Realism in Asian Art

Acknowledging the influence of Western Art

Realism in Asian Art

Subject matter and technique mark the distinction of a Realist painter.

The exhibition pulls together a collection of works from Asia that will connects with an Asian audience with their virtuosity to manipulate paint to photographic likeness. The term realism, could refer to painting in the representational tradition, painting as close to what the eyes could see. Art buffs would add that Realism, is an art historical term, referring to the treatment of ordinary subject matter ‘rejecting the rhetoric and artifice’ of imaginative and visionary 19th century Romanticism. Gustave Courbet, Francois Millet are fine examples of that subject matter and realistic representational painting technique. For students, the exhibition is an excellent opportunity to see artworks by artists from their art syllabi.

The exhibition acknowledges the influence of Western Art on the development of Asian Art. Perspective, the mathematical understanding of depicting an environment on a 2 dimensional surface was popularised by the 15th century Renaissance artists.  Their paintings had single vanishing points that lead the viewers’ eyes into the picture frame, creating windows of illusion. Perspective is crucial to create pictures that are representational. As Southeast Asia became colonised, the art market shifted with new powers, to the demand for familiar singular-perspective oil paintings. Asian artists who painted in this new media and tradition inherited its virtues and historical baggage.

Some of us will see this exhibition with a sense of detachment while poring over the technique or examining the subject of the painting with our own understanding of Asian history. They lack the monumental feel that Lourve Museum or Museum D’Orsay in France will impart. Others might feel a new sense of sight, understanding how art could form a social commentary or criticism in more subtle ways than rallies and protest marches. These works are mellow, resilient against the fad of conceptualism, transcending the everyday they represent.

The adventurous exhibition design with the sloping wall fixtures do little to explain the curatorial concept of the exhibition. Intended to guide and frame the visitors’ understanding of ‘types of paintings that represent realism’. For example, it suggests only paintings in “social commentary and criticism” section are critical. The interior decor, seems to favour wood verneer and uplighting, focusing on the curatorial wall text that greets you as you are channeled through the exhibition. Instead of accentuating the artworks, this seems to compete for attention.

However, this exhibition has several distinctions from other permanent collection exhibitions. The brimming range of works give a more thorough illustration of an ‘artistic style’ common in modern Asian art. The larger wall text is generally helpful but the smaller ones may appear iffy to some, as it repeats and overlaps in some areas. The activity corner in level 3 allows younger museum goers to learn through play, some of the considerations artists have when they make art.

6.0 of 10 stars

The National Art Gallery, using SAM premises, 9 April – 4 July 2010
Catalogue “Realism in Asia” vol. 1 available at the bookshop for S$25.

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One response to “Realism in Asian Art

  1. You reviewed it on the day of its closing! As Homer Simpson would say: D’oh!

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