During the height of colonial rule in Southeast Asia in the 19th century, two young men from Indonesia and the Philippines sailed across the ocean to Europe, to train under great painters of their time. Soon, they steadily earned their place within the European art worlds and their successes made them national heroes in their respective homelands.
These luminaries are the subject of the ongoing exhibition “Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna” at National Gallery Singapore. The exhibition unites, for the first time, an array of their masterpieces loaned from private and public collections around the world. Consequently, the exhibition traces their artistic journey from Southeast Asia to Europe and back again. Between Worlds also tells of their struggle to reconcile their love of homeland with their ambitions in Europe, where they established their careers.
Despite hailing from different countries and being active at different times of the 19th century, the artists shared a similar journey as Southeast Asian artists who received opportunities to hone their craft in Europe.
Filipino artist Juan Luna (1857 to 1899), taken under the wing of Spanish painter Alejo Vera, studied in Madrid and Rome. His painting Spoliarium earned him fame in Spain and won him the First Class Medal in Spain’s annual art exhibition in Madrid in 1884. Luna then moved to Paris, where he participated in the salons while exhibiting and accepting commissions in Spain.
Meanwhile, Saleh (1811 to 1880) was conferred the title of “King’s Painter” by King Willem 3rd of the Netherlands. He was the first Indonesian artist to receive training in Europe from landscape, genre and portrait Dutch artists.
Saleh went on to receive acclaim in Germany and Paris for his signature “Orientalist” animal hunts and fights.
The exhibit was entitled Between Worlds to signify the artists’ lives between Europe and their home countries. Furthermore, the exhibition takes an exploratory look at artists’s work over their illustrious careers across different time periods.
Between Worlds examines Saleh and Luna’s ability to work with varied techniques learned from European artists and how their work developed over time, while offering an insight into their lives as Southeast Asian artists working in Europe.
Bringing the world together
The exhibition is a culmination of four years of effort by the Gallery’s curators—Russell Storer, Clarissa Chikiamco and Syed Muhammad Hafiz—to bring together more than 100 paintings, drawings and archival materials from Southeast Asian, European and American museums and private collections, for the very first time.
Significant artworks in the exhibition include two landscape paintings of Java by Raden Saleh from the collection of the Smithsonian, on public display for the first time; as well as the spectacular “Arab Horseman Attacked by a Lion” (1842).
On the other hand, highlights of the Juan Luna works on display include Cleopatra (1881)—a dramatic depiction of Cleopatra’s death which won him his first major prize in Europe; and Les Ignorés (The Unknown Ones) (1890 to 1891), one of his major surviving works in Realism that marked a shift in his focus from historical paintings to paintings that reflect contemporary social realities.
The exhibition is part of Century of Light, a special presentation of two exhibitions focusing on art of the 19th century. The complementary exhibition, Colors of Impressionism: Both exhibitions will be held until March 11, 2018.