Between Worlds

Raden Saleh and Juan Luna
National Gallery Singapore

The recent wonderful art exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna, put together with great energy and thought by a team of curators there, led by Australian Russell Storer, made me ask three questions.

First: why have so few Australians heard of Saleh or Luna? They are two nineteenth century artists from Southeast Asia who achieved the most renown in the then centres of art power EVER for anyone from this part of the world, Australia included. They did this in Javanese Saleh’s colonial centre of the Netherlands and then Germany and France, and for the Filipino Luna, in Spain and to a degree also in France.

The only challengers for this statement would be post 1960 artists like Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono, and more recently Ai Wei Wei.

The answer is too obvious: we are still shockingly ignorant of the cultural history of our neighbours and no-one it seems wants to change this. I cannot imagine any museum in Australia being proactive enough in this area to put on this exhibition, and it is a shameful reality that no Australian collection was in the position to contribute to the Singapore showing (which draws from both public and private collections in Spain, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, the UK and the USA). One of the Gallery’s information panels shows the curatorial travel to borrow works from around the world—it highlights the truly global nature of these artists in their day.

Second: what does their experience teach us about our own? I don’t mean that we Australians know so little about our neighbours, rather, how they addressed what José Rizal, Luna’s compatriot and friend, called the ‘spectre of comparison’ between their homelands and the art centres of Europe. The gusto of their engagement with Europe and their continuous reference to home makes this experience seem not so much being caught between Asia and Europe, but realising they could never not be aware of their position in both. It is not a concern about lost identity but recognition of the reality of a more complex and rewarding potential—something today’s Southeast Asian artists see as part of their own heritage and experience. They had, after all, conquered the highest level of cultural opinion in both: Saleh being appointed King’s Painter by King Willem III in The Hague, gaining patronage from various German royals, including friendship with Duke Ernst II of Saxe-Coburg (recently portrayed sympathetically in the television biopic of Queen Victoria), and with King Louis Philippe of France; and Luna winning the Gold Medal at the 1884 National Exhibition of Fine Arts in Madrid, again leading to numerous important official commissions. Yet, despite this, they never forgot and indeed promoted their position as artists of ‘difference’, Saleh described as the exotic ‘prince of Java’ and Luna consorting with young Filipino ilustrados in Madrid, always discussing the position of the Philippines and its soon-to-be realised independence from Spain. They called themselves ‘Brave Indians’ (Indios Bravos), taking the pejorative title of the lowest racial rank in the Philippines and conflating it with the appellation of American Indian ‘braves’. This led to Luna’s later position on the Philippine Revolutionary Committee in Paris, three years after Rizal had been executed by the Spanish in Manila.

The obvious comparison in Australia is with the Heidelberg School artists. Can you imagine how Tom Roberts or Arthur Streeton would be regarded if they had achieved similarly in Britain, taking their indeed light-saturated imagery of Australia to such a reception? Charles Conder goes closest, making a modest renown in England after his return there—but nothing like this.

This comparison belies the fact that both Saleh and Luna were ‘indigenous’, Saleh a scion of Javanese nobility, and Luna, as was the way in the Philippines after three hundred or so years of colonisation, of ‘mixed’ blood, mestizo, but certainly not of pure ‘Spanish’ descent. Is it too long and too simplistic a bow to make a comparison in this vein with Tracey Moffatt’s renown in the current centres of world culture, similarly taking the power of her indigenous background into another world? Aware of their British status, the Heidelberg artists’ sense of being sons of the Australian soil would never have been as strong as the assumptions of being ‘native-born’ of the Southeast Asians.
Third: how did they succeed in such unlikely circumstances, taking their ‘other worlds’ into these European, colonially-minded centres?

One aspect is their almost unbelievable chutzpah. Their skins were brown in European high society where this was an issue. They came from colonial societies where the hierarchy of race was clearly articulated, excluded from European cultural activities in Batavia for example, or a Manila where Spanish born on the ‘peninsula’ (that is, Spain itself) were deemed higher up the social scale than Spanish born in the Islands. I remember being surprised at meeting a tall, pale, aquiline-nosed patriarch of the extremely wealthy Ayala family in Manila a few years ago, and being told that the family, living in the Philippines for hundreds of years, always (and still) went ‘home to Spain for their brides’. It was into these societies, one hundred plus years ago, that these young men of their Empires both entered and triumphed.

They achieved what they did by beating this empire at its own game. The main game in high society Europe of the day was melodrama: the huge paintings of great compositional complexity (often on diagonals, always more dynamic visually), painted with great chiaroscuro (light and shade) to heighten the drama, usually including either huge snarling lions or bare-fleshed maidens in distress. The subject usually had a moral overlay—the purity of the maiden, the strength and viciousness of the lion personifying nature more generally, the invincibility of the noble-minded. The least melodramatic works by the two men (sensitive portraits or landscapes) are often the most poignant to our modern eyes, but it was for the big set pieces—the blockbusters of their day—that these artists were recognised. They did use their ‘exotic’ nature to advantage here, both for their personal relations with their audiences, and to give veracity to their subject-matter, at least in the details. The batik around the waists of the riders in Saleh’s Deer Hunt is beautiful, as is the nuance with which the Filipina girl is painted in Luna’s Spain and Philippines.

The National Gallery Singapore has brought these two together as parallels, and they make for many analogies around the idea of ‘Empire’ during this period. The two men, however, never knew of each other, such was the reality of colonisation. I was minded to compare them with two of their contemporaries: writers Rabindranath Tagore and José Rizal (well known for other things too, Tagore as an educational leader and Rizal as a national revolutionary hero), but both accessible to us today through their novels in particular (although Tagore is most admired by Bengalis for his poems and songs). The two were born in the same year and again made reputations both in their homelands and also in Europe, but again I find no record of their recognition of each other. Rizal wrote in Spanish, as Benedict Anderson has pointed out, for 3% of his compatriots, because he was writing for both ‘friend and enemy’. Tagore wrote in Bengali but well aware, in his novels at least, of late nineteenth century European formats and moralising. His moralising grates today, no doubt impacting on a lack of wider readership. His fame in his day, which he played to in his ‘spiritual’ dress (the great Chinese writer Lu Xun called him the ‘bearded fairy’), through his own appeal to English sensibility and sense of India as ‘the other’ (for all the reasons Edward Said made so clear), was greatly aided by being awarded a Nobel Prize, ‘the first Asian writer’ so honoured. Like Saleh and Luna, he achieved recognition in the centre of Empire. Rizal was equally both esteemed for his writing and feared by the Spanish for his revolutionary zeal; his novels rise above the moralising melodrama (which they have for us) through his rapier satire and richness of character and description.

The Singapore exhibition compares the experience of the two artists. The two writers are equally worthy of similar consideration and perhaps comparison. We should know them all better.

Juan Luna, España y Filipinas, 1884. Oil on canvas. Collection of National Gallery Singapore.

Juan Luna, España y Filipinas, c. 1883-1983. Oil on canvas. Collection of Lopez Memorial Museum.

Raden Saleh, Forest Fire, 1849. Oil on canvas. National Gallery Singapore.


Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna, Russell Storer ed., 206pp, 102 colour plates, National Gallery Singapore, Singapore, 2017, RRP SGD $53.50, ISBN: 978-981-11-4684-8.