Singapore Pinacotheque de Paris' artworks speak across centuries and genres

Art museum wants to create a visual dialogue of themes and connections


Marc Restellini throws his arm back in a wide gesture, almost as if he is embracing this roomful of art - in this case, the permanent collection of the Singapore Pinacotheque de Paris, which opens on Saturday.

"Please, I would like you to take a tour. You will appreciate, you will have feelings," the museum's founder says in low, reverent tones, "and then after that, I will answer your questions."

It is this room of carefully hung work by Picasso, Pollock, Modigliani, Monet, Rembrandt and Renoir that will form the cornerstone of the first international outpost of the popular French private museum Pinacotheque de Paris, perched at the top of Fort Canning Park.


The museum's permanent collection of more than 40 rarely seen artworks, sourced entirely from private collections, is also a live demonstration of what Restellini calls "transversality".

The French art historian and museum director has carved a niche for himself with this distinct approach to curating and presenting work.

Dutch Old Master Aernout Smit's wind-whipped maritime landscape might first catch your eye: two ships buffeted by dark, curling waves, veering dangerously close to a wall of sheer cliffs. The oil on canvas, painted some time between 1670 and 1710, might bring to mind Singapore's own maritime fortunes, with merchants gambling on weather and safety to make a living through the treacherous shipping business.


But what comes next? Two portraits of grave but visibly affluent European men by 16th-century Italian painter Jacopo Robusti (Tintoretto) and 17th-century Flemish portrait-painter Anthony Van Dyck flanking an audaciously bright brass sculpture by 20th-century German- French sculptor Jean Arp. It is so shiny you can see your reflection in it - but are you a portrait of wealth or poverty?

While these artworks are separated by thousands of kilometres and hundreds of years, they form a strangely compelling triptych and social commentary on the nature of wealth; look down and gold rivulets from Arp's sculpture are reflecting off the dark floor like a river of gold.


It is this sort of thought-provoking narrative that Restellini relishes, his brand of transversality reaching across countries and art movements to put together a visual dialogue of themes and connections.

The straight-talking Restellini, wide- shouldered and wild-haired, cuts an imposing figure. He had a bit of a reputation for being an enfant terrible in France, propelled by his deep suspicion of conventional museum curation and great love of cross-cultural interactions in art.

"My relationship with museums is very complicated," he says with a chuckle. "Since I was a student, I always thought that there was something wrong in the way museums were working."


He is sceptical of curators who treat work with a clinical eye and who group artwork solely by period and by genre.

He argues that before the 18th century spawned the museum as people know it today, the earliest collections of art had their roots in the private collections of wealthy individuals or royal families, who would gather art and artefacts from near and far in their homes and display them in "wonder rooms" or "cabinets of curiosities" according to their own guiding principles and taste.

It is from these cabinets of curiosities that the Pinacotheque takes its name, derived from the word pinacotheke in Greek meaning "box of paintings".

Its French flagship in Paris brings in about 1.5 million visitors a year, and while nowhere near the Louvre Museum's 9.26 million or the Musee d'Orsay's 3.5 million, it is no mean feat for a significantly smaller, privately run space.


The other partners in the Singapore Pinacotheque venture are top brass from the Singapore Freeport and local integrated investment company KOP Group, along with the Singapore Tourism Board and the National Parks Board. A private company, Art Heritage Singapore, manages the Pinacotheque and its chief executive is Ms Suguna Madhavan, who has a background in business management, consulting and technology.

Mr Lionel Yeo, chief executive of the tourism board, says it is "honoured" to have Singapore host the first international outpost of the Pinacotheque: "This adds to our city's attractiveness and complements our already vibrant arts scene."

Wooing private collectors

German art critic and academic Boris Groys put forward in a 1995 essay that collecting is an art form in its own right.

Restellini often sources the artworks for the museum from private collections and collectors around the world and it is often in the nature of these wealthy collectors to be secretive. But he has managed to charm enough of them to let him bring their work out of Europe and into Asia.


"People are always very happy to lend... my job is not so powerful," he says with a grin, attempting modesty.

But his affection and respect for the collectors he works with are palpable.

"The collectors are better art historians than me, they know everything about their paintings.

"The most knowledgeable people about art are the people who own it. If you have a collector who knows nothing about painting, he's not a collector, he's an investor - because he doesn't care."


These relationships are cultivated slowly, with trust built over years and the museum's reputation growing by word of mouth. Restellini says: "Sometimes you see what they have on the wall and you have to be very discreet. You don't say, 'So what else do you have?' This is not a good way. It's very personal."

The only reluctance he says he has faced is from collectors who are concerned as to how their paintings will be hung next to those of other collectors.

He says: "They would say, 'I won't know what you'll put it with. Are you sure it's okay?' In that case, I will push my personal relationship with them and say, trust me.


"The reaction when they saw it was, 'Woah, incredible'. That creates a new type of confidence. Now I have a little more experience and it's much easier."

