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Art in colonial Southeast Asia


by J Clark

Looking back over a century and half to the Treaty between Great Britain and Siam in 1855, the moment which was symbolically to leave only one pre-colonial Southeast Asian entity a conditional space in which to form a modern state, the transfer of academy oil painting and its codes of representation - almost like the spread of electric power to the colonial cities - seems like a small light turning on in the cultural dark of an imposed imperial hegemony. Academy oil painting and its particular code of realism could be widely found by the 1850s. There were practitioners from Java. It was used via prints as a visual reference for Buddhist mural painters in Siam . Its stylistics informed Chinese glass painting in Manila , parts of Java and Bangkok , as well as Chinese export portraiture done after photographs. Indeed the virtual conjuncture of the arrival of academy realism with that of photography allows the speculation that the former may have been received as a technical variation of the latter. Oil painting, especially portraiture, may have seemed like an expensive, hand-worked, 'finely made' and original version of a representation which would otherwise need to have been produced 'mechanically'.

There could be a long debate about what exactly 'representation', and 'visual representation' in particular, could mean in various nineteenth century Southeast Asian contexts '. One could also question the extent to which any particular mode of representation like realism could be discriminated by its producing agents (artists) from any material series of works (paintings, prints, photographs), and from their circulation among any given audience of receivers (colonial civil servants, aristocratic landowners, newly prosperous merchants). Here an ultimately irresolvable but crucial problem arises. Did academy realism and its main technical bearer, oil painting, get produced and circulated because of the power of its mode of representation - its formal attractiveness and empowering quality to 'look like' what it represented for any given audience? Or did this happen because of the power of the colonialising system which brought it, and on whose terms it was largely accepted? Was it the visual ideology of colonialism?

The answer is not singular and relies on specific contemporary contexts for interpretation. On the side of the power of realism as representation we have to note the rapidity and scale of its transfer to many areas which did not have realism in the Euramerican sense. This took place without a highly developed training atelier system - such as that found in Japan from the 1890s - and without secondary and tertiary art education. On the side of the power of the colonialising system, realism was received by civil servants who in many cases simply adopted vaguely understood metropolitan conventions for their art appreciation and demanded a local art able to fulfill it. It was also, at least initially, received by those aristocratic landowners and merchant classes who were most acculturated to the colonisers and likely to accept their cultural products and norms. Very rarely, such as the Phillipines with local reprographics at the end of the 19th century, did this reception mean anything more than by the political elite or the rich. Thus, we may generalize that the power of the medium and the power of the colonising culture which bore it came together as a set.

The power of the visual discourse itself and that of the colonising culture collectively privileged a viewer with visual ownership or control of what was represented. There may have been a peculiar conjunction in that the power of the new discourse peculiarly facilitated kinds of control over what was represented whicn were not present in the culture receiving transfer. Or indeed, that by the time local landowner and merchant classes became, however momentarily, the possessors of their own future, as in the late 19th century Philippines, academy realism was the principal visual discourse operating in their culture. But this privileged viewpoint is more widespread than just the Philippines ' case and appears, for example, in the figure of ancestors or wives who belonged to the patron, and the landscape through which a symbolic journey of possession might be engaged. Or, in Buddhist murals, in the control of a new imaginary space for the articulation of an older set of narratives. It will be noted in passing that these privileges at least initially involve little interrogation of the mimetic fidelity, technical skill after prior models, or other appraisal procedures based on metropolitan models, with which such works might be seen by colonialists or those 'natives recently returned from the metropolis'.

