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Realism in Asia

Posted by on Wednesday, 2 June, 2010 at 8:00 AM. Filed under: Highlights, Reviews

Marketplace during the Occupation (1942), Fernando Cueto Amorsolo, Philippines, Oil on canvas, Collection of National Heritage Board, Singapore

Realism has often been understood in terms of the 19th century Western art movement which redefined art an exalted pursuit of authenticity within the province of everyday life. Consequently, through the lenses of what Jim Supangkat calls a “monocultural” art-historical narrative, realism in Asia has often been only regarded as a syncretised cultural import.

Historically, the cultural remoteness of Asian art has often resulted in it being discursively shelved into the category of the spiritual. Its subsequent venture into the everyday in the twentieth century has thus been simplistically read as a belated progression into a territory which has already been marked by the West. Such reductive interpretation which persists on a tenuous East-West binary has unfortunately taken ground in global artistic discourse. In this light, the recent effort by the National Art Gallery, Singapore to assemble, or rather re-assemble, the narrative of “Realism in Asian Art” is a particularly daunting but nevertheless important endeavour.

Realism in Asian Art is an exhibition which is jointly organised with the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea and held on the premises of the Singapore Art Museum. It offers a glimpse into the comprehensive and research-intensive programming of the Gallery which is set to open in 2013.

Engineering Corps Constructing a Bridge in Malaya (c. 1944), Shimizu Toshi, Japan, Oil on canvas, Collection of National Museum of Modern Art, Japan

The exhibition reflects the ambitions of the Gallery of reconstructing a new consciousness of the development of art in the region. Such a critical awareness is particularly necessary in the context of a dominant compulsion to see Asian art only in terms of its exoticised cultural origins. In a publication which has been published in conjunction with the show, Realism in Asia: Volume One, Supangkat notes that, “[as] the cultural background of [Asian] artists forms the basis for intuition, their works face the risk of being anthropologised and therefore ousted from the art-historical narrative.” In fact, this obsession with anthropological content has also excluded the broader complexities of style from critical examination and this fundamental gap in knowledge can only be bridged by reexamining the genealogy of Asian art and uncovering the multiple narrative threads that have given rise to a distinct aesthetic.

The strength of the research exhibition lies in its ability to identify the particularities of realism in modern Asian art and sketch out its developmental shifts in accordance to the changing currents of history. Significantly, it pushes for an understanding of realism in Asia as more than a radical instrument that is obtained indiscriminately from the West, establishing it also partly as a self-conceived product which emerge from the specificities of its own cultural space. The exhibition is organised into five trajectories: Introducing Realism, Realism and the Rural Landscape, Realism and the Worker, Realism and War and Realism and Social Critique. Such an organisation allows for an art-historical examination that has both depth and accessibility.

The most visible movement in terms of the nature and purpose of realism in Asia is its advancement from solely being a representational methodology to an inspired mode of sociological examination. The shift is presented as decisive and abrupt, as if effected by a sudden rupture of systemic values. The first section of the exhibition is overwhelmingly populated by portraits and scenic landscapes. In contrast, the works in the adjacent galleries are ideologically loaded. This venture into social realism is presented as far more complex than what is commonly assumed for the points of departure are not merely in the content but the entire ontology and consequently, the style of the works. In other words, social realism in Asia was not a mere extension of prior ontological assumptions into the terrain of the larger society and certainly not a simplistic thematisation of content without broader implications.

Road Construction Worker (1955), Chua Mia Tee, Singapore, Oil on canvas, Collection of National Heritage Board, Singapore

As the subject of realism moved towards the examination of socio-political issues such as the plight of the working class, the rural landscape, war and post-colonialism, the philosophical underpinnings that informed its ontology also experienced a remarkable shift. This is manifested in style which Patrick D. Flores describes as that which “conveys to us the customs of typification, so that philosophical issues about the real or reality are condensed in a rubric such as realism.” With the implication of social aspiration, realism in Asia began to move beyond a dispassionately self-reflexive and solipsistic understanding of the real to one which is decidedly anthropocentric, communitarian and even essentialist. The real is no longer that which is epitomic of individual perception but of a collective attitude.

