France Comes to Singapore

The government of Singapore has somehow persuaded the Musee d’Orsay in Paris to lend it 60 paintings for an exhibit at the National Gallery Singapore called “Colors of Impressionism” (my guess is that they have so much art in Paris that they don’t always know what to do with it all, and it’s not likely that anyone has noticed that these pieces are missing). It’s remarkable to go to a museum in Singapore and see so many French masters. I rarely see European art in Singapore at all.

This show is organized  chronology and also, at the same time, very roughly by color groupings. It starts out looking at the focus on black and shades of grey that came out of the realism movement of the mid-1800s. One example on offer was The Bath by Alfred Stevens:

IMG_5915.jpgThey had a whole room on impressionists who explored the color white through painting snow scenes. Monet painted The Magpie


… and Sisley painted Snow at Louveciennes:


The exhibit also looked at the ways in which the development of synthetic colors and pre-made paints in tubes changed painting in the late 1800s, allowing artists to paint outdoors and to explore a broader palate (though the impressionists apparently still used a fairly limited range of colors). Monet painted Renoir with his paint board in hand:


We also got to see paint boards that were actually used by Degas …


… and a paint box that was owned by Renoir:


Of course, much of the exhibit was devoted to the ways in which the Impressionists explored both color and light. Some of the many examples included Camille Pissarro’s Tour-du-Jongieur LaneIMG_5941

… Alfred Sisley’s Boat in the Flood at Port-Marly (I’ve never seen a painting of a flooded town before, so this fascinated me) …


… and, of course, many works by Claude Monet. I had no idea that he’d painted the tulip fields in Holland…


…but I was not surprised to see one of his 250 water lily paintings:


I was thrilled to see one of Monet’s many paintings of the Rouen cathedral. My mom and I went to visit this cathedral many years ago, but it no longer looks the way it did when Monet painted it — the Nazis subjected it to a terrible bombing and fire in 1944. In Monet’s time, it still stood in all its glory:


The exhibit took the viewer all the way up to the Neo-Impressionists. The best known of this bunch is probably Seurat, who is famous for his pointillism, but I love the colors of Paul Signac (here, in The Red Buoy):


This exhibit introduced me to the notion of divisionism, a painting style in which your eye is supposed to draw together the relationships of individual blocks of color (the idea is that optical mixing is supposed to create more luminosity than mixing different pigments on a canvas). The color theory is complicated, but I like the result. Here is another Signac piece called The Palace of the Popes:


One of my favorite parts of this exhibit was definitely this sign, which is pure Singapore:


The impressionism exhibit was loosely tied to another exhibit one gallery over called “Between Worlds.” This second is was pretty fascinating, because it looks at two nineteenth century artists — one Indonesian and one Filipino — who were born in Southeast Asia, then moved to study art in Europe, and who later returned to Asia in the late 1800s.

Europeans have been painting in Southeast Asia for centuries. Antoine Auguste Joseph Payen learned to paint in Brussels and then traveled to Indonesia in 1816 to capture images of the Dutch colony for the king. Here is his portrayal of The Great Postal Route Near Rajapolah:


I love the level of detail in this work (and I cannot imagine traveling in a cart like this anywhere in Southeast Asia):

IMG_5955Payen also painted this House of the Resident of Banyuwangi, East Java (“Resident” appears to be some kind of a formal title):


Anyway, Payen ended up tutoring a young Indonesian man named Raden Saleh, who was one of the two stars of today’s “Between Two Worlds” show. Saleh showed so much promise as an artist that he sailed over to the Netherlands in the late 1820s, where he began painting scenes that would have been familiar to any Dutch painter at the time. He tried his hand at winter landscapes …


… he worked on portraits in the style of Rembrandt (this is guy is Hendrik Hentzepeter, a gentleman with the very fancy title of Caretaker of the Royal Cabinet of Paintings and Royal Cabinet of Rarities at the Mauritshaus in The Hague) … IMG_5962.jpg

… and he experimented with shipwreck art:


Saleh also painted this self-portrait in 1841:


Saleh knew that, in order to make money as a painter in Europe at that time, it helped to have something exciting in your repertoire. So he studied with a famous animal trainer, learned to paint lions, and then created a whole line of large-scale lion-themed material:’


We see a lot of works by Europeans who went around the world to paint “exotic” locales, but it’s so rare to see someone from Southeast Asia who went in the other direction and became, in essence, a European painter.

The other artist featured in “Between Two Worlds,” Juan Luna, had a similar story to Saleh’s, though his took place a few decades later. Luna was born in the Philippines but was soon in France painting women like this lady at the racetrack …


… these flower vendors …


… and these figures, who are meant to represent Spain and the Philippines (note how helpful Spain looks):


But then Luna returned home to the Philippines, where his artwork became much smaller and much less traditionally European:


I loved these exhibits — seeing European art is just so wonderfully familiar. But I also like what you can find if you wander aimlessly around the National Gallery. I found myself reclining in a room of 40,000 pillows …


… I found this thing in the middle of a hallway…


… and I ran across this sign:


Given that this is Singapore, I assume that “alternative social norms” refers to works that portray homosexual relationships of some kind. Yikes.

I appreciated the signage near the kids’ area for much different reasons (mostly related to having a fish on red boot stilts):


There are beautiful things at the National Gallery, too. Some of the internal architecture — because they took the old City Hall and Supreme Court buildings and connected them to make a museum — is stunning:


And I found this painting by a twentieth-century Indonesian painter named Basoeki Abdullah that I thought was just lovely:



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