Raden Saleh, Lion Hunt, 1841, oil on canvas, 34 3/4 × 56".

Raden Saleh, Lion Hunt, 1841, oil on canvas, 34 3/4 × 56".

“Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna”

Raden Saleh, Lion Hunt, 1841, oil on canvas, 34 3/4 × 56".

THERE WAS A BRIEF MOMENT during the making of his painting The Arrest of Prince Diponegoro, 1857, when Raden Saleh almost seemed to awaken from his long, captive slumber.

The painting has Diponegoro, the Javanese prince who led his people against the colonizing Dutch in the third decade of the nineteenth century, facing off against the Dutch lieutenant general Hendrik Merkus de Kock. No doubt De Kock was simply guiding the prince into the nearby carriage that would take him into exile, but—as many have pointed out—Diponegoro’s upper torso is arched slightly backward, his chin up, his look one of defiance. He resists—proudly, heroically—the commanding Dutchman.

The defeat of Diponegoro in 1830 was a watershed moment in the history of Indonesia. The Dutch would ramp up control and domination of Java in the following decades, instituting a more rigorous method of extraction known as the “cultivation system.” The new measures would prove effective, wiping out the colonial government’s deficit and financing further Dutch expansion into Sumatra and the eastern portion of the archipelago. For the Javanese, the system was catastrophic, with the demand for export crops leaving little room for the growth of staples such as rice. Corruption and famine became routine.

Raden Saleh, Portrait of Johannes, Graaf van den Bosch, Governor General of the Dutch East Indies, 1836, oil on canvas, 45 1/4 × 38 1/4".

And yet Saleh gets Diponegoro wrong. While the prince’s defiant stance might hearken back to his attitude during the Java War (1825–30), evidence points to his having remained calm during the meeting with De Kock at Magelang, and having accepted his fate. Diponegoro’s memoirs, written while he was in exile in North Sulawesi from 1831 to 1832, reveal that he expected his arrest or killing, and thus willingly agreed to the meeting. His capture, then, was less a defeat than a fulfillment of prophecy.

So it is a bit odd to find many European and Indonesian scholars adopting Saleh as a progenitor, if not hero, of modern Indonesian art history. The exhibition “Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna” at the National Gallery Singapore included a sketch of the Diponegoro painting with a small reproduction alongside. (The actual painting is in the Koleksi Istana Presiden, the Presidential Palace Collection.) Even if the label gave us sufficient contextual information to allow us to make up our minds regarding the sketch and painting, we were caught between “pro-” and “anticolonial” views: a simplistic opposition.

Raden Saleh, Wounded Lion, ca. 1838, oil on canvas, 34 5/8 × 42 1/2".

The National Gallery Singapore has, since its inception in November 2015, relied on a “platform strategy” for most of its exhibitions: Refusing to take one side or the other in the art-historical literature, the exhibition labels present opposing narratives, enabling viewers to arrive at their own conclusions. When it works—such as in the inaugural installations of Southeast Asian and Singaporean art, and in the groundbreaking 2016 exhibition “Reframing Modernism”—viewers are able to tack back and forth between competing positions: The subtle agonism of looking heightens the interpretive stakes. At best, these platforms function like archival beachheads that allow for new interpretations.

In this exhibition, however, the method seemed to falter. Perhaps the pro- versus anticolonial opposition didn’t capture what’s essential about Saleh. The artist was born and lived his life as an aristocrat, in both Java and Europe, spending twenty-three years in the latter. Once on European shores—Luna also traveled there, and the exhibition made a big deal of the westward journeys of these two Southeast Asian artists—Saleh developed his craft, cultivating many friendships along the way. Count among his friends in high places Johannes van den Bosch, governor-general of the Dutch East Indies and creator of the cultivation system, and Jean Chrétien Baud, another governor-general of the Dutch East Indies and the founder of Javanese studies in the Netherlands. (In one of the rooms, Saleh’s painting of Van den Bosch, reeking of the artist’s flattery and obsequiousness, was too much for me to bear.) While art historians have dutifully noted instances of (supposed) anticolonial symbolism in Saleh’s oeuvre—most notably in his paintings of animal hunts—this critic feels that in fact these amount to an opportunistic marketing strategy, a ramping-up of exoticism to please his rich clients. All manner of cross-cultural conjunctions in the exhibition—witness art historian Werner Kraus’s association of Carl Gustav Carus’s Erdlebenbild (earth-life image) with Saleh’s “Javanese” understanding of nature in his catalogue essay—came up short. Even Saleh’s supposedly anticolonial depiction of Diponegoro’s arrest feels cynical, an adroit promotion of his art. While the exhibition brought some of Saleh’s landscapes out of obscurity, more trenchant questions about his oeuvre weren’t asked. The exhibition should have paid less attention to questions of cultural identity, for instance, and more to the historicity of Saleh’s aristocratic painting. In her catalogue essay, historian Marie-Odette Scalliet spends several paragraphs detailing Saleh’s near-meeting with Horace Vernet, when she could have unraveled the mystery of what the latter’s painting meant for a European aristocracy long in decline.

