Between Worlds, Contemplating Impressionism

loading Raden Saleh – Lion Hunt.

Good things come in twos, as a “2-in-1”, in what is the National Gallery Singapore (NGS)’s current art-peritif, under the banner of Century of Light.

One, an original script called “Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna”, brings together for the first time two South-East Asian art titans who made their mark in nineteenth-century Europe.

Raden Saleh – Shipwreck in Storm.

The other, “Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musee D’Orsay”, is a neat repackaging of selected works by iconic artists with an accent on colour evolution and permutations. The exhibitions run concurrently from November 16, 2017 to March 11, 2018.

Between Worlds

Indonesia’s Raden Saleh (c. 1811-1880) and Juan Luna (1857-1899) of the Philippines are, by dint of their success, poster boys of the Dutch and Spanish colonial masters respectively. Born a half-century apart, they came from privileged backgrounds and spent a great part of their lives all over Europe. While Raden lived until he was 69, Luna died relatively young at 42, succumbing to a heart attack.

Raden Saleh – Lions.

Both were mentored by foreign art masters – Raden by Antoine Payen (in Indonesia and Brussels); Cornelius Kruiseman and Andreas Schelfhout (the Hague); Horace Vernet (Paris) and Johan Christian Dahl (Dresden). Luna had a brief stint under fellow Pinoy, Lorenzo Guerreo, before he came under the wings of Alejo Vera; he also professed a spiritual mentor in Eduardo Rosales.

Raden was royally feted and decorated and even declared the “King’s Painter” (1851), honoured with the Knight’s Cross (1844) and the Austrian Star of the Order of Franz Joseph ((1871).

Luna was trained as a sea pilot and his ascendancy was by way of plump prizes of the Spanish national art competition – no mean feat. First, it was a 2nd Class medal for his Death of Cleopatra (1881, 74.5cm x 34cm), and then the grand 1st Class medal for Spoliarium (422cm x 766cm, not shown in the NGS exhibition) in 1884. He was among the top three 1st Class medallists among a field of 860. (Fellow Filipino artist Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo took a 2nd Class medal. Luna and Hidalgo were paired in a 1988 exhibition at the Manila Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

The closest Raden, then 66, and Luna, only 20 then, came of each other was in 1877 when Raden was touring Italy (Florence, Rome and Naples) while Luna had his abortive study at the San Fernando Academy in Madrid.

Juan Luna's portrait of Jose Rizal.

Raden spent 23 years in Europe (1829- 1852), traversing Holland, France, Belgium, Germany (including Dresden) and Britain, and returned to Europe for his honeymoon with his wife in 1875-1879, this time including Italy in his itinerary. Back in Indonesia, he was kept busy with portrait commissions and art conservation.

Luna spent a total of 17 years in Europe (1877-1894), his itinerary spanning Spain, Italy and France. In 1896 he visited Japan; 1897 Spain; 1898 New York, Britain, France and Hong Kong; 1899 Washington DC, France, Montreal in Canada, Leitzmeritz in Austria and Hong Kong, where he died suddenly. His epitaph inscribed on his tombstone dubbed him “Painter and Patriot”.

Raden married rather late in life, aged 56, in 1867, to Raden Ayu, and both died in 1880, a few months of each other, ending 13 years of blissful marriage. A posthumous retrospective was mounted in honour of Raden in Amsterdam in 1883, showing 19 of his works.

Luna did not have such luck, marrying in Paris in 1886 at the age of 29, but imprisoned for the eventual double murder of his wife and mother-in-law (a brother-in-law survived) in 1892, on his suspicion of his wife’s infidelity. He was acquitted the next year.

Raden made a career in three genres: i) exoticised Romantic Orientalist animal fights and hunting scenes of Arab, Bedouin and Javanese horsemen, in an anachronism. He is particularly known for his depiction of ferocious lions, although there were tigers and banteng (buffaloes) too. He studied the menagerie in animal-tamer Henry Martin’s Rotterdam Zoo, between 1836-1837. His large work measuring 3m x 4m, Boschbrand (Forest Fire, 1849), is shown in the adjacent UOB Gallery in another wing; ii) marine art, epitomised by Shipwreck In Storm (c. 1837, 50cm x 65.5cm); and iii) Eruption of Mount Merapi (five works in 1865).

Juan Luna – Les Ignores aka Heroes Anonimos.

