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Does Impressionism Matter to Singaporeans?

By Guan Tan

Paul Cezanne's
National Gallery Singapore
Paul Cezanne's "The Gulf of Marseille as seen from L'Estaque", circa 1878 and 1879.

"I'm an associate professor of art history at the Texas Tech University," Dr Kevin Chua introduces himself. He recently held a talk, debating the relevance of the century-old French art movement, Impressionism. It was in conjunction with a blockbuster exhibition held at the National Gallery of Singapore, "Colours of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay". 

The exhibition runs from last November till March this year. In the course of these five months, thousands of Singaporeans would circle the exhibition space, admiring these century-old French artworks. Yet, with the deluge of content that surrounds consumers today, it's difficult to discern what's worth consuming and what's not.

"We've to figure out if Impressionism really matters to us," Chua stresses. 

National Gallery SingaporeClaude Monet's 1893 painting titled
Claude Monet's 1893 painting titled "The cathedral of Rouen. The portal and the tower of Saint-Romain in full sun."

Impressionism took place in the late 1800s in Paris. They were a group of painters who "started out as a bunch of rebels breaking away from the salon and academy system in France". The painters' brushstrokes were typically small yet very visible. The movement literally meant "impression" – the painters sought to capture their feelings about their surroundings in painting. 

Apart from the physical piece of art itself, the social and cultural environment matters as well. When Impressionism took place, Paris underwent a massive urban renewal project. "Vast urban renovation and rebuilding projects – so new roads got built then, new public parks, new sewage, things like that. And what these social art historians were saying was that it had a radical effect and impact on the paintings themselves... So these artists were working in a larger social context. They weren't just painting these paintings in their studios." 

National Gallery SingaporeEdouard Manet's 1869 painting titled,
Edouard Manet's 1869 painting titled, "Moonlight on the port of Boulogne".

The judgement of the century-old movement's worth to Singaporeans then begins. "What [do] we want out of art? Do we want art to be just about pleasing, palatable paintings of flowers, landscapes etc.? Or do we want it to mean something to us beyond that or more than that?" 

The answer was obvious. To him, most Singaporeans tend to think of art as pretty objects. "The easy thing to do would be to just take these paintings at face value and enjoy them. [Yet,] does the history of the art matter to us? Does it represent our kind of cultural values – who you are, what you want to be, what does Impressionism say about society?" 

Chua seems to pose more questions than he actually answers them. This was, perhaps, his thought process as well – to always critically question the art and not merely consume them as they were given. But there's a catch, Chua raps on but does not answer these questions. It seems he didn't want to impose his opinions on others. These answers are the viewers' own.

National Gallery SingaporeBerthe Morisot's 1872 painting titled,
Berthe Morisot's 1872 painting titled, "The cradle".

If you were to come at art in a critical, sceptical manner and ask the right questions like Chua does, it makes these Impressionist artworks fertile land for a game of intellectual wrestle. 

Take, for instance, the famed paintings of Édouard Manet, who "does paintings which are more about social relations in the city at that time." When one comes face on with a piece of Manet, "You're not quite sure what you're looking at first. But the more you think about it, the more you realise he's making a commentary, especially about what's going on with the middle-class in [Paris]." 

Manet is not alone. Chua recommends other Impressionist artists such as Edgar Degas, Gustave Caillebotte, Berthe Morisot and the American artist, Mary Cassatt for their critiques on the urbanising Parisian society. 

In the struggling ballerinas painted by Degas, the pristine new Parisian apartments by Caillebotte, the social restrictions of domesticated Parisian women by Morisot and Cassatt all points at the psychological aftermaths of an urbanising city. 

It's a subject matter close to Singapore – a city that's constantly renewing itself, forcing unnatural growth. Citizens are forced to come to terms with the rapid-fire changes. In the urbanites' faces, you'll frequently find tension, struggles and some poignancy. For the most part, we don't realise these things. Yet, artworks from Impressionism, a particularly relevant slice of history, serve as mirrors of the perennial struggles of citizens living in an urbanising environment.