The gallery is using its enormous power to institute a politics of inclusion. But this may all add up to nothing more than a curatorial colonialism.

Three rooms of the exhibition showcased Filipino artist Juan Luna’s work across several decades. Like Saleh, Luna went to Europe to further his studies, but also to prove himself as an artist by competing in major exhibitions. One gets the sense that Luna honed his practice while in Europe, quickly racking up awards in exhibition competitions. His Cleopatra, 1881, which brought him a silver medal at the National Exposition of Fine Arts in Madrid that same year, was only the first. (The display of this painting—beautifully restored by the Museo del Prado—felt like a resurrection.) Not long after came the artist’s Spoliarium, 1884, a twenty-five-foot-wide juggernaut expressly designed to blow away the competition. Win it did: Gold medal in hand, the artist was fêted, along with compatriot Félix Resurrección Hidalgo, by Filipinos residing in Spain. The painting was held up—now as monument, now as brilliant flame—to the then-emerging Filipino nation.

Juan Luna, Mi madre (Portrait of Laureana Novicio de Luna y Ancheta), 1897, oil on canvas, 43 5/8 × 31".

In a way, Spoliarium’s absence from the exhibition proved an advantage, for it allowed the rest of Luna’s oeuvre to emerge. Most notably, the works that Luna made in Paris in the late 1880s and early 1890s, shifting between Impressionism and social realism, were revealed in all their gritty splendor. They somehow seemed fresh, after languishing for decades in provincial museums and private collections. The paintings were shored up by rich archival finds; object after object—including several photographs of Luna himself—had been scoured from various rare collections. In the final room hung several portraits of female members of Luna’s family, a few painted during a period in the late 1890s after he was released from imprisonment for ostensibly aiding the Filipino Revolution. In one portrait, his mother seemed to cast her maternal gaze on the previous two rooms, looking back in doubt or grim protection.

And yet, for all its ardent biographical sleuthing, “Between Worlds” said little about the paintings. The big questions—of nationalism, colonialism, and politics—weren’t folded back into the exhibition’s structure and didactics. The curators indeed made a strong case for Luna’s nationalism: The careful recovery of various versions of his España y Filipinas, ca. 1888, was ample proof of that. But the platform method, with viewers turning on whether Luna’s painting was nationalist or not, didn’t seem to work for this half of the exhibition, either. Especially in the Paris room, there wasn’t enough contextual grounding to assist viewers in coming up with a secure assessment. (Important information on some of the locations depicted in these paintings was omitted in the accompanying labels.) Instead, we were encouraged to perform an aestheticized reading of these works: We were to fall back on period style. More unsettling was the fact that this platform strategy seemed to foster a depressing, think-what-you-want relativism. All options are acceptable—problematic when you realize that politics is more than just a taking of sides.

Juan Luna, Cleopatra, 1881, oil on canvas, 8' 2 3/8“ × 11' 1 7/8”.

In the end, the exhibition’s biographical treatment tethered Luna’s painting to what Benedict Anderson once referred to as “official nationalism”—thus quashing other, more politically radical points of view. The pseudo-universalism of the platform prevented viewers from thinking of forms of politics beyond that of state-approved nationalism. (Some of Luna’s paintings of the late 1880s may in fact share a radical politics close to that of his friend and fellow reformer José Rizal.) So effectively has the state co-opted nationalism and revolution in the Philippines that, for all of us who care about Luna’s art, even to contemplate the possibility that Luna’s painting may have stood outside of nationalism feels simultaneously like an impossibility and a betrayal.

By all accounts, the National Gallery Singapore is shaking up exhibition production in Southeast Asia: displaying rarely seen art from the region, acquiring important works, teasing out loans from recalcitrant lenders, engineering cooperative agreements with international institutions, generating new scholarship on art of the region, and prioritizing research over exhibition. At its best, the gallery is using its enormous power—and deep pockets—to institute a politics of inclusion in Southeast Asia: so necessary for a region closed off to outsiders and often mired in private ownership and enclave thinking. But this may all add up to nothing more than a curatorial colonialism. And though the gallery is actively trying to rewrite the art history of the region—the Saleh-Luna show was an important link in establishing its chain of Southeast Asian modernism—this exhibition, by affirming the state-nationalist account of both artists, offered little that was critical or new.

Kevin Chua is an associate professor of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European and Southeast Asian art at Texas Tech University.