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Southeast Asian masters in a joint exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore

Boasting an impressive collection of Asian art, the National Gallery Singapore recently held a special exhibition focusing on art movements which developed in the 19th century. Entitled Century of Light, the program was composed of two simultaneous and complementary exhibitions; Between Worlds gathering pieces from two of Southeast Asia’s most renowned painters Raden Saleh and Juan Luna, and Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, featuring over 60 masterpieces from the world-famous collection in Paris, including artists such as Manet, Renoir, Cézanne and Monet.


Originally from Indonesia and the Philippines, both Saleh and Luna are considered national heroes in their respective homelands, while also earning their place within the European art world. The National Gallery Singapore has done an impressive effort in tracing their artistic journeys all the way from Southeast Asia to Europe and back again. Working closely with experts specializing in the two artists and the history of the region in the 19th century, the curators managed to bring together for the very first time over 100 paintings, drawings and other archival materials from some of the leading Southeast Asian, European and American museums and private collections.


The title of the exhibition Between Worlds was inspired by the struggle to reconcile the artists’ love of two worlds between their homelands and their ambitions in Europe where they established their careers. Both men shared a similar journey as Southeast Asian artists who received an opportunity to develop their talent in the West. The exhibition aims to explore both artists’ abilities to work with varied techniques learned from European artists, and the way the evolution of their artistic process shaped the art history of the Asian region over time. To fully understand their journey, visitors were also able to get an insight into their lives and careers through infographics and extensive biographies. It is an honour to have Saleh representing Indonesian art and culture in such a prominent international exhibition amongst all the old masters. Saleh, who was appointed “King’s Painter” by King Willem III of the Netherlands, was also the first Indonesian artist to receive training in Europe and in the Netherlands in particular from artists focusing on landscapes, genre and portraits. Luna, who was originally from the Philippines, first studied in Madrid and Rome before moving to Paris and finally gaining recognition in Spain.


There are a few significant artworks from Saleh in the exhibition, including a landscape painting of Java from the Smithsonian’s collection, on public display for the first time. Another notable artwork is the breathtaking Arab Horseman Attacked by a Lion (1842). The king of the jungle was undoubtedly an important part of Saleh’s artistic journey as he spent considerable time studying its anatomy. He was inspired to paint lions while attending various animal shows in The Hague and Haarlem, performed by the notorious French animal trainer Henri Martin in 1836-37. Although Martin performed with a wide range of animals such as tigers, hyenas and phytons, it was a lion that attracted Saleh’s attention as he was already familiar with them since his childood in his hometown in Java. Through his research and observations, he produced numerous sketches and paintings of lions.


Three other lion paintings were also featured in the exhibition, possibly portraits of Nero, Martin’s lion. As seen in Wounded Lion (1839), the manner Saleh is portraying Nero demonstrates his ability to capture details of an unusual subject in his signature romantic style. He captures the lion’s grimace of agony and fury in a convincing dramatic scene, while the viewer’s gaze moves on to the broken spear piercing the animal’s neck. Saleh extended his mesmerizing skill on increasingly complex compositions depicting groups of animals in fighting or hunting scenes. He got influences from Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens for his hunting lions-themed paintings. Rubens popularised the genre in the 17th century and Saleh was known for seeking inspiration in his paintings.


His Orientalist animal fights and hunting scenes also gained attention outside the Netherlands, when the German audience who had no colonies in the Orient demonstrated an “intellectual curiousity” towards the region. Thanks to his flamboyant Javanese prince-like persona and dramatic paintings, Saleh’s popularity continued rising in Germany during the 1840s. After moving to Paris in 1845, he received further encouragement to focus on Orientalist hunting parties and fights from Horace Vernet, a famous French painter known for favouring similar themes.


Saleh painted more traditional landscape views of Java when he was commissioned by the Scottish private entrepreneur Alexander Fraser in the late 1850s. When Fraser moved to London in 1879, he brought all the paintings with him. His wife’s niece, Sally Burbank Swart, donated them to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in the US in 1925, before they were finally transferred to its American Art Museum in 1985. This collection is the only known public collection of Raden Saleh paintings in the United States, also marking his presence in the American market. Another Java scenery appears in Javanese Temple in Ruins, which depicts the 9th century Buddhist temple of Mendut, which lies three kilometres east from Borobudur temple. Saleh visited both temples in summer 1852 after the excavation work was completed in the area in 1835, after the temple had been buried in ashes following the eruption of Merapi volcano.


          Six Horsemen Chasing Deer portrays a hunting scene with two Javanese upper class men and four retainers on horseback, chasing a stag and a deer in Bandung’s savanna with the Malabar volcano rising in the horizon. At the time, deer hunting was a popular activity among the local elite and their Western guests. Saleh himself was an accomplished horseman and very likely participated in such hunting parties. Last but not least, another highlight from Saleh was Shipwreck in Storm, depicting a ship caught in a storm and a barrel fallen overboard. Marine art became an integral part of the Dutch painting tradition already in the 17th century, as the Dutch colonists and traders were spending a lot of time at sea, riding ships and bringing back goods from Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.


Even for an art connoisseur like myself, visiting Between Worlds was a great pleasure and opportunity to get immersed into Saleh’s artistic journey and his experiences living between two different cultures. With Indonesia so close to my heart, I feel proud witnessing a highly regarded Indonesian painter such as Raden Saleh and his remarkable artworks presented amongst other great artists from the art capitals of Europe.

