The Ink Flows Through

The National Gallery of Singapore is hosting three connected exhibitions related to Chinese ink art, and I went to see two of them yesterday.  I started with an hour-long tour conducted by a very enthusiastic Chinese Singaporean.   This was one of those times when a tour guide was especially valuable, because inscriptions and stamps are key elements in most Chinese painting, and it’s really helpful to have a docent who can also act as an interpreter.

One of the exhibitions that we visited features Chinese works that Singaporeans art enthusiasts and businessmen collected in the mid-1900s as China was going through political upheaval.  And while collecting was not a Singaporean tradition, they were able to amass some amazing works.  Not surprisingly, some of the oldest works we looked at were also the most traditional, like this painting by an early Qing Dynasty court painter:


By the way, if you want to “read” a traditional Chinese painting, you start in the lower left and make your way up in a slow zig-zag from bottom to top.

The painting below is from the mid-1800s, and while it has a traditional theme — the plum blossom — the design is actually a copy (you were supposed to learn by copying the masters).  There’s a ton of calligraphy because the painter has asked multiple friends to comment on his skills:


The paintings ranged greatly in style, especially when we reached the 20th century.  I really liked these two:


The next exhibition focused on the artist Chen Chong Swee, an early 20th century Chinese master who moved to Singapore in the 1930s.  His work is interesting because he incorporates elements of Singaporean life into paintings with traditional Chinese brushwork, materials, and styles. Here are a few examples, one of an old hut at night …


… and one of an ice kachang (shave ice) seller …


… and one of women doing laundry by the river:


The  National Gallery of Singapore is such a huge building that you never quite know what you’ll stumble upon.  As I was waiting for my tour to start, I was treated to a rehearsal by this brass quintet:


Later in the day, I sat down to listen to this group from the conservatory at the National University of Singapore play two movements from a Shostakovich trio.


I also wandered into an exhibit of works by Singaporean artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.  I liked the small piece below because if you look carefully at the buildings, it looks like the artist thinks that Singapore is somewhere in the Middle East (complete with camels):


I appreciated the light in this painting of a Thai temple …


… and the strong face in this portrait …


… and the playful seriousness of this watercolor sketch of artists sketching …


… and the magnificence of this traveller’s palm …

IMG_1675… and the warmth in this impression of the Singapore River:


One of my many fascinations with Singapore is the fact that so many people dry their laundry on long poles that they stick out of their windows.  So I smiled when I saw that depicted in the shophouses all down the street in the left of this painting:


As a basis for comparison, I took a picture of some laundry hanging outside of an HDB flat near school on my way home today. While the building styles have changed drastically, the laundry-on-sticks tradition has not:


On the sixth floor, the National Gallery has several amazing rooftop bars and restaurants.  Once you’re on the roof, you have a view of both the new Singapore Supreme Court building (that’s the thing that looks like a UFO)…


… and of the old Supreme Court dome:


From the tables of Smoke & Mirrors, a great cocktail bar, you have an excellent view directly over the pitch of the Singapore Cricket Club (with the Singapore River and the Marina Bay complex beyond).  The Cricket Club is one of the few things that I remember from my visit to Singapore in 1992 that has remained unchanged.


While I was up at Smoke & Mirrors, I had drinks with Jenny Cooper, a graduate of The Park School of Baltimore’s class of ’04.


Jenny lived in Singapore in 2015-2016 — she actually moved to Seattle to do environmental work at The Northwest School just a few weeks before we arrived here in July 2016.  But she was back for a visit, and it was wonderful to see her!


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