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East side-by-side with West
STEPPING into Gallery 3 of National Gallery's new show Reframing Modernism, one is struck by the passing similarities of the abstract paintings of Latiff Mohidin (born 1938) and Jean-Michel Atlan (1913 -1960).
One is Malaysian and the other French, and they might never have met or seen each other's works. But both employ a restricted palette of colours to create luminous, organic forms that appear to combine elements of the natural world with the vernacular architectures of their respective regions.
Similarly, Vietnamese artist Nguyen Gia Tri (1909-1993) and Frenchman Henri Matisse (1869-1954) live on two separate sides of the globe. But both share a love of pure colour, simplified lines and flat figuration. Nguyen applies these principles using lacquer on wood and Matisse using oil on canvas to achieve a kind of visual harmony that coaxes the eye to travel around the painting.
Jointly curated by National Gallery and Paris's Centre Pompidou, Reframing Modernism places 217 works by 22 South-east Asian artists side by side with works of 26 European artists to present a diverse and pluralistic view of modernist paintings. The aim is to disrupt and enrich the common understanding of Modernism.
National Gallery director Eugene Tan explains: "The story of Modernism has often been told as one that started in Europe and spread to other parts of the world, but this is not really a complete story. Modernisation happened all over the world and modernity was something every country experienced."
"Artists in South-east Asia responded to these local and specific conditions of modernity, thinking about how they can best represent these changes, the role of art in modern society, as well as new forms and styles of art to better express this."
If these views are subject to debate, the extraordinary quality of several works here are undeniable and are, in fact, augmented by the complementary display.
Hanging works of Marc Chagall (France) near those of Georgette Chen (Singapore) and Emiria Sunassa (Indonesia) bring to sharper relief each artist's use of vibrant colours in figuration. The juxtaposition of works by Fernando Zobel (the Philippines) and Nicholas De Stael (France/Russia) highlights their parallel perspectives on abstraction, while the tendencies of social realist art are as gorgeously manifested in works by Frenchman Andre Fougeron and Edouard Pignon as they are in Indonesian S Sudjojono's works. The European works are on loan from Centre Pompidou.
Expanding on Dr Tan's views, senior curator Lisa Horikawa says: "The story of modernism is often told ... of how styles from the West influences the art elsewhere, and its linear progression from Realism to Abstraction. By placing Europe and America as a source of influence, it creates a sense of hierarchy, implying that other artists who may have taken up those styles are derivative.
"But this story is incomplete. While the artists in South-east Asia may have taken up the styles originating in the West, the idea of 'influence' is inadequate in explaining ... how that adaptation occurs in the local context. Artists in South-east Asia develop their own kinds of modernist paintings based on their local concerns, aesthetics, conditions and their own subjective desires."
Since National Gallery opened its main galleries last November, its ambitious and self-assured exhibitions have drawn raves and rants. But it has also drawn 600,000 visitors in under six months, many from the region and beyond. Dr Tan says that with the opening of Reframing Modernism at the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, the museum is "now fully opened". The show - with its twin display of Asian and Western masters - is expected to draw crowds.
Reframing Modernism is now on at the National Gallery till July 17. Tickets start from S$15 for adults