Two women are going up a flower-strewn staircase. The taller, fair-skinned one is leading the other woman, who is darker and smaller, with a hand on her waist. Together they ascend the steps towards golden rays bursting from behind a cloud. The title of this painting is Spain and the Philippines (1884).
Couched in materteral affection between colonial master and subject, this cloyingly benevolent portrait of colonialism is one of several moments of uncomfortable viewing in this survey of two ‘national hero’-status artists from nineteenth-century Southeast Asia: Indonesia’s Raden Saleh (1811–80) and Juan Luna from the Philippines (1857–99). The exhibition, with more than a hundred works drawn from collections all over the world, is the most comprehensive showcase of either artist to date. While exhaustive and educational, it also feels blandly laudatory and slightly parochial, because it reinforces a well-worn art-historical narrative in Southeast Asia in which the beginnings of modernity are traced to art produced during the colonial period using Western idioms.
Given their parallels, Saleh and Luna are a natural pairing. Both were adept at Western painting and recognised in European salons as geniuses from the far reaches of the Dutch and Spanish empires. Both are also often seen as the ‘fathers’ of modern art in their respective countries, and some of their paintings have become iconic anticolonial images in the national consciousness. Overall, the show does little to destabilise the mythical status of these artists. It is split into two parts, one for each artist, and traces their individual developments over time, drawing out major themes and styles. The narrative is picaresque, one of colonial cosmopolitans infiltrating European art academies, impressing the white guys and eventually returning to their homelands as heroes.
In canvas after canvas, Saleh’s and Luna’s fluency and versatility are on full display. Saleh’s keen observation skills can be seen in early watercolour studies of Javanese peasants in traditional dress, and later, the quietness develops into more ambitious compositions of churning maritime scenes and animal fight sequences. Meanwhile, Luna’s trademark is the grand style of largescale history painting. His most famous painting, Spoliarium (1884), isn’t here, but in its place is a close cousin, yet another neoclassical work, The Death of Cleopatra (1881), which took silver medal at the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in Madrid that same year. Featuring Cleopatra together with two servants in operatic throes of death, you can see why it made an impact in Spain, being filled with a kind of unembarrassed showmanship. Luna’s style grew itinerant afterwards, branching out to proto-Manet portraits with stark black panes in Lady at the Racetrack and Woman with Manton (both 1889), and later, grim realism depicting the working classes (The Unknown Ones, 1890–91).
So we know they are good. Skilled in a competent, dexterous way, with ashes of exotic content. And if you cover the captions, you might think you’re looking at the work of – dare we say it? – some minor European artists in some respectable yet obscure provincial museum. This is where things get a bit sensitive. While Saleh and Luna are titans in Southeast Asia, they are not significant figures in Western art history. The National Gallery of Singapore, however, is keen to do some reparative work by plugging them both into European traditions: Dutch maritime scenes and Delacroix-inspired animal hunts for Saleh, for instance, and history paintings for Luna. But that is a counterproductive strategy, for all it leads to is the same dead end in which they become technically proficient but minor footnotes in Dutch and Spanish art histories.
There must be a more compelling story to be told, something less diffident, more reflective and that speaks more to our times. Something that adopts a less retiring and more critical position on the politics of colonial subjects working in the loaded medium of oil painting during the nineteenth century, which came to the region as a result of the expansion of European power, settlement and exploitation. Something that acknowledges and dramatises the complexity of Saleh’s and Luna’s positions. Politically, they considered themselves nationalists, but culturally, they were conservative. They believed, like their nineteenth-century colonial masters, that Western art traditions were a universal measure of talent and civilisation. Without unpacking this belief more rigorously, the National Gallery, some 150 years on, risks drinking the same Kool-Aid.
By more obviously highlighting the tensions and contradictions in their art, you draw attention to the elements that make them unique and fascinating products of their time. For one, the exhibition doesn’t do justice to the slipperiness of their identity politicking. For example, Saleh, who adopted the persona of a Javanese prince when mixing around in the European courts, was a genius at self-branding. Some of his Orientalist animal fight scenes – filled with gnashing predators and thrashing prey in different permutations methodically described in their titles – are performatively ‘Javanese’ and smack of shrewd self-exoticisation. Later, some art historians would argue that these works are subversive, appropriating a colonially coded form to smuggle in messages of resistance, such as by using native creatures like the tiger to represent a fighting Indonesia. But these violent menageries get only a bland wall text saying where and when Saleh could have seen these animals.
Nobody wants a judgemental or didactic show. But Between Worlds, like its noncommittal, neither-here-nor-there title, suffers from the lack of a point of view on something that is becoming a pet topic at the institution: empire. The last exhibition there was Artist and Empire: (En)Countering Colonial Legacies. Organised in collaboration with Tate Britain, that exhibition contained a degree of curatorial intervention on the Singaporean side, with a fresh segment dedicated to the rise of modern art movements as the colonies fought for independence. There were also contemporary artworks questioning the colonial legacy in Southeast Asia. Despite these measures, there was criticism that the show did not go far enough to develop a stand. Yet compared to the current Saleh/Luna show, it was positively radical. By choosing a risk-averse neutrality and avoiding any flashpoints, Between Worlds is a missed opportunity for the National Gallery to author new narratives and to spark conversation. But there will be plenty of other chances for it to try again. Next year, Singapore will celebrate the bicentennial of its founding by Sir Stamford Raffles as a British colony. A whole parade of colonial-themed art events will predictably roll out across the island. Hopefully, the National Gallery, itself housed in two key colonial buildings, the former City Hall and Supreme Court, and having greater autonomy to tackle its own country’s history instead of those of its neighbours, will lose the quietism and nostalgia. Otherwise, it risks positioning itself in a manner akin to the subject of Spain and the Philippines, and linking arms with forces with which its relationship has historically been anything but romantic.
Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna at National Gallery Singapore, 16 November – 11 March
From the Spring 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia