A Review of Between Worlds

The National Gallery Singapore’s exhibition Between Worlds brings together works by two key Southeast Asian artists: Raden Saleh (1811-1880) from Indonesia and Juan Luna (1857-1899) from the Philippines. It features more than 100 works from collections all over the world and, according to Director Eugene Tan, is “the most comprehensive exhibition to date for both artists.”

The exhibition space is divided among the two artists – the sections on Saleh are clearly indicated by the blue walls, which change into pink as we cross over to the sections on Luna. We follow the artists as they begin their art education in Southeast Asia, travel to and within Europe, and find success with patrons and various awards. Their artistic careers are well represented by works from various stages of their lives, including works painted after their return to Southeast Asia.

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Saleh’s works against blue walls (top) and Luna’s against pink walls (bottom)

The exhibition starts promisingly with portraits of the Luna and Saleh greeting the visitors as they enter through the walkway, but there are no further efforts to display their works alongside each other. Both artists are revered as key figures of modern art and have near-mythical status in their countries. Hence, any comparative exhibition in either country may generate murmurings charged with national pride and defensive criticism. On the other hand, in a somewhat neutral country such as Singapore, this exhibition provides an opportunity to comparatively analyse their practices in refreshing and innovative ways.

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The first two paintings of the exhibition: portraits of Juan Luna (left) and Raden Saleh (right).

The curatorial decision to present these two artists separately is therefore an unfortunate one, as it fails to capitalise on the chance to generate insights which are more apparent when we look at the works through shared themes instead of chronologically. The connections, if the Gallery was intending to highlight any, are tenuous and cursory, easily missed in the monographic presentation of the works.

The two sections come across as distinct retrospectives which seem hastily combined and affiliated only by visual cues in the exhibition design (for example, the yellow archways). The colour distinction (blue-pink) further underscores their separation, even though there was a weak attempt to fade one colour into the next when we move from the sections on Saleh to the sections on Luna. One wonders if this is because the curators (Clarissa Chikiamco and Syed Muhammad Hafiz) specialise in different countries and there was no concerted effort to bring the two artists together.

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The yellow archways and the transition from blue to pink.

However, the first essay in the exhibition catalogue, written by these two curators and Russell Storer, Senior Curator at the Gallery, seems to suggest otherwise. The writers discussed the lives and works of Saleh and Luna jointly under the sections “Lives of the Artists,” “Colonial Cosmopolitans,” and “Patrons and Salons.” This comparative discussion yielded interesting insights, which unfortunately are not fully apparent in the exhibition.

However, despite the unsatisfactory curatorial direction of this exhibition, the commendable selection of works covered the entire period of their artistic careers. The absence of the artists’ most famous works – Saleh’s The Arrest of Prince Diponegoro and Luna’s Spoliarium – are to be expected since it would have been almost impossible to loan these works, deemed as national treasures in their respective countries.

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Raden Saleh. The Arrest of Prince Diponegoro. 1857. Oil on canvas, 112 x 179cm. Collection of Koleksi Istana Presiden.
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Juan Luna. Spoliarium. 1884. Oil on canvas, 422 x 766cm. Collection of National Museum of the Philippines, Manila.

In fact, the absence of these works should be celebrated as this void encourages us examine their artistic practices in a more wholistic manner. These two works, having attained considerable prominence, are sometimes the only works by which the artists are known. Their inclusion in the exhibition may unduly overshadow other works which are no less important to our understanding of the artists.

For instance, works by Antoine Payen (Saleh’s mentor in Indonesia), Lorenzo Guerrero (Luna’s teacher in the Philippines), and Alejo Vera (Luna’s teacher in Spain), give us a glimpse of what the artists were exposed to in their formative years of art training. Saleh’s watercolour works, painted when he was just a teenager, and Luna’s The Violinist, painted when he was 19 years old, also remind us that their artistic careers started way before they set foot on European soil.

