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Epic Rap Battle of Southeast Asian Art History? Juan Luna vs Raden Saleh

Our run-down of the National Gallery Singapore’s (NGS) latest blockbuster Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna takes its inspiration from one of our favourite pillars of popular culture – the epic rap battle! (For an added bonus, here’s a historical version that we love)

Two artists with a common history of subjugation, each from different backgrounds, with something to say about their lived experiences and struggles – we could just as easily be referring to Raden Saleh and Juan Luna as we could be to Eminem and his 8 Mile lyrical nemesis!

So – does the NGS’ framing of the two artists in a single exhibition demonstrate a battle, or consensus?

[ding ding] Let the fight begin!

Round 1:  Who’s the King of Colonial Controversy?

Both Saleh and Luna grappled with difficulties associated with being educated natives in a colonial environment – who negotiated these boundaries better? Let’s see:

First, who was Raden Saleh?

Raden Saleh, Self- Portrait (1841)

Born between 1807 and 1824, Raden Sarief Bustaman Saleh was the son of a Javanese noble family. He was welcomed into colonial social circles, and in the late 1820s was allowed to travel to the Netherlands as a clerk, and later to study and work as a painter. He remained in Europe for 23 years and was well- known for parading himself in his full Javanese princely regalia, amongst the salons and royal courts of Europe. While his dressing allowed him access to the highest circles of European society, it also pandered to the Europeans’ racist fetishisation of the “Orient.”

When Saleh returned to Java, as a modern man who had lived successfully in the West, he was not willing to step back and take his place as a compliant native. He cohabited with a wealthy Western woman Costancia Winckelhaagen and built himself a massive private mansion. He then opened the first art museum in Java, its first zoological gardens and was the first to start digging for paleontological remains.

He clearly continues to fire the imaginations of contemporary painters – take a look at this 2016 portrait, for example, exhibited last year at Sangkring Art Space:

Joseph Wiyono, Saint Saleh (2016)

And what about Juan Luna?

Gaston O’ Farrell, Copy of Juan Luna’s Self-Portrait

Juan Luna was born in 1857 in the Phillippines and in 1877, travelled to Madrid to study art. He continued his training in Rome and in Paris and was considered to be a part of the ilustrado (enlightened) class of Filipinos. He had been exposed to progressive ideas in Europe and was part of the “Propaganda Movement,” a group which lobbied hard for the Philippines to be considered as a Spanish province (instead of a colony).  Luna’s success at Spanish art competitions was particularly significant as it allowed Filipinos to take pride in his success in the realm of Spanish high art and culture.

In 1892 (the same year in which he painted seminal work Parisian Life), Luna killed his allegedly adulterous wife Maria de la Paz Pardo de Tavera and his mother-in-law (his brother-in-law was injured in the attack but survived). He was, however, acquitted at trial as his behaviour was excused as being something “natural” to his temperament based on his ethnic origin. It was seen as a justifiable reaction, a crime of passion in defence of his honour.

The Verdict: Juan Luna Wins!

Raden Saleh may have been the genuine aristocrat, but Luna wins the crown when it comes to colonial controversy. While Saleh used his Orientalist image to secure his artistic reputation, Luna seems to have literally used his to get away with murder!

Round 2: The Years Abroad

Both Luna and Saleh spent time in Europe – let’s see what they produced during their time away from home:

Juan Luna, Cleopatra (1881)

In Cleopatra (1881), Luna captures the death of Cleopatra – with one handmaiden dead at her feet and another on the edge of collapse. If you pay close attention to the lower right corner of the work, you may notice a small snake’s tail curling out from the base of the pillar, a nod to the theory that Cleopatra had killed herself by allowing herself to be bitten by an asp. With this work, Luna won his first major prize in Europe, a Second Class medal at Spain’s 1881 Exposicion General de Bellas Artes. This was a national Spanish exhibition, which applied the exacting standards of Spain’s most famous art school, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando. Cleopatra, which was made when Luna settled in Rome, drew acclaim to Luna amongst the Spanish, as the Spanish media publicly recognized the work as “cuadra del artista filipino,” (i.e. the painting of a Filipino artist). The work is simply massive and so dramatic that one can’t help but feel overwhelmed by it. The sense of movement created by the falling chambermaid is really quite beautifully juxtaposed against the stony, statue-like forms of Cleopatra and her dead servant.


Raden Saleh, Lion Hunt (1840)

In a similar vein, Saleh’s Lion Hunt scenes were exhibited in Dresden in 1840. They are full of gory energy reminiscent of Peter Paul Rubens’ famous hunting scenes, which Saleh was himself familiar with. Saleh’s fascination with painting animals stemmed from his need to be viewed as an artist and not an artisan who was only capable of producing portraits. After having met French animal trainer and tamer Henri Martin, who toured Holland, Saleh began producing huge canvases of lions and buffaloes engaged in fierce hunts.

