Reframing Modernism – by National Gallery & Pompidou Centre

In another three days, the Bras Basah.Bugis Precinct will once again play host to art lovers, sound hounds, night owls and all other manners of critters attending the 9th edition of Singapore Night Festival.

In the meantime, the museum belt – remember, you heard it here first! – with several museums, all within 10-minutes walk from each other, offers peace of mind to those of you who prefer to enjoy art at a leisurely pace without having to jostle for elbow space.

And the newest kid on the block, the National Gallery – opened last November – is slowly but surely becoming a personal fave with its well-curated special exhibitions.

Reframing Modernism, co-presented by the Pompidou Centre, that ended in July, presented works of international and regional artists side by side, prompting viewers to contemplate similarities in style, technique and subject matter.

Lhote Lovers

Personally, the exhibition stood out because it featured several erotically-themed works, including one by André Lhote that could potentially be a portrayal of a lesbian couple. Even though the painting shows two women lounging and reading, the casual drape of the lady in pink’s arm and her doting gaze, right down to the couple’s matching sandals – perhaps as a substitute for wedding bands – indicate the intimacy between the two women.

Still focussing on women, we now take a look at Jean Launois and Lê Phổ’s portrayal of two prostitutes and two sisters.

Women From the Casbah

Launois’s Women from the Casbah from the year 1932, draws from his education in Algeria between 1920 and 1922, and shows the Frenchman’s mastery at depicting light and shadow.

While the eroticism in Women from the Casbah comes from the subjects’ unabashed posing in their nighties, personally I feel Lê Phổ’s depiction of two sisters is even more erotically charged.

Le  Pho

Even though their faces are painted with the typical serene expressions worn by Buddha and other Buddhist figures, and what looks like a fairly innocent picture of one sister tasting a concoction by her sibling, my attention is drawn immediately to the sister in white who has her finger in her mouth. Couple that imagery with the bowl of red liquid – that stands out in an almost uniform canvas of green – my mind can’t help but go into overdrive.

The Frog Prince

For something a little more in-your-face, there’s I Gusti Nyoman Lempad’s retelling of The Frog Prince that at first glance, may seem as if the story’s protagonists are being portrayed against an undulating landscape. But look closer, and the background turns out to be a mass of bodies engaging in an orgy.

Gusti inset
Closeup of The Frog Prince

Of course, it isn’t all just bodies and innuendos at the exhibition, cubism and abstract art also feature prominently.

Lhote Rugby

In Rugby, Lhote shows that he is equally adept at cubism. From far, the 1917 work may look like a mass of colours, but look up close, and you’ll notice the curve of a butt, a tangle of legs, and the black-and-white striped shirt of the referee.


Thai artist Tang Chang, like Lhote, demonstrates his versatility with different styles – and his Chinese heritage – with a sitting portrait of a long-haired bearded man against a background of Chinese calligraphy and abstract brushstrokes.

de Stael

Turn a corner and your eyes settle on another piece featuring brushstrokes – this time by Russia-born Nicholas de Staël. But while Tang’s brushstrokes are fluid and vary in strength and intensity, de Staël’s are symmetrical and rigid – almost as if describing the Russian government of his time.

Man and Fighting Cock
Affandi’s Man & Fighting Cock

From the use of brushes, we proceed to painting with fingers – a technique favoured by Indonesian modernist master Affandi who often squeezes tubes of paint directly onto the canvas and “moves” it about with his bare hands, resulting in energetically charged canvases where subjects almost take on a 3D effect.

And there you have it, a walkthrough of Reframing Modernism. If this post has you riled up and raring to visit the National Gallery, you’d be happy to know that in less than 6 weeks, the gallery will feature another international collaboration – Artist and Empire (En)Countering Colonial Legacies – this time with the Tate!

Till then, love art, love life, love yourself.


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