Collecting a Collection

The National Gallery Singapore is hosting its last weekend of an exhibit called (Re)Collect, which is designed as a retrospective on the museum’s founding and how its collection has changed over time. I was hoping that this exhibit would focus on how and why a museum makes purchasing and curatorial choices, but the exhibit focuses more on facts about what they acquired over time and less about the museum’s decision-making. Still, we did get a sense of the museum’s arc. This is the very first piece that went into the collection, a 1950s self-portrait of the artist Chuah Thean Teng:


This portrait is wonderful for many reasons. First of all, it’s beautiful in its own right. Second, it’s rendered in batik, a an Indonesian fabric dyed using a wax-resist method — so while the portrait has been formulated in a western style, its made with a Southeast Asian technique. Finally, I have never before seen the very first piece acquired by a museum — this is artwork number P-0001 in the National Gallery collection — and I thought that was pretty amazing.

Many of the first works to come into the possession of the National Gallery’s collection were donated by this guy, Dato Loke Wan Tho:


This 1950s film magnate and culture lover was a huge supporter of the arts. By the early 1960s, he had donated over 100 pieces to the museum’s nascent collection. Apparently he went around at art exhibitions telling people, “Don’t just admire it, acquire it.”

The National Gallery did just that, but it had very little money (it didn’t even have its own building space when it started collecting in the 1960s). So it relied almost entirely on donors for the first dozen years of its existence. Thankfully, wealthy patrons were willing to contribute lovely pieces like Tchang Ju Chi’s A Town Scene …IMG_3533

… and Raden Mas Saptohoedojo’s Head of Malay Boy:


The National Gallery finally — and officially — opened in its own museum space in 1976 to huge fanfare. Many local artists were featured in the opening exhibit, and some donated their pieces to the musuem’s collection afterwards:


Tan Oe Pang’s City Scene, a depiction of the new Singapore in a traditional Chinese scroll style


Chio Chai Hiang’s And Miles To Go Before I Sleep, a reflection on sculpture, books, and poetry

The directors of the National Gallery made a conscious effort to focus on collecting Singaporean and Southeast Asian artists of the twentieth century. This restricted the scope of their collection, but it allowed them to celebrate artists who might not have been well known outside of the region. (It also allowed them to create what many people will say is the best overall collection of 20th century Singaporean and Southeast Asian art in the world.) Exhibitions in the early 1980s featured works by painters such as Liu Kang …


Untitled — Balinese Women Making Batik

… and Georgette Chan (one of the only women to have a major exhibit all of her own at the Gallery in the late 20th century):


Family Portrait


Portrait of Eugene Chen

Over the years, the museum has acquired many ink drawings, a style popular in the region due to its Chinese roots:


Lim Tze Peng’s untitled painting of a Chinatown street hawker


Lim Tze Peng’s Kallang River


Huang Yao’s Welcome Home

The museum has also begun to expand its collection of photography, which often echoes the feeling evoked by these ink drawings:


Lee Lim’s Morning Chores

(Re)Collect concluded with a look at the museum’s more recent acquisitions from all over Southeast Asia, but I grew less excited about the exhibit when it moved from history toward the present. It felt like the exhibit’s focus began to dissipate at this point — while I was interested in the later pieces, I wasn’t as sure how they tied together.

I was interested to learn that the country of Singapore has a “National Collection” made up of roughly 280,000 objects. About 10,000 of those are artworks, 8,600 of which are overseen by the National Gallery. I’ve never before thought to wonder how many objects a country owns (and what percentage of this is art), but now I’m curious about other places. (Quick research tells me that the Smithsonian in the US owns 156 million pieces, but I can’t seem to figure out how much the US owns overall.)

When we were done in the one long, cavernous room that held all of these works, Prescott, Andrea and I took a look at two giant contemporary pieces that have recently appeared in one of the museum’s stairways:


We then stumbled on an exhibition of works called Lim Cheng Hoe: Painting Singapore. While I felt lukewarm about the (Re)Collect exhibit, I loved this one! Lim painted in Singapore from the 1940s through the 1970s, and his work is beautiful. This is his self-portrait:


Lim was self-taught and never felt confident enough in his art to quit his day job as a clerk, but he painted outdoors every weekend and eventually went on to found the Singapore Watercolor Society. Some of his work features Singapore as we might still recognize it today …


… but most of his pieces recall a Singapore that lives on only in art and memory. He loved to capture attap huts, which are long gone from Singapore (but can still be found right next door in Indonesia and Malaysia):


In a similar vein, he painted the small wooden boats that are now long gone from our waterways:



He even captured the intersection of old and new Singapore — this painting contrasts the old Supreme Court building and boats with a brand new HDB tower:IMG_3600

While Lim focused largely on outdoor scenes, he also created portraits. His renderings are elegant and intense, from this old Sikh …


… to this Indian boy …


… to this Samsui woman:


The exhibition of Lim’s works will be up until next June, so if you’re in Singapore and have a chance to stop by, I would strongly recommend it.


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