The works within Realism and the Worker best convey this broader consciousness of the milieu. Lee Boon Wang’s Road Repair, Chua Mia Tee’s Road Construction Worker and Lai Foong Moi’s The Sun Sui Worker are arranged together like a triptych hailing the working class. Despite the fact that the works of Chua and Lai depict a single individual, their understanding of the “real” does not differ from that of Lee’s painting of a group scene. Chua’s road construction worker, framed in the conventions of classical portraiture, carries the burden of emblematising the entire working class collective he belongs to. He is seen seated cross-legged and in full view, with the side lighting accentuating his physicality. He is presented almost like a dignified historical figure worthy of emulation. His strained facial expression, skeletal frame and veins are emphasised through Chua’s painting technique. He is the road construction worker – the expression of reality as synecdoche. The flesh and its every muscle, vein and scar, which are fastidiously depicted in the paintings within the gallery, are bearers of the marks of labour and embodiments of a working class heroism.

Persecution (1963), Koeh Sia Yong, Singapore, Oil on canvas, Collection of National Heritage Board, Singapore

The range of realist expressions in Realism and War further highlights the cultural complexities behind each work of art. Realism had evidently moved beyond a strategy appropriated in its entirety from the West as it began to advance via very different trajectories in response to specific cultural-historical contexts. In Shimizu Toshi’s Engineering Corps Constructing a Bridge in Malaya, the quiescent, documentary nature of Western realism is exploited for its supposed veracity, in an effort to amass nationalist support for a war which is only seen through the distorted lenses of state-commissioned works. The detached manner of Toshi’s painting, which directly invokes the Realist tradition advocated by Gustave Courbet is seen in counterpoint to the more affectively laden representations of the communities beleaguered by war. Koeh Sia Yong’s Persecution presents an abject state of humanity rendered in angst-ridden strokes. The work, made almost two decades after the war, postures as a nightmarish return of a repressed history. In contrast, in Fernando Amorsolo’s Marketplace during the Occupation, the artist’s characteristic sfumato endows his subjects with an effusive glow which contributes to an idealised image of communities which continue to thrive amidst adversity.

Epic Poem of Malaya (1959), Chua Mia Tee, Singapore, Oil on canvas, Collection of National Heritage Board, Singapore

A similarly noteworthy segment is Realism and the Rural Landscape, in which the rural landscape is figured as a politicised cultural sphere. Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem of Malaya is a particularly curious artifact for inclusion in this segment. In the painting, a group of Chinese listen on to an articulation of a Malayan vision against the backdrop of rustic idyll. The rural landscape is presented as a safe haven away from the rambunctious politics of the city, in which alternative visions of community can be articulated and materialised. Chua’s painting particularly engages the rustic land as an untouched blank slate and a fertile ground for imagining social change.

The most problematic segment of the show comes at the end. Realism as Social Critique appears to feature a mishmash collection of works of a bewildering range in terms of content and style. The cultural-historical reference points seem to be all over the place, making it difficult to piece together a cogent and meaningful narrative. The sense of a regional Asian, or even Southeast Asian consciousness seems to have been lost. Or is this perhaps just a reflection of the postmodern deconstruction which has taken a foothold in the art world since then?

Another flaw that appears symptomatic of the show as a whole is the uneasy coexistence of the works from Japan and Korea with those from Southeast Asia. While it does allow for some interesting juxtapositions (as seen in Realism and War), the cultural disparities between the two regions appear too vast for any meaningful comparisons to be made.

Nevertheless, the show is a laudable effort which offers a comprehensive examination of realism in Asia and its relationship with specific cultural contexts which are too often overlooked.

Realism in Asian Art is currently running at the Singapore Art Museum from 9 April to 4 July 2010. Usual admission charges apply.


Ho Rui An is an independent filmmaker, artist and writer from Singapore. He publishes his writings on the arts, culture and society on his weblog, http://opencontours.wordpress.com

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  1. Simon says
    12/04/2011 1:06 AM

    Did you notice that there is certain similarity in the style, color, texture of these paintings and to think they were painted by different artists. by the way, I’m a huge fan of Amorsolo. His paintings, however, are definitely not cheap.

  2. Ian says
    14/04/2011 3:57 AM

    I’d love to have seen this show.

    I do agree that it’s a little odd to try to tie up the cultural differences between Japan/Korea and the paintings from South East Asian artists.

    Not only are there cultural differences but there are undoubted Imperialist overtones motivated by propaganda in some of the Japanese works – notably Toshi’s “Engineering Corps Constructing a Bridge in Malaya”, which is manipulating the truth for the political ends of the then ruling elite – to show that the aggressor was bringing peace and prosperity to the locals – hence they are included in the work.

    That said, it’s a great painting and, removing politics from it, I am a great fan of his art.

    I am also a fan of Amorsolo – in particular his ‘Rice Planting’ piece which I believe is also in this exhibition.

    Hopefully some of these will be on display when the new gallery opens as I have promised myself a visit!

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