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Antoine Auguste Joseph Payen. House of the Resident of Banyuwangi, East Java. 1828. Oil on canvas, 53 x 65cm. Collection of Rijksmuseum.
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Raden Saleh’s early watercolour paintings, c. 1822-1825.
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Juan Luna. The Violinist. 1876. Oil on canvas, 110.5 x 82.5cm. Collection of Lopez Museum and Library.

One of the best parts of the exhibition was the inclusion of preparatory sketches and archival material. We often encounter finished works of art and forget that painting can be a laborious and pain-staking process, and that it is undertaken in a specific time, place, and context. The sketches, of which there were many in the exhibition, throw light on the artists’ working processes, while the archival materials, such as newspaper clippings and old photographs, situate the artists as individuals working in a foreign land, under specific cultural and political circumstances. Viewed alongside with the paintings, we are therefore given a more nuanced understanding of their practices beyond the pictorial surface of a finished work.

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Raden Saleh. Two Tigers Sneaking through the Grass. c. 1847. Pencil on paper, 13.2 x 21cm. Collection of Rijksmuseum.
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Raden Saleh. Javanese Landscape, with Tigers Listening to the Sound of a Travelling Group. 1849. Oil on canvas, 112 x 156cm. Private collection.
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Juan Luna. The Unknown Ones. 1890-1891. Oil on canvas, 195 x 358cm. Collection of Biblioteca Museums Víctor Balaguer, Villanova i la Geltrú, Spain. (pictured with display case of various publications at that time featuring the work)

Given the limitations of space and what can be loaned, these sketches and archival material work well with the strong selection of works to provide balanced and detailed narratives of Saleh’s and Luna’s artistic careers.

Returning to the earlier observations, it is therefore all the more regrettable that the Gallery has not brought the two artists together. As it stands, these two portions are good exhibitions if taken individually. The next step to bring them together and to discuss their experiences in relation to each other is missing. During some of the talks organised in conjunction with this exhibition, there were discussions on how Saleh’s experience in Europe, as he mingled mainly with the European elites, is different from Luna’s experience in Spain, surrounded by fellow countrymen such as José Rizal and Félix Resurrección Hidalgo. Could this perhaps be related to how they painted and the subject-matter they chose to engage with? Despite their differing cultural and personal backgrounds, it would have been intriguing to compare how they evolved as artists and to consider if they shared similar concerns working as Southeast Asians in Europe.

Although we should not take Saleh and Luna to be representative of all Southeast Asian artists in the 19th century, such comparative approaches can initiate similar discussions on other such artists of that time, thereby contributing to a richer discourse on modern Southeast Asian art.

As with the previous major shows in the Gallery such as Reframing Modernism, Artist and Empire, and Life Is The Heart Of A Rainbow, this exhibition is somewhat tolerable, but inadequate in its critical engagement with important issues, such as the differing experiences of Southeast Asian artists in Europe and the extent to which different colonial and political relations influenced Southeast Asian art in the 19th century. The exhibition had the potential to be seminal in art historical scholarship, but did not live up fully to this promise. Regardless, we can still contend ourselves with the masterful works in this exhibition while we wait to see if the Gallery’s next exhibition can live up to be a “blockbuster” show.

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Juan Luna. Cleopatra. 1881. Oil on canvas, 250 x 340cm. Collection of Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
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Raden Saleh. Lion Hunt. 1841. Oil on canvas, 88.3 x 142.3cm. Collection of Latvian National Museum of Art.

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All images in this post are taken by the author with the exception of the following, which are from the exhibition catalogue:

  • Raden Saleh. The Arrest of Prince Diponegoro.
  • Raden Saleh’s early watercolour paintings
  • Juan Luna. The Violinist.
  • Raden Saleh. Two Tigers Sneaking through the Grass.
  • Raden Saleh. Javanese Landscape, with Tigers Listening to the Sound of a Travelling Group.
  • Raden Saleh. Lion Hunt.
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