov. “Our aim is to create a fluid walk-through for the visitors. We are not simply placing paintings that look alike together; they must share some concerns that may not be immediately visible. What are the ideas and motifs here?”
The process of selecting artwork was an arduous one, given the number of outstanding artists in South-east Asia. The curators recognised early on that no one selection could be adequate. Dr Scott says, “What it came down to was choosing the artists who could represent different points-of-view. We try to showcase depth in their bodies of work rather than simply breadth; each artist has, on average, five works displayed in this exhibition.”
Even then the curators were understandably nervous in the days counting down to the grand opening. Dr Liucci-Goutnikov admits, “Honestly, we were unsure until we came here and saw the artwork being put up; then all our doubts disappeared. Certain clusters are very strong — the stories they tell are so powerful.”
These stories are those of South-east Asian artists and their European counterparts, and how they shared similar practices and strategies, though not immediately obvious to the casual viewer or art lover. The joy of Reframing Modernism, then, is in viewing these sterling standards of Modernist art in a new light.
The excitement promises to continue. According to the curators, the next international collaboration for National Gallery Singapore will be with Tate Modern, Britain’s national gallery of modern art, later in the year. Rejoice as more discoveries await the art lover in Singapore and South-east Asia.
Reframing Modernism — Paintings from South-east Asia, Europe and Beyond
City Hall Level 3, Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew’s Road, Singapore
Open till July 17; Sun-Thu 10am to 7pm and Fri-Sat 10am to 10pm
Admission: SGD15 [RM43] (adult) and SGD10 [RM29] (child) for Singaporeans and permanent residents; SGD25 [RM72] (adult) and SGD20 [RM58] (child) for non-residents