Daily Archives: July 25, 2010

Lim Yew Kuan

Understanding Modernism

Lim Yew Kuan

The works by Lim Yew Kuan would be familiar to few contemporaries. More recognisable to artists who have practiced painting or graduated from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) in the 60s and 70s, the works on exhibit live and breath Modernism.

Modernism is a western art historical moment in which art styles/techniques/materials developed in tandem with modern culture and thinking commonly associated to the mid- to late nineteenth century.  Another perspective, Modernity describes the art when Paris was still the centre of the art world (at least the reception of it). Some will say, Singapore’s own modernity — shifts in understanding of what art can and should look like — emerged more strongly in the post-war 50s and 60s. Modernity in art, is a tussle between the avant-garde artists and the critics accepting what they think should be art. Lim Yew Kuan’s paintings in western art traditions became the yardstick to measure Singapore art.

In Lim Yew Kuan’s picture perfect paintings, you could see aesthetics and sensibility familiar to the highest accolades given to Western fine art: strong lines showing great deft in draughtsmanship, magnificent colour sensibility as hues and shades blend effortlessly, bringing the subject matter (accurately) to life.

There is great merit in viewing this exhibition, or thinking about a grander repertoire of the artists of that generation. Firstly, it shows to a local audience, who has no access to real paintings (not dodgy internet ones) hanging in European museums, Modernism anchored in the western ideas, materials and techniques. Here, we see superb oil on canvases, of typical subject matters that train the hand. We see the artist experiment with iconic Western art forms, from sketches, oils, intaglio print-making; academy subject matter such as nudes, which perhaps is still taboo to most Singaporean audience, still-lifes and landscapes. Sadly, the range of each media/craft is not displayed to show the extent of the artist’s explorations.

Secondly, we see Modernism applied in a localised context. In his light watercolour wash depicting workers sitting on the grass, one can feel the shadows of Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1862-63). In some sense, the artist was trying to reconcile an early impressionist style, rooted in a very different ideological world to a more conservative, local context. And by doing so, a pastiche happens – the paintings seem to mimic the western master counterparts. This explains why his ‘The Kiss” looks familiar to Rodin’s, yet different. This possibly explains that the Nanyang Style was nothing more than a Impressionist-like fad.  But despite a mis-labeled ‘style’ because hardly anything was common in the artists that exhibited as Impressionists, Impressionism was a loose term to group renegades of Romanticism and Neo-classicism, it is still perhaps de facto most known art movement of all times. Just count the number of advertisement pastiche based on Impressionism – from ABN AMRO’s preferred banking card, to Van Gogh Vodka chocolates.

Thirdly, his body of works explains an artist’s interest to shift towards pictorial abstraction. His Seaside (1966) hint the feeling of the Sublime, transcending the pictorial climax of realistic representation. A woodcut, a vastness of the sea is depicted with controlled horizontal cuts, and the sea melts into the sky. This vastness perhaps echoed the sentiments of post-independence, a sense of being overwhelmed by rapid national agendas in areas of defense, economy and standards of living. Art then, received understandably less attention. As a practitioner in those trying times, the value of art splits between its monetary exchange value and the deeper, spiritual value. The spiritual value of the artworks require more re-coding, and contextualising. After the Asian Tsunami of 2004, Riding the Storm (2006) is possibly more metaphoric and symptomatic of climate change or even surviving economic storms. All these worthy of contemplation and comparison to JMW Turner’s late sea series, that paralleled Industrialisation.

Lim Yew Kuan shouldered the responsibility as principal (1963-1979), to develop NAFA into a premiere local arts institution. It would be fair to postulate his aesthetics have influenced nearly 2 decades of graduates from NAFA. His real influence, awaits to be uncovered by art historians researching into his longitudinal and latitudinal impact on peers, students, and younger artists.

5.5 of 10 stars, for the publication, and the feature of an important 2nd generation artist.

10 – 22 July 2010, NAFA, Lim Hak Tai Gallery