This privilege also accounts for the eclectic range of styles which may be received as realism, anything from 'orientalist romanticism' a la Delacroix or Gericault, to a rather stubborn, perhaps in expression rather wooden, late Victorian mimesis of the portrayed subject . It may be art historically inconvenient, or challenging, but in modern Southeast Asian art one cannot always hope to define turning points by monumental datum works, or 'masterpieces' (in colonial metropolitan eyes), or even necessarily for competence in 'academy realism'. But one can look for an intent and its possible critique created by the colonial transfer, the viewpoint or the viewer to be privileged. It is the relativising of viewpoints implicit in the transfer to a culturally other visual discourse that gives academy realism its potentially critical edge. It was exactly the critique of Mooi India (Beautifullndies) painting that intended to privilege the 'possessor' viewpoint of the Dutch colonialists which was adopted by PERSAGI in the then Dutch East Indies in 1937. Thus one can accept that the situation produced even quite early on by the transfer of academy realism was implicitly productive of that relativising of art styles of the past we now call modern, and prepared the way for its criticism from the position of an intended future we call modernist'.

Academy realism allowed the expression of an artistic subjectivity, perhaps for the first time. It provided an objectivity to the representation of motifs, and the first subaltern and later post-independence nationalist elite participation in the visual encoding of a common dream, one broadly extended beyond the elite by mass participation in nationalist movements. It is somewhat surprising in how many different cultural contexts academy realism allowed the expression of 'national' or nationalist sentiments. The similarity of these responses leads us to ask whether they indicate variations on a pattern or different patterns of reception, according to context. Certain specific historical contexts will be discussed shortly, but this relatively widespread response - even if not in the same time-scale at all locations - could be thought only to have occurred because the transfer took place under comparable colonial or quasi-colonial conditions, i.e. because of the hegemony of the same colonialism. As a very broad generalization this may have some validity, but as a proposition in understanding the beginnings of a modern Southeast Asian art it is highly problematic.

There is only room here to indicate why very briefly. Firstly such a position reflexively privileges the colonialism which is assumed to have brought the academic realism as its visual ideology. It allows no space for areas where colonialism did not dominate even as cultural forms whose transfer it allowed and facilitated were received, and frequently counter-appropriated for purposes other than those of the colonizer.

Secondly, it privileges the academy realism as a representational mode, and overlooks or suppresses local antipathy to this mode and preference non-mimetic visual codes, sometimes for an anti-realism . Here there are parallels between the antipathy to representation of the human figure of some Islamic cultures, and the antipathy of some overseas Chinese who took their pictorial ideals from the anti-mimetic conventions of Chinese literati painting, especially in the Lingnan School, however modern and 'realist' it may have thought itself to have become.

Thirdly, colonialist interpretations over-emphasize the lack of reciprocality in the transfer of academy realism, rather than acknowledge that uni-directional circulation is a general feature of transfer between art discourses, and that if there is to be reciprocity between them, it is always deferred beyond the conjunction of the current transfer. In short, colonialist and anti-colonialist interpretation alike use uni-directionality as only an index of a transfer in a colonial situation, whereas uni-directionality is in art historical terms mainly the index of the transfer itself.

I have analysed the broad historical problems of transfer in Asia elsewhere and will here look at specific differences with Southeast Asia . The first major difference between the various countries of the region is in the antecedence and longevity of development of academy realism of various kinds. In the oldest colony, the Philippines , the rather grey Euramerican preoccupation with a search for master-works as markers of completed transfer (or the irritation at their absence) has to be set aside by a string of major works from the second half of the 19th century. Interestingly their expression and the formation of the artists who did them falls into no clear pattern of colonial domination since artists like Simon Flores who did not go to Europe could do master works such as in the collection of the Bangkong Pilipinas.

Those who did go to Europe, like Luna, tried to turn the conscience of the colonialists either by masterly if rather fey approaches to an imagined partnership or to the forceful allegory of colonial exploitation in his borrowing of a then fashionable Roman subject-matter for his famed Spolarium (1883, National Museum, Manila). Also in the Philippines appears the phenomenon of a local popular graphics which are also widely found in Japan , India (and parts of littoral China a bit later) and often corresponds to a non-elite discourse on genre subjects.

