SINGAPORE, March 31 — What does Malaysian art have to do with a North African queen? More than you’d realise.
At the Reframing Modernism exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore, which opens today, Malaysian artist Latiff Mohidin’s celebrated Pago-Pago series, which is influenced by the cultural and natural world of South-east Asia, is contrasted with French-Algerian artist Jean-Michel Atlan’s seminal painting, La Kahena, based on a queen of the North African Berber people.
Just as Latiff Mohidin was inspired by the totemic forms of pagodas, stupas, shells and leaves he encountered during his travels throughout South-east Asia, Jean-Michel Atlan was also inspired by the totemic motifs from his Judeo-Berber heritage.
Experiencing such a powerful connection between two previously separate bodies of work for the first time is thrilling to say the least.
Subtitled Paintings from South-east Asia, Europe and Beyond, this landmark exhibition 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.
Together, they present more than 200 paintings by 51 artists, including 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.
Certainly the venue for the exhibition is perfect for a conversation about reframing modernism: newly opened last November, the National Gallery Singapore is located in the heart of the Civic District and has been painstakingly restored from the former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings.
According to Dr Tan, Reframing Modernism aims to further the understanding of modern art from South-east Asia by placing it within a global context.
He says, “This exhibition ‘reframes’ modernism because it challenges assumptions about it — that modernism started in Europe and then spread elsewhere, but modernisation also happened all over the world. Modernity was something every country experienced.”
By experiencing modern artworks from South-east Asia with those of their often better-known peers from the West, visitors are able to discover previously hidden connections between these artists and their bodies of work. The secret shared lives of artists make for riveting viewing, provided these conclusions can be drawn.
To that end, the show has been designed to flow smoothly from one grouping of paintings — each artist is represented by five pieces of artwork, on average — to another, creating a network of artist-centric perspectives that may stand alone but are richer and deeper when viewed together.
Reframing Modernism is presented in three different galleries, each with their own overarching themes. Modernism is rooted in the vernacular and the issues of society and revolution in Gallery 1. A prime example of this is The Fairies (c. 1936), a 2.9m by 4.4m lacquer painting by Vietnamese artist Nguyễn Gia Trí, renowned for his critique of French colonial rule. He was strongly influenced by Henri Matisse’s paintings; this becomes apparent when The Fairies is contrasted with Matisse’s Interior in Yellow and Blue (c. 1946), also on display.
Colour and patterns reign in Gallery 2. Works by Filipino artist Hernando R Ocampo evoke the lush landscapes, flora and fauna of his homeland through an expert use of movement and bold colours. This preoccupation with colour and pattern can also be seen in the works of Henry Valensi and Robert Delaunay.
Gallery 3 is all about archetypes, symbolism and energy. Here the large self-portrait 14 October by self-taught Chinese-Thai artist Tang Chang recalls the brutal political oppression that took place in Thailand in the 1970s. Look closer and you’ll observe inscriptions similar to those found in Chinese scroll paintings. Consider his work alongside French artist Jean Dubuffet and Burmese painter Bagyi Aung Soe.
These days, our often chaotic world seems to signal the truth in the Tower of Babel myth; how we are forever riven by a multitude of languages, each strange to one another. What Reframing Modernism tells us is that we may have more in common, beneath our disparate tongues and our differences, than we could imagine. Why not visit the National Gallery Singapore today, and imagine?
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
From March 31 to July 17; Sun-Thu: 10am to 7pm and Fri-Sat: 10am to 10pm
Admission: S$15 (adult) and S$10 (child) for Singaporeans; S$25 (adult) and S$20 (child) for non-residents