He chuckles when asked of the value of the art at Singapore Pinacotheque: "Of course, the value is high. But it is also nothing because it is in a museum. What is the value of the Mona Lisa? It could be $500 million or zero - because it's not for sale. What is the value of something that can't be sold? It is nothing."

On the appeal of a private museum such as the Pinacotheque, Canadian-born curator, researcher and critic Iola Lenzi, who is based in Singapore, feels many in South-east Asia have a keen interest in Western art and the European masters, and that the Singapore audience is knowledgeable and ready to engage with Western art on a more sophisticated level.


But she has her reservations about the arrival of the French museum, concerned that it might continue to propagate a view prevalent in Asia, that "art is something that needs to be sanctioned or endorsed by the West".

She is hoping for "well-put together and well-researched exhibitions about specific ideas in Western art that can be demonstrated through the work shown, that have relevance to South-east Asia - or something so completely different that it triggers new ideas about art, East or West, in the audience".

She adds: "I hope they understand that Singapore audiences are ready to move past the European brand names in art, to look at idea-based curating... To me, good curation is thinking out of the box and making new connections."


Queen and shaman

Restellini immediately fell in love with the lush, historic environs of Fort Canning when he first visited the site several years ago, calling it "a magic place".

The Singapore Pinacotheque is housed in the 5,500 sq m Fort Canning Arts Centre, the former home of the Singapore Dance Theatre given a makeover. There are also food and beverage outlets, a museum shop and an art academy.

But the focal point is the museum's three main exhibition spaces - the Collections Gallery, the Heritage Gallery and the Features Gallery, which will host a fresh exhibition about twice a year, starting with The Myth Of Cleopatra.

About 20 per cent of the Cleopatra exhibition, which was shown in France last year, will be updated for Singapore.

"She's still very present in everyone's mind. I think you can ask anyone, 'Who is Cleopatra?', and everyone will know," Restellini says. He wanted an opening show that was both grand and accessible, spanning 2,000 years of art from rare antiquities to modern-day pop culture.


Giovanni Gentili, head curator for the Cleopatra exhibition, says over e-mail that he feels the need to "avenge Cleopatra and give of the queen and her reign a portrait as real as possible, though it is still not easy today". For instance, it is difficult to get hold of original documents from Ptolemaic Alexandria, capital of the Egyptian kingdom.

He adds: "I thought it was important also to underline one of the new features represented by the queen - the chance for a woman to become a sovereign of those times and ruler of the richest country in the Mediterranean. That was a real scandal for the Romans, whose wives and daughters were considered very little in social life and zero in the political field."

Some artworks and artefacts that were not showcased in Paris will be coming to Singapore. These include props from Joseph L. Mankiewicz's iconic 1963 film Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor, such as a gilded chariot and several of Taylor's luxe costumes. Twelve of these costumes are kept in a private collection in Rome. They cost US$194,800 (S$260,160) in total, still a record amount today.

The Heritage Gallery focuses on the history of Singapore and Fort Canning, put together by curator Bruce W. Carpenter.

Some artefacts date back to the late Neolithic period and early Indonesian Bronze Age, stretching back possibly as far as 1,500BC.


Restellini was especially taken with the masks and sculptures of the Indonesian Batak people after visiting an exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum last year - how they had possibly influenced artworks in Africa, which were strikingly similar in style, and how their creations could then be linked to the spread of primitivism in the West in the 20th century with prominent French painters such as Paul Gauguin.

He says: "How is it possible that people could be making the same kind of art in a different continent and much earlier, in the 12th century?"

This, he feels, is the ultimate stamp of transversality, the richness of artistic dialogues spanning centuries and continents.

It is why he has set up a small corner of The Collections Gallery in which a shamanic object from Indonesia's Mentawai Island can be juxtaposed against a fiery crimson painting by American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, who was also influenced by shamanism.


One art lover who is looking forward to the museum's opening is copywriter Pek Li Jun, 28. She spent several years living and working in Paris, calling it "an art lover's dream".

She says: "My weekends floated by in the world's best museums when I lived there, so I'm just thrilled that one of my favourite parts of that dream - modern art - is coming here."

The Singapore Pinacotheque de Paris opens on Saturday.

Museum founder has artistic roots

Art runs in Marc Restellini's family - his late grandfather was the Moldova-born painter Isaac Antcher.

Restellini was born in 1964 in Saint-Omer, Pas-de-Calais. He received a degree in art history and later a postgraduate diploma from the Pantheon- Sorbonne University in Paris, where he taught as a lecturer from 1988 to 1993.

Later in the 1990s, Restellini curated many travelling exhibitions to Japan at spaces such as the Tobu Museum in Tokyo and the Municipal Museum in Osaka. He then returned to Europe with exhibitions at the Fondation de l'Hermitage in Lausanne and the Palazza Vecchio in Florence. He was appointed artistic director of the Musee de Luxembourg in 2000, where he produced exhibitions on Raphael and Modigliani.

He opened the Pinacotheque de Paris in 2007.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.