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The region's story, told through art
THE luminous 19th century painting The Christian Virgins Being Exposed to the Populace by Filipino artist Félix Resurrección Hidalgo is one of the national treasures of the Philippines. When it debuted in 1884 in a Spanish art competition, it earned Hidalgo the second prize. The first prize went to fellow Filipino painter Juan Luna for his massive painting Spoliarium.
But the combined victory of two Filipino artists over scores of Spanish artists helped create a radical shift in the mindset of 19th century Philippines: that Filipinos were as good as their European colonisers. It spurred the nationalist movement of the Philippines and culminated in its independence 14 years later.
Hidalgo's The Christian Virgins was destroyed in a fire in 1939. A copy of the work made by Hidalgo in 1884 - the only copy known to exist - now miraculously hangs on a wall in the soon-to-open S$532 million National Gallery Singapore, the biggest and most ambitious museum in Singapore's history. According to director Eugene Tan, it is on loan to the museum from the Bangko Sentral of the Philippines for a year, marking the first time the central bank is loaning an artwork to an institution outside its country on a long-term basis - the result of deft persuasion on the part of National Gallery's curators, no doubt.
In some ways, The Christian Virgins is emblematic of the first exhibition of Southeast Asian art at the museum's UOB Southeast Asia Gallery, unveiled this week. Of the 400 works by the region's biggest Modern and Contemporary artists, half of these have been loaned to the museum by private and institutional collectors and the other half are from Singapore's National Collection.
The exhibition has been given the title Between Declarations And Dreams, a phrase taken from a 1948 poem by Indonesian Chairul Anwar to reflect the possibilities between the political and the imponderable. Like Hidalgo's painting, many works in the exhibition carry art's singular - if sometimes indirect or cryptic - ability to capture the zeitgeist of a nation or region through its visual representation.
In a century when much of Southeast Asia was grappling with colonialism, nationalism, independence and modernity, art became a way of expressing the unspoken at first, before blooming into vivid expressions of nationhood and, later, individualism. For example, Chua Mia Tee's Epic Poem of Malaya (1955), hung not far away from S Sudjojono's Perusing A Poster (1956), almost mirror each other in depicting the charged political air of 1950s Singapore and Indonesia respectively.
Just as Chua is a revered pioneer of social realist art in Singapore, Sudjojono is seen as the father of Indonesian modern art. He's not to be confused, of course, with the father of Indonesian modernity, the towering 19th century figure Raden Saleh (1811-1880), whose massive canvas Forest Fire hangs proudly next to Hidalgo's The Christian Virgins.
At the press preview, one journalist privately joked that the gallery has an embarrassment of "fathers": there are works by the father of Cambodian contemporary art Svay Ken, the father of Malayan contemporary batik art Chuah Thean Theng, the father of modern Vietnamese lacquer art Nguyen Duc Nung, the father of Singapore's contemporary art community Tang Da Wu, and many other paternal figures - or pioneers, if you prefer. Physically, though, the layout of the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery could be more welcoming. The museum's other permanent gallery, the excellent DBS Singapore Gallery, unveiled last week, houses 400 Singapore artworks in large galleries on one floor. It provides a seamless and satisfying viewing experience.
In contrast, the UOB Southeast Asian Gallery is constrained by the old Supreme Court building's historical interiors. The showcase is spread over 15 rooms and three floors, complicating one's viewing of art.
Compared to the cohesive telling of Singapore art history, the gargantuan task of organising 400 artworks from 10 Southeast Asian countries into a coherent narrative also appears to be challenging even for the museum's capable curatorial team.
In a few rooms, the works complement each other thematically and temporally, but much less formally and artistically. The various aesthetic traditions, processes of development and art preservation practices of different countries make these clashes almost inevitable.
In some rooms, beautifully preserved or restored paintings share wall space with a handful of works which, at least to this writer's eye, have lost their lustre. (These works are more likely to be those on loan from private collections.)
Still, any lover of Asian art would be thankful for this rare opportunity to look at the rich and diverse art of South-east Asia in one swoop. And multiple visits to the museum would only reveal the depth and significance of the collection.
National Gallery Singapore opens to the public on Nov 24
An earlier version of this article did not state that the extant painting is a smaller copy of the original. The museum subsequently made the clarification that the original was destroyed in a fire and only a copy exists. An earlier version of this article also stated that it is the first time Bangko Sentral of the Philippines is loaning an artwork to an institution outside its country. The museum wishes to clarify that it is the first time Bangko Sentral of the Philippines is loaning an artwork to an institution outside its country on a long-term basis. The bank has loaned artworks to foreign institutions before, but for shorter time periods.