Art publications of the time praised his work as “brilliant” with one German journal going so far as to say that the works were “in accordance with (Saleh’s) national and cultural background.” Art historian Werner Kraus notes that there was just one small problem:- there are no actual lions in Southeast Asia, and there is nothing intrinsically warlike about Javanese values which instead “long for cosmic harmony”! Still, Saleh himself seemed to buy into this false representation, continuing to produce a number of excellent works, which were nonetheless executed in a faux – Orientalist style.

The paintings are quite frankly, bizarre.

They are churning, frothing displays of emotion and angst, communicated in an entirely figurative style, but with no actual roots in the realit(ies) experienced by the artists themselves. The works certainly come accessorized with a heavy colonialist mantle.  Who wore it better though? Saleh, who created whole fictions about the animal kingdom, or Luna who appropriated a classical scene to teach the Spanish a thing or two about their own cultural prowess?  We’re hard-pressed to pick a winner this time.

The Verdict: Draw!

Round 3: A Return to Innocence?

A distinct shift in mood seemed to take place when Luna and Saleh returned to their homelands of the Philippines and Indonesia. The passing of time and ageing of the artists is apparent in these later works:

Raden Saleh, Six Horsemen Chasing Deer(1860)

Saleh’s Six Horsemen Chasing Deer (1860) is a good illustration. Two high-ranking Javanese men, together with their attendants, chase a stag and a deer on a plain, south of Bandung. In the background, the looming Malabar volcano frames the riders. The Javanese gentlemen wear breeches under their sarongs, and all the subjects of the work wear conical sunhats over their traditional headgear. Deer hunting was a popular pastime amongst the local elite and their European guests, and Saleh was himself an accomplished horseman who may well have participated in such hunts. Werner Kraus notes that Saleh eventually died a disillusioned man  – never quite receiving the acceptance that he craved in Java, from the Dutch. Even though he was much better educated and more refined than many of the Dutch living in the Indies, “nobody was ready to forgive him for his rejection of the central colonial value: white supremacy.”

Juan Luna, Nena y Tinita (1897)

Luna’s practice moved even closer to home, with his contemplative portrait work Nena y Tinita (1897), depicting his elder sister Numeriana (Nena) and her daughter Tinita. He’s rendered them sensitively, with the older lady appearing calm and composed, while the younger girl subtly projects an air of teenage sulkiness. Legend has it that Luna could produce 5 or 6 family portraits in the space of a day. The work was painted in 1897, shortly after Luna returned to the Philippines in 1894, after a 17-year absence. From then till his death in 1899, he no longer created large-scale paintings, nor participated in major exhibitions. Luna felt great happiness at being home in the Philippines and Nena y Tinita is a wonderfully low-key tribute to his beloved family.

The Verdict: Raden Saleh Wins!

While we loved the quietly contemplative turn that Luna’s work appeared to take,  Saleh’s elegant depiction of a Bandung deer hunt particularly tugged at our heartstrings. It really brought home the point that he was very much a man caught “between two worlds.”

So – who do we think wins this battle overall?

The Verdict: Exhibition- goers and art enthusiasts!

While reference is made in the show to the nationalistic themes of Luna and Saleh’s works, there is also a focus on the technical aspects of their art – art historical interpretation aside, these are staggeringly gorgeous Southeast Asian paintings. Early reports about the show have noted the absence of Spoliarium (1884) and The Arrest of Diponegoro (1857), two key works by Luna and Saleh. While we too had our initial doubts, we can assure you that the showcase is still incredibly breathtaking, regardless of the exclusion of these works.

The paintings are national treasures in their respective countries and understandably, would have been impossible to secure for an overseas exhibition. (Spoliarium incidentally, is a massive work, measuring more than 7 meters wide). In any event, given that one of the themes of the show is anti-colonial sentiment, we rather liked the idea that Indonesia and the Philippines have ostensibly remained free from neo-colonialist pressure to release their national treasures for a fee. In a way, the very omission of the works lends a measure of authenticity and inclusivity to the NGS’ presentation – a sense that while Singapore serves as a physical anchor for the display of great Southeast Asian art, Luna and Saleh’s own home countries continue to retain their own sense of agency and relevance to the showcase, albeit from afar.

All in all, this was a wonderful show, and special mention should go to the layout and design of the exhibition. We won’t give away too much, but the show features a beautiful juxtaposition of pinks and bright blues, with a yellow (brick road?) path of sorts, leading the way from room to room.

Part of the dramatic backdrop, which frames the exhibition space

The exhibition runs from 16 November 2017 – 11 March 2018, at the NGS.


(Featured Image: Six Horsemen Chasing Deer (1860) by Raden Saleh, from website of National Gallery Singapore)

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