Your new art destination in Indonesia, Solo!

Every art lover in Indonesia knows about Jakarta’s galleries or the exciting art scene in Jogjakarta, but what about the other cities? With such a rich cultural heritage, the country must have other hidden treasures, right? Solo is considered as one of the epicenters of Javanese culture. It has maintained much of its traditional character preserved through its palaces, temples, back street neighborhoods called kampung, the markets known as pasar, crafts such as batik fabrics as well as through many performing arts.  It is a city that prides itself in its artistic tradition of sophisticated beauty, commemorating its once powerful position as the center of power of the Javanese kingdom. Solo’s modernization has been modest compared to its ‘sister city’ Jogjakarta or other cities around Java, but it still boasts a number of contemporary malls and hotels. Now things are rapidly changing! With the opening of the new Tumurun Private Museum earlier this year and prestigious hotels investing increasingly in art, Solo is set to become the new hotspot for art tourism.

The Alila Solo hotel is one of the city’s most luxurious accommodations.  Conveniently located near the Solo Square, this modern hotel has been designed to be an exceptional fusion of traditional and contemporary design. The owner envisioned the interior of the hotel to express the unique elegance of Solo’s artistic culture, which is also brought forward through two stunning artworks, Selendang Sinerat and Kavu Jati Globe. The former is a gigantic 40-meter scarf-looking masterpiece, hand-painted by Solonese artist Sucahyo. Located at the hotel’s lobby, the dramatic piece greets guests upon arrival, beautifully incorporating the legends of the gods and goddesses of the Wayang tradition with traditional batik patterns of Java. The Kavu Jati Globe is a wooden sculpture carved from salvaged ancient teak tree roots. It is a contemporary representation of the globe, appropriately placed in the entrance, where the Indonesian and international guests of the Alila can instantly see it.  The main intention of these art pieces is to symbolize the welcoming and sincere services of the Alila hotel, reflecting the hospitable customs of the Solo people.

The architecture of the Alila Solo hotel has also been carefully thought through, as it is Javanese inspired and designed by the acclaimed architect Budiman Hendropurnomo.  He incorporates his passion for his Indonesian heritage into contemporary designs. The hotel’s walls are decorated with batik, while the floor is layered with marble, travertine and granite, juxtaposed against the pale wood commonly used in Javanese interior design. The dining area reveals a charming Javanese aesthetic, combining modern timber and metal lattices decorated with contrasting traditional Kawung patterns, often believed to symbolize justice and power.  Agra, Alila’s rooftop lounge and bar, is another example of the hotel’s achievements in merging traditional themes with contemporary compositions. Agra’s sophisticated outdoor terrace features a mural painted by Eddy Sulistyo, a muralist from Jogjakarta.  His artistic style is edgy, combining both Eastern and Western themes, traditions and modernity, as he includes in his artworks images of eminent local musicians such as Walijinah and international legends like The Beatles.

Opened in April earlier this year, the Tumurun Private Museum has quickly become a significant cultural destination in Solo. The museum is home to both international and Indonesian contemporary and modern art, and was initially realized to educate the people of Solo about the value and importance of art. Standing amongst the impressive number of artworks on display, it is hard to believe that the space was once intended for showcasing the extravagant car collection of the Lukminto family. Luckily, they decided to also include art pieces to achieve a more creative and artistic ambiance. Tumurun emphasizes modern and contemporary art so that the public and younger generations in particular can understand and appreciate the evolution of art in Indonesia. Every detail matters, therefore the layout of the museum is designed to reflect this differentiation between modern art placed on the second floor and the contemporary art collection displayed on the ground floor. Distinguishing the pieces, their respective histories and style differences is important, and the museum hopes that the guests recognize these particularities after their visit. In fact, the Tumurun Private Museum is so dedicated to properly educating locals and foreigners alike, that they screen their visitors to make sure they do not enter for simply snapping a few photos and leaving. As one of their missions, the museum seeks to actively engage the public in learning about local and international art.

The Tumurun includes about 200 paintings, many from the family’s private collection or sourced from galleries, auctions and exhibitions, each piece carefully chosen to express a unique character. Two artworks are considered particularly important, both in their technique and message: a modern artwork by Hendra Gunawan entitled My Wife and I and a contemporary art piece by Rudi Mantofani entitled Red and White. The former depicts the real-life love story of Gunawan, a political prisoner accused of being a communist, and his loyal wife. Their intimate relationship is accentuated by their close embrace in the corner of his cell, while their limited time together is symbolized by the ringing bells, used to indicate the amount of time prison guests had left. Red and White by Mantofani characterizes the complexity and diversity of Indonesian society whether in language, religion or ethnicity. Its unity stemming from diversity is represented by the pixelated and thus indistinguishable line between the red and white. The museum’s goal in the future is to establish more similar private museums throughout the country, in order to further their dream in encouraging Indonesians to love and understand art.

Although Solo hasn’t always been known as the mecca for art, it is now starting to attract the art crowd, with the opening of the new art museum and artists setting their studios in the city. We are soon likely to see more galleries pop up here and there, as the gallerists naturally follow the creators. For Indonesia, this is also great news as the country’s art scene is blooming and more international visitors are coming every year. As the Tumurun Private Museum strongly believes, learning to value art is an integral step in the advancement of Indonesia as a nation, particularly in its message to unite diversity through art. So when you plan your next cultural trip, head to Solo!

Tumurn Museum Solo

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