Thursday, March 09, 2006

Cubic Roots : How Asians transformed a European movement

Hello Fellow Docents,
FromNewsweek ...

Cubic Roots
How Asians transformed a European movement
By Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop
Newsweek International
Updated: 1:15 a.m. ET March 5, 2006

Malaysian painter Syed Ahmad Jamal can still remember when he
discovered cubism. It was in 1951 in a bookshop in London, where the
then 22-year-old bought his first art book on the work of Georges
Braque. "I didn't even know the word existed," he recalls. "In those
days, cubism hadn't really spread in Asia."

Eventually, it did. Just how widely—and uniquely—Asians adapted the
movement is the fascinating subject of "Cubism in Asia: Unbounded
Dialogues," a new show at the Singapore Art Museum (through April 9).
With more than 120 modern works from 11 countries, the exhibition
brings together some of Asia's most famous 20th-century artists,
including Jamal, Anita Magsaysay-Ho from the Philippines, Thawan
Duchanee from Thailand and F. N. Souza from India. "The idea for the
exhibition was not to show what Asian cubism is, but to look at ways
Western ideas permeate within the Asian space," explains Singapore Art
Museum (SAM) curator Ahmad Mashadi, who co-organized the show.

Indeed, when it first began in Paris in the early 20th century, cubism
was viewed as a radical way of redefining space in paintings. The
movement quickly revolutionized European art, but spread slowly in
Asia. And even then, the "buffet mentality" of Asian artists meant
cubism never became more than one of the many Western styles expressed
in their art. "Some like [the late Singaporean artist] Chen Wen Hsi
thought nothing of switching from cubist painting one day to
traditional Chinese inkwork the next," says SAM director Kwok Kian

Japan was the first Asian country to embrace cubism, around 1910. The
style took another decade to appear in China —and Korea, and did not
really penetrate Southeast Asia until the 1950s—ironically, at a time
when many nations were gaining independence. Part of its appeal
stemmed from the fact that cubism marked a rejection of Orientalism,
the exoticized representation of Asian cultures that had contributed
to the colonial project.

While references to Pablo Picasso's work in particular regularly
cropped up in Asian cubism—most obviously in Yamamoto Keisuke's
"Hiroshima" (1948), which echoes "Guernica"—the region's artists
quickly developed their own distinct take on the movement. Where
European cubists had adopted a razor-sharp approach to the human
anatomy, artists like Sri Lanka's George Keyt ("Reflection," 1947),
China's Qu LeiLei ("Youth," 1980) and Malaysian Chuah Thean Teng
("Lady Musician," c. 1950s) preferred curvilinear forms. And if in the
West cubism demanded total objectivity of the subject matter, Asian
cubists produced self-portraits. Korean artist Ha In-du's
"Self-Portrait" (1957) reconstructed his crouched figure with
geometric forms to express his feeling of oppression from the Korean
War. Filipino artist Vicente Manansala even developed his own cubist
movement, Transparent Cubism, replacing the shaded flat planes of the
European cubists with a similar network of semitransparent planes, as
in "Conquistador" (1979).

Thematically, Asian cubists also ventured in new directions. Where the
West had more or less abandoned religious themes in the development of
modern art, Asian artists continued to explore them. Acknowledging the
region's many faiths, the exhibit presents a deconstructed
"Avalokitesvara" (1921)—the most popular of all Buddhist deities—by
Japanese artist Koga Harue, as well as "Crucifixion" (1980) by
Filipino artist Ang Kiukok and "Mother and Child" (1954) by his
compatriot Cesar Legaspi.

Asian cubists portrayed stronger narratives and expressed more emotion
than the Europeans, says Choi Eunju, director of the National Museum
of Contemporary Art in South Korea, which cosponsored the show along
with SAM, the National Museum of Modern Art of Tokyo and the Japan
Foundation. So it is striking to note that cubism, so important to the
development of modern art in the West, remained a relatively minor
form in Asia. "The technique was useful to understand the form and its
relation to space, but I rapidly became more interested in fauvism,"
says Jamal. Still, the show is a compelling example of how Asians
borrowed something from the West and made it their own.
(c) 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

(c) 2006


Sanjeev Narang


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