Installation view of RADEN SALEH and JUAN LUNA’s “Between Worlds” at the National Gallery Singapore, 2017–18. Courtesy National Gallery Singapore.

Between Worlds

Raden Saleh And Juan Luna

Also available in:  Chinese

Raden Saleh and Juan Luna are cornerstone figures in 19th-century Southeast Asian art history. The two artists’ successes were unprecedented: Indonesia-born Saleh was the first person from Java to receive art training in Europe, while Luna, a Filipino artist, won the gold medal in the 1884 National Exhibition of Fine Arts in Madrid. The result of three-plus years of research, National Gallery Singapore’s exhibition, “Between Worlds,” spotlighted the two painters. The show shifted the focus away from colonial centers of power by acknowledging the importance of Saleh and Luna in the Indonesian and Philippine national imaginations, respectively. 

However, “Between Worlds” did not merely dwell on the nationalist readings of Saleh’s and Luna’s artistic practices. The Arrest of Prince Diponegoro (1857) by Saleh and Spoliarium (1884) by Luna—two well-known paintings that have been interpreted through patriotic lenses—were absent from the exhibition (although a sketch of Saleh’s painting was shown and a virtual display of Spoliarium, showing dead gladiators being despoiled, was installed outside the exhibition). Instead, the museum brought into view works that were less visible in Southeast Asia, drawing from collections in Asia, Europe and the United States. By showcasing the artists’ extensive oeuvres, “Between Worlds” implored viewers to consider parallel readings of the artists’ creations: emblems of nationalism, but also reflections of their individual visual journeys.

Prolific in the middle of the 19th century, Saleh was known for his hunting scenes and animal fights, such as Arab Horseman Attacked by a Lion (1842), which was on view at the Gallery. Framed within the genre of Romantic-Orientalism, the unnatural anthropomorphism of the petrified horse, as the lion sinks its teeth into its neck, can easily be overlooked as dramatic exoticization. However, three precursors to Saleh’s artistic style—Roaring Lion (1838), Wounded Lion (1838) and Head of a Lion (1843)—invited viewers to look closer at the origins of his scenes. Fascinated by lions that he saw in animal circus shows in The Hague and Haarlem, Saleh made sketches of the tamed beasts. In his paintings, the emotive features of the lions’ faces are unmistakable. Their inclusion in the show reinforce the notion that, while Saleh’s works are understood within the frameworks of Indonesian nationalism and European artistic movements, neither fully encapsulates the allure of Saleh’s strange portrayals of animals. Saleh, as the exhibition demonstrates, was a complex figure, whose allegiances, influences and desires cannot be neatly packed within categories of art, particularly when implicit within those categories are binaries of pro- and anti-colonialism. 

Toward the late 19th century, as Saleh struggled to remain relevant in European circles due to shifting artistic trends, Luna’s career began to blossom in Spain. In 1881, Luna was awarded the silver medal in the National Exhibition of Fine Arts in Madrid for The Death of Cleopatra (1881), three years before he won the gold medal for Spoliarium. Cleopatra filled an entire wall in “Between Worlds.” Out of the shadow of Spoliarium, the dramatic rendition of the death of the Egyptian queen was a key anchor for the section. Influenced by Realism when he moved to Paris in 1884, Luna also created spectacular pieces depicting domestic scenes and the social realities of the time. In Luling Cogiendo Bombones (Luling Taking Sweets) (1891)—a small portrait of Luna’s son, Andrés—the narrative drama of Luna’s history paintings are transposed into broad brushstrokes and bold swashes of color, imbuing a quotidian domestic scene with painterly rigor. The juxtaposition of Cleopatra and Luling celebrated Luna’s dexterity as a painter, and allowed, if only for a short time, his diverse portfolio to coexist in a single space. 

“Between Worlds” was not exhaustive, though it comprised more than 100 paintings and works on paper. The exhibition is a sample of the Gallery at its best: not overreaching for breadth of content (as was the case in “Reframing Modernism,” an exhibition mounted in 2016 that featured over 200 works by Modern Southeast Asian and European artists) or pandering to public taste with Instagrammable mirror rooms, it demonstrates the museum’s commitment to promoting Southeast Asian art through thoughtful and well-researched exhibitions.

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