However, there is also a negative side to the longevity of this transfer, one remarked on by nineteenth century Filipinos such as Rizal, and more recently by modern artists like Fele. Despite the empowering qualities of the transferred visual discourse it comes with a pre-arranged set of subjects, literary references, myths, and philosophical ideas, ones which may become more familiar than the myths of the world habitual to Filipinos. Visual discourses are not neutral to the content they carry and the longer and the more dominant the exposure to academy realism the more likely it is that the contents habitual to the cultures from which they spring will dominate any appropriation of its technique.

Another major difference is in the problematics of direct or indirect borrowing. Direct borrowing is found in the case of Luna, Phra Soralikhit, or Georgette Ch en who later in her life moved to Singapore, where an artist goes to Europe and masters or works through the academy technique to the extent of his or her own ability and interest. We should not perhaps look here for any counter-appropriation of discourse, other than the ability to use academy realism to depict local subjects or subjects in their locality, particularly in portraiture. But indirect borrowing by artists who do not go to Europe and who do not have academy training at home has two possible consequences. One seen in Indonesia, particularly in Affandi, and reappearing later in the work of Djoko Pecik, is a liberating and searing directness which only tends to be possible when the artist is not having to work through - and therefore also often against - a set of masterworks which serve as standards for his or her practice. This process tends to be beneficial to those artists of great natural talent like Affandi who have a peculiar need to express the 'suchness of things' specific to a situation of personal or national deprivation.

Unfortunately, indirect borrowing is frequently followed by a more direct contact which allows those metropolitan models to take over as standards. It sets aside or circumvents and renders historically obsolete precisely those borrowings which because of their indirectness were necessarily partial. Khrua In Khong's mural paintings at Wat Bowonniwet and elsewhere in 1850s' Siam are a very good case in point5. For it would appear the artist was only exposed to reproductions provided via the transmission of foreign gifts to his patron King Mongkut. and these were frequently of images which were already anachronistic at the time of their sending, such as illustrations of urban life in late 18'" century United States . Yet if there was a transitional possibility in this work of a Siamese working­through towards a syncretism between the decorative positioning of dignified or sacred motifs and a new kind of visual space, it was soon overshadowed and then elided by the arrival of photography and by fuller knowledge of what academic realism could produce. This was clearly witnessed in the fondness for photography" and in the patronage of European academic painting in Mongkut's successor King Chulalungkorn.

Finally, perhaps the greatest difference between countries in the region in the transfer of academy realism lies in the mediation of the transfer via art educational institutions and via the role of specific types of patron. Clearly the Philippines has had modern art education of a kind, and mostly for the elite, much longer than almost anywhere else in Asia except parts of India . It may appear, at first glance, to be only superficially important whether there was an art school founded by the colonisers as in the Phillipines by mid-19th century, or on colonial metropolitan lines as in Thailand in the late 1930s. But in fact whether any art education is available locally is very important for the transfer of skills and the establishment of standards of technical and discursial competence. Of course, such mediation reinforces colonial control or the power of metropolitan models. But it also brings their realization under local intervention, whether in the demand for national subjects or for colour, brushwork, and composition which satisfy local tastes. Here the secondary mediation of academy realism via local exhibitions and local collection becomes highly significant. There is a choice from the range of stylistic propensities, this in effect, comprises from hard materialism to a kind lyrical expressionism, which when allied with local subjects and intentions can produce an art in the service of colonialism and those assimilated to its standards and purposes, or stimulates an art which may be anti-colonialist and nationalist. Here the sentiment of local elites and the ways this is worked out in local exhibition and collection need to be elucidated.

There is broad scope by the questioning of such intentions for a critical art history which does not simply accept the surface of transfer, but questions what lies beneath it"' Seen in this light the colonial period of transfer in Southeast Asian art no longer remains one of simple subjection, but of a complex space between passive acceptance and active adaptation, even at that moment when the scope and moment of its transfer might misleadingly make us think its only power was of the colonial.




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