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Kampong Scene (Old Family House in Muar), 1983

For the last few months, every time I’ve walked by the building site for the National Art Gallery of Singapore (set to open in 2015), I’ve marveled at the colorful paintings by notable Singaporean artists displayed on the walls outside. The works by the painter Liu Kang particularly caught my eye, so it seemed fortuitous when we passed the Singapore Art Museum a few weeks ago and noticed they were holding an exhibition of his works in honor of his 100th birthday. Though we were on our way to something else at the time and couldn’t stop, I made a mental note to return, and finally cajoled the hubs into going last weekend. I’m glad I remembered, as the exhibit actually closed the next day!

The Singapore Art Museum dates from 1867 and was originally a Catholic boys’ school

What appeals to me about Liu Kang’s paintings are the vibrant colors and bold lines, which seem evocative of Paul Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings, as well as Cezanne, Matisse and Van Gogh (all of whom influenced the artist when he studied in Paris). At the same time, he was a master of capturing everyday life in Malaysia (where he grew up), Singapore and Bali.

Offerings, 1957 depicts women in Bali

I’m no art expert and certainly can’t write like a competent critic, but in addition to the bold colors his works seem to have a sort of playful optimism that I really enjoy.  I know very little about Asian painters in the 20th century, though I had a vague awareness of a thriving Shanghai arts scene in the 1930s, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that’s where Liu Kang initially trained and taught. The exhibit even included – shock horror! – nudes and semi-nudes, though maybe he got away with this by framing it as foreign and exotic. Given everything that I’ve heard about Singapore’s formerly tight grip on the arts (not to mention that nudity is still censored on TV and at the movies), I was pleasantly surprised by the honesty and openness of the subjects.

Adjusting the Waistband, 1997

You often hear about “the Old Singapore,” devoid of malls and skyscrapers and instead filled with men on bicycles, little boats and low-slung kampongs (villages). I therefore particularly enjoyed the paintings from the 50s depicting that old lifestyle; they really hammer home how much the region has changed in a relatively short period of time.

Gathering Firewood, 1956
Life by the River, 1975

I think this might be my favorite of all the paintings. I’ll also include the note that accompanied it, which conveys exactly why and how Liu Kang was such a master of blending Eastern and Western painting styles:

Liu Kang is considered one of the founders of the Nanyang Style, which seems to draw on both Western and Eastern traditions while also celebrating the unique Southeast Asian identity. The aforementioned National Art Gallery of Singapore murals seem to display a number of other notable Nanyang artists, and I hope to be able to see these permanent collections some day when it opens.

Meanwhile, I look forward to revisiting the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) for future exhibits. The building itself is simply gorgeous: