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Artists in dialogue

New show at National Gallery Singapore puts South-east Asian works alongside modern art from the Centre Pompidou collection

A world in flux seems to define the millennial experience - freak weather, terror attacks, rapid technological progress.

Yet changes in society, politics and technology have long rocked mankind and, in turn, provoked cultural and intellectual responses.

In the 19th century, this birthed the notion of modernity, with artists from South-east Asia and the West advancing form and style in art.

This understanding of modernism in art lies at the heart of a new exhibition that opens on Thursday at the National Gallery Singapore.

Reframing Modernism is the gallery's first international exhibition and it is jointly curated and presented with the Centre Pompidou, Paris. It also inaugurates the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery in the museum's City Hall wing.

More than 200 paintings by 51 artists are hung in the 1,960 sq m gallery. About half of the works come from Paris and the rest from South-east Asia, from the collection of the National Gallery as well as loans from private collections and museums in the region.

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. ''

NATIONAL GALLERY DIRECTOR EUGENE TAN, on Reframing Modernism, which unsettles assumptions about modernity

Artists featured in the show include Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Vassily Kandinsky from the Centre Pompidou collection, and South-east Asian artists such as Le Pho, Cheong Soo Pieng and Anita Magsaysay-Ho.

National Gallery director Eugene Tan says the show reframes modernism because it unsettles assumptions about it.

  • VIEW IT / REFRAMING MODERNISM

  • WHERE: National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew's Road, Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery

    WHEN: Thursday to July 17; Monday to Thursday and Sunday (10am to 7pm), Friday and Saturday (10am to 10pm)

    ADMISSION: $15 (adult) and $10 (child) for Singaporeans; $25 (adult) and $20 (child) for non-residents

"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," he says. "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."

National Gallery senior curator Lisa Horikawa says that while the idea of modern art in South-east Asia is already examined through the museum's ongoing exhibition, Between Declarations And Dreams, at the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery, this new exhibition "allows us to explore modernism further from an artist-centric perspective and with global comparison."

Rich, diverse modern art in the region

The exhibition flows from a group of paintings by one artist to another, floating a web of artistic concerns shared by artists from both Europe and South-east Asia.

This includes the push to root modernism in vernacular and folk culture, and balancing stylistic innovation with social engagement. It does not trace a linear narrative based on chronology or stylistic progression.

Ms Horikawa says that by placing modern art masters of the West alongside counterparts from South- east Asia, the show aims to offer a pluralistic perspective on modernism in the 20th century and have the audience reconsider how artists working in different contexts approached modern art.

National Gallery curator Phoebe Scott says: "To open a standard art history textbook on modernism, what you would normally see is a succession of art movements, all originating in Europe or America, moving from Realism to Impressionism to Abstraction.

"The implication of such an account can be that artists working elsewhere, who might also take up such styles, are derivative; it creates a hierarchy. While artists in South- east Asia did make use of styles originating in the West, the idea of 'influence' does not explain why or how they did this or what such uses and adaptations actually meant in the local context."

An example she cites is the work of Vietnamese artist Nguyen Gia Tri, whose lacquer painting The Fairies (1936) is a highlight of the show. Measuring 2.9m by 4.4m, it is the largest known lacquer painting by the artist.

He was trained in Western-style academic art at the Indochina School of Fine Arts in Hanoi and his compositions drew inspiration from the paintings of Matisse.

However, much of his work is concerned with using lacquer as a medium to advance new artistic expressions and his works do not fit neatly into any one style.

Dr Scott says: "To put artists from South-east Asia in the same exhibition as modernists from the Centre Pompidou collection begins to break down the implied hierarchy.

"It demonstrates that diffusion of style is only one part of the story of global modernism. Other 'modernisms' were generated from the local context as well."

The collaboration, which took place over the last two years, began with the National Gallery curators proposing a list of South-east Asian artists whose works represent the diversity of modernism in the region.

The curators from Centre Pompidou then picked artists from its collection whose practice resonated with the concerns of South-east Asian artists.

The collaboration was a "fruitful" one for the Centre Pompidou, says its deputy director Catherine David, because it "forced us to consider many complexities of the collection", "articulate more precisely" its understanding of the period and reconsider artists who are less visible in the presentation of its collection.

Centre Pompidou curator Nicolas Liucci-Goutnikov says: "It was surprising for us to rediscover the high quality of the works produced by South-east Asian artists who came to Paris, such as Le Pho and Georgette Chen, given that many of them had been under-represented in French art historiography."

He adds: "Through this collaboration, we have learnt a lot about the artists in South-east Asia and how rich and diverse the modern art of the region is."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2016, with the headline 'Artists in dialogue'. Print Edition | Subscribe