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When art changed the world
TWO towering 19th-century figures of South-east Asian art are the focus of a new exhibition at National Gallery Singapore. Raden Saleh (1811-1880) of Indonesia and Juan Luna (1857-1899) of the Philippines are regarded as national heroes because they each helped fuel the nationalist movements of their respective countries and propel them towards independence.
Having travelled to Europe in their youth to master the European style of painting, the two men excelled to the point where their skills were compared to the best the continent had to offer. To their fellow countrymen, their achievements helped shatter the long-held notion that the West was superior to the East.
Titled Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna, the exhibition consists of more than 100 paintings, drawings and archival materials from South-east Asian, European and American museums and private collections for the first time.
Though relatively small compared to, say, the recent Yayoi Kusama show, it represents an immense effort on the part of the museum to assemble works belonging to institutions as distinguished as the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC and Museo Nacional Del Prado in Spain.
Curated by Russell Storer, Syed Muhammad Hafiz and Clarissa Chikiamco, the show features some extraordinarily well-conserved or restored works, such as Luna's large and luminous Cleopatra (1881) oil-on-canvas painting from Prado, as well as Raden's Lion Hunt (1841) from the Latvian National Museum of Art.
Notably, the single most famous work of each artist is missing from the exhibition for the understandable reason that they are far too historically valuable to leave their current locations: for Raden, it is the The Arrest of Pangeran Diponegoro (1857) which depicts the betrayal of the rebel leader Prince Diponegoro by the Dutch colonial government. [/5]For Indonesians, the painting is a symbol of their former colonial rulers' greed and duplicity, and is beloved by some because Raden had mischievously painted the Dutch characters as having slightly outsized heads compared to the Indonesians.
Though the original painting now hangs in the Merdeka Palace Museum of Jakarta, a rare working drawing of the famous work has been obtained from the collection of Stichting Atlas Van Stolk for the exhibition.
For Luna, his most famous painting is Spoliarium (1884), a 4.2m by 7.6m oil-on-canvas that won the gold medal at the prestigious art contest Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1884 in Madrid.
The painting fuelled the Philippine drive for independence because it "proved to the world that indios could, despite their supposed barbarian race, paint better than the Spaniards who colonised them", writes Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo. The painting now hangs as the first work to greet visitors to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Manila.
Despite the absence of these two iconic paintings, the works assembled here are more than sufficient testament to Raden and Luna's extraordinary talents as artists.
Raden's paintings boast artful compositions, narrative qualities and anthropomorphic animal subjects that draw the viewer in. His images of animal hunts and ships caught in storms are unabashedly visceral and dramatic. Interpreted metaphorically, they also speak volumes about Indonesian pride and independence vis-a-vis the country's colonial rulers.
Meanwhile, Luna's large paintings astound with their scale, detail and ambition. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the stunning 2.5m by 3.4m painting Cleopatrawhich depicts the Egyptian queen on her deathbed after taking her life.
Luna has a profound gift for depicting the melancholy. Even in his smaller paintings where the subject may be smiling, there is a haunting undercurrent of sadness that suggests an interiority beyond the reach of the viewer.
- Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna opens at the National Gallery Singapore on Nov 16, 2017 and runs till March 11, 2018. It is held concurrently with the Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musee d'Orsay as part of the museum's Century of Light exhibition focusing on art in the 19th century