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Reframing the Frame of Modernism: National Gallery Singapore’s latest exhibition

The National Gallery Singapore's newest exhibition, Reframing Modernism – Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond opens on March 31st 2016

Nguyen Gia Tri, The Fairies, c. 1936, Collection of Geraldine Galateau Paris.

Nguyen Gia Tri, The Fairies, c. 1936, Collection of Geraldine Galateau Paris.

Framing an ideology is not a task easily accomplished. Reframing it, is possibly, even harder. The National Gallery Singapore’s newest exhibition which opens on the 31st of March attempts to do this through its latest exhibition titled Reframing Modernism – Painting from Southeast Asia, Europe and Beyond.

The exhibition which is co-curated and co-presented with Centre Pompidou, Paris is the inaugural exhibition at the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery. It showcases 217 works from 51 artists from the collection of both museums as well as loans from private and national collections. This is the first time that an exhibition displays significant Southeast Asian and European artists in parallel through its study of one of the most influential artistic and intellectual drives of the 20th century – modernism – from the perspective of Southeast Asia.

Gallery 1 view, Reframing Modernism, National Gallery Singapore

Gallery 1 view, Reframing Modernism, National Gallery Singapore

Beginning with the existing paradigm that modernism or modernistic painting was mainly a response by Western European and American artists to the events that were shaping the world in the late 19th and early 20th century (the industrial revolution, World War I, urbanisation, etc. ); and that modernism in the rest of the art world was a derivative of it, Reframing Modernism challenges this framing from the Southeast Asian context. Though not a survey exhibition, it observes and compares the individual practices of selected artists from both regions and hopes to create a new and different narrative of modernism by highlighting shared concerns.

Gallery 1 view, Reframing Modernism, National Gallery Singapore.

Gallery 1 view, Reframing Modernism, National Gallery Singapore.

The 217 paintings are presented in three galleries. The artworks in the first gallery which includes  those  of Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Georgette Chen, Cheng Soo Pieng and S. Sudjojono draw on themes of the vernacular, visual harmony, exoticism, and cross cultural exchange. The second gallery focuses on concerns of art fundamentals like colour, form, space, pattern, perspective and composition. Abstraction and the move to geometric patterns is featured here in the works of Vassily Kandinsky, Hernando R Ocampo, Georges Braque and Henri Valensi.  The last gallery presents artists who explored abstraction through diverse pathways of spirituality, materiality and mythology.

Gallery 2 view, Vassily Kandinsky's works, Reframing Modernism, National Gallery Singapore

Gallery 2 view, Vassily Kandinsky’s works, Reframing Modernism, National Gallery Singapore

The exhibition is not chronologically or stylistically arranged. According to the National Gallery curators, they began the curating process by identifying Southeast Asian artists whose practices and works reflected the diversity of modernism or modernity in the region. The Centre Pompidou curators then responded by identifying artists whose works resonated with the Southeast Asian artists, thereby privileging the region as an entry point.

Gallery 2 view, Henry Valensi's works, Reframing Modernism, National Gallery Singapore

Gallery 2 view, Henry Valensi’s works, Reframing Modernism, National Gallery Singapore

Throughout the exhibition, visitors are invited to draw their own connections and conclusions about the history of modernism and its relevance to the development of art in Southeast Asia. Lisa Horikawa, senior curator at the National Gallery, noted that the exhibition is very different from the ones that have travelled here in the past as this is collaboration between the two museums rather than a pre-packaged exhibition that travels the world.

Gallery 3 view, Tang Chang's work, Reframing Modernism, National Gallery Singapore

Gallery 3 view, Tang Chang’s work, Reframing Modernism, National Gallery Singapore

Looking at the artworks, it does seem that the practice of many artists from diverse parts of the world were similar stylistically or conceptually but as Catherine David, Deputy Director of Centre Pompidou’s National Museum of Modern Art –Industrial Design Centre, observed, while the works of some artists may seem similar, genealogically they are very different from each other.

The exhibition also includes four works by  Singaporean artist Georgette Chen. Three from the collection of the National Gallery Singapore and one from the collection of the Centre Pompidou. The latter painting, which is an oil on canvas titled Landscape and dated c. 1930s, was inherited by the museum when it was set up in 1947 and its complete provenance is still being established.

This is the second time works from the Centre Pompidou’s collection are being shown in Singapore. The first was in 2011 when a travelling exhibition titled Video an Art, a History (1965-2010) was held at the Singapore Art Museum.

Whether viewers to the exhibition are able to reframe the ideology from a Southeast Asian perspective or not, one thing is for sure: with over 200 works, the exhibition is a visual treat for appreciators of art. However, with an admission fee of $15-25, it makes it difficult to make multiple trips to the exhibition since it is virtually impossible to see think and wonder at the immense collection in one go.

The exhibition will run at the National Gallery Singapore till July 17, 2016.

All images courtesy of National Gallery, Singapore.

For more details visit www.nationalgallery.sg

 

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About Durriya Dohadwala (27 Articles)
Durriya Dohadwala is an independent writer on contemporary Asian art and culture. She is also a docent and enjoys facilitating the decoding of contemporary Asian art.