Luna’s trajectory is more the allegorical and mock-historical, often referencing European subjects and lifestyle (including child musicians), portraits, nudes and heroics of the dispossessed (Anonymous Heroes, 1890-1891; and A Ragpicker, c 1891).

Although Raden is not known for a nationalistic political stance, his wrongful arrest and interrogation for alleged complicity in a peasant rebellion in Bekasi in 1869 had soured matters. It is thus interesting that his 1857 work, The Arrest of Prince Diponegoro (112cm x 179cm, collection of the Presidential Palace; not in the NGS exhibition) has somewhat morphed into an incipient spark of Javanese rebellion, with it being touted as a challenge to the work of the same title (c. 1830-1835) by Dutch-biased Nicolaas Pieneman.

Juan Luna – Death of Cleopatra.

In contrast, Luna spent the last four years of his life embroiled in the politics of Independence, first from Spain, and then from the US when Spain ceded it to the US for US$20mil.

Luna was imprisoned with Independence fighter Jose Rizal for being involved with the Katipunan in the Philippines Revolution in 1896; Rizal was summarily executed while Luna was pardoned in 1897, and he also successfully sought a pardon in Madrid for his similarly aggrieved brother.

Despite the perceived ambivalence of Luna’s loyalty in his work, Espana y the Philippines (1884/1888), Luna had illustrated the proposed second edition in Tagalog of his good friend Rizal’s novel, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, 1887) that was in turn presumably inspired by his Spoliarium. Even Rizal had dubbed Luna a “Hispanophile”. But Luna was also made a titular diplomat representative in Paris of the Aguinaldo Government.

The works from both artists were culled from several world-class museums including Del Prado, the Rijksmuseum, the Smithsonian and Leiden.

Juan Luna – La Mestiza (1887).

Berthe Morisot – Le berceau.

Claude Monet – La cathédrale de Rouen. Le portail et la tour Saint-Romain, plein soleil.

Auguste Renoir – Gabrielle à la rose..

The Raden-Luna exhibition is a good start at relooking and in researching the careers of South-East Asia’s art pioneers. (Generally, S. Sudjojono is regarded as the Father of Indonesian Modernism.) Hopefully, others like Vietnam’s Le Pho (1907-2001) and Myanmar’s U Ba Nyan (1897-1945) could also be given fresh currency.

Colours of Impressionism

“Colours of Impressionism” takes a look at colour developments from Édouard Manet’s sombre blacks (Moonlight over Boulogne, 1869), Claude Monet’s sun-bleached wintry white (The Magpie, created near Etretat in Normandy, 1868-1869, and which was refused in the 1869 Salon), Paul Cezanne’s green-blue landscapes (Gulf of Marseille) to Auguste Renoir’s rosy pink hues (Gabrielle With a Rose, 1911). It is Monet-ised, with one Giverny Waterlily (Pink Harmony, 1900), Rouen Cathedral (“Everything changes, even stones,” 1893, from an in situ series of five between 1892-1893, and 30 studio works dated 1894) and Argenteuil (where he was based between 1872-1878).

Édouard Manet – Clair de lune sur le port de Boulogne.

Impressionism followed the invention of Photography in the 1830s, the collapsible metal paint tube (1841) and the portable easel, and saw an exciting expanded repertoire of new colour tones like white lead, chrome, cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, Veronese green, ultramarine, emerald green, scarlet lake, vermilion, ivory black, and the cobalts of violet and blue.

The works are exclusively from the peerless collection in Musee d’Orsay in Paris, and include Eugene Delacroix’s 1859 The Puma and Berthe Morisot’s The Cradle (1872, shown at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874).

At the first Impressionist exhibition, some 165 canvases by 30 artists were shown. The two NGS exhibitions are separate entities – the only possible “link” between the twin NGS exhibitions lies in a letter written by Luna to Rizal, dated May 13, 1891, with dismissive remarks about the 1890 Post- Impressionist Independents exhibition.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.

Related Articles

May 2016

An Ancient Art Form that Continues to Inspire

The Chinese brush genre survives – and evolves – in Malaysia.

Jun 2013

The festival may be back, but it's no repeat

George Town Festival is back, and promises to be much more spectacular than the last.

Feb 2015

Choong Kam Kow – A this-worldly visionary

With 258 selected works and some 57 years of toil, artist Choong Kam Kow is finally getting his hugely deserved moment.

May 2012

George Town's "Mr Festival"

George Town Festival director Joe Siek has speaks on how far now-iconic festival has come.