Lim Qinyi (National Gallery Singapore) on Lim Cheng Hoe's [Not Titled] (Pulau Saigon with a View of Supreme Court)
Amongst the National Gallery Singapore’s many offerings is the exhibition Lim Cheng Hoe: Painting Singapore. The exhibition showcases. Lim Qinyi, one of the curators who worked on this exhibition, takes us around and tells us about the process of putting together a show of this scale. In particular, she speaks to us about one particular work in the exhibition, [Not Titled] (Pulau Saigon With A View of Supreme Court), and its significance.
Qinyi Lim is Curator at National Gallery Singapore. She completed the de Appel Curatorial Programme, Amsterdam in 2012, and holds a Masters in Southeast Asian Studies from the National University of Singapore. Lim previously held curatorial positions at Para Site, Hong Kong; NUS Museum, Singapore; and Singapore Art Museum. Past exhibitions include Afterwork (Para Site, Hong Kong, 2016 and Ilham Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 2016), Orchestrations | Samson Young (Para Site, Hong Kong, 2016); Present /Future (Artissima 20, Turin, 2013); Three Artists Walk into a Bar… (de Appel Arts Centre, Amsterdam, 2012); and Telah Terbit (Singapore Art Museum, 2006).
PROVENANCE & Context
Lim Qinyi (LQ): This watercolour is the penultimate piece of this exhibition, and was only recently donated to the gallery. The work came to the gallery undated. Much of this exhibition draws upon the entries within Lim Cheng Hoe’s own diaries, and during our research process, we were able to match specific descriptions and entries within Lim’s diaries to this particular work. This was a clear example of how research can underpin and augment our understanding of the artwork itself.
This work also depicts Pulau Saigon, which no longer exists. Pulau Saigon was a small island situated where present day Robertson Quay is. The island merged completely with the mainland in 1990. Here we see him using techniques and a visual language that is similar to the other works in the exhibition. Within the work itself, we see Lim experimenting with things such as foregrounding, foreshortening, and introducing distance. Where previously in the work [Not titled] (Kampong House with Two Figures) he uses palm trees to frame his image, here he uses shophouses and buildings as framing devices. Lim picked up these techniques during his lessons with Richard Walker, the first art inspector of schools from 1930 to 1932.
In order to access Pulau Saigon for such a vantage point, Lim would have had to go through Clarke Quay and Boat Quay. Looking at the area topographically, the Singapore River winds around the area in an S-shape. Technically, he wouldn’t have been able to see the dome of the former Supreme Court from Pulau Saigon in such a prominent manner. Unlike other plein art artists who worked conscientiously towards depicting the subject matter and emotional quality of a particular moment in time, Lim broke away from this mould of documentation to create an ideal picturesque landscape. So even though we describe Lim as a plein air artist, it is clear that he operated beyond that label. We can see the creative liberties he took in making his paintings.
The Artist’s Diaries
LQ: The family donated Lim’s diaries from 1930 to the gallery’s Resource Centre, and subsequently gave us access to the diaries from 1960 to 1970. We have his diary from 1930 displayed in the exhibition, and Lim was eighteen at the time he was writing these entires. We introduce his sensitivity into the exhibition by including quotations from his diaries into the space. The diary was also written, interestingly enough, in fountain pen. Ballpoint pens had been invented, but only became commonplace after the Second World War. The deft handwriting that we see in this diary finds parallels in some of his brushstrokes.
The diaries also allowed us insight into the artist’s materials. He would write about how he wets the paper before painting on it. These are steps in his process that we would not have otherwise been privy to, and they were important measures he took to slowdown the wet-on-wet methods he used to paint. He was also incredibly meticulous with his choice of paper. He specified in these entries the exact stock of paper he bought from art supplies stores.
Through these diaries, we also managed to see how Lim’s works extended beyond depictions of the Singapore River. One of the things that the team did was to, based on his diary entries, map out where Lim travelled to around Singapore. This was a time when public transport wasn’t as developed as it is now, yet this map shows us that Lim travelled extensively. This helped us with our research, and with getting a sense of where he could’ve painted.
The diaries helped us to identify the sitter for the painting, The Red Scarf. In his diary, Lim refers to the painting’s sitter as Sadagopan. These diaries really give us insight into all of these details that we wouldn’t have been able to access unless we were there with him whilst he worked and painted. In that way, it almost seems as if we were led by his voice. It was because of this that we included quotations from his diaries for every chapter of this exhibition. Instead of relegating the diary to the background, we wanted to have Lim’s voice come through within the exhibition. Obviously there were issues with regard to privacy, but we took care in respecting the artist’s personal life and diffusing these tensions.
LQ: This is an exhibition of 60 paintings that looks at Lim Cheng Hoe’s works between the 1930s to 1970s. We begin the exhibition with a self portrait, and we end it with a self portrait as well. We did this so viewers get a real sense of time passing between the two works. For us, these framing portraits form the premise of his practice as an early plein air artist. He was part of a group of artists who worked en plein air. Artists don’t exist in a vacuum, so we tried to address the question of how Lim’s works sit in relation to his peers’ in this exhibition. Another layer we considered when putting together this exhibition was the fact that Mr Lim used to work in this building. The National Gallery Singapore now occupies buildings which were once home to the Supreme Court and City Hall, and Mr Lim worked in the Public Works Department based in the latter.
Having a storyline drive the whole exhibition was very important to us, so we started the exhibition off with works from Lim’s early days. These works were made when Lim was working with Richard Walker, and highlight his interest in experimenting with oils, still lifes and pastels. We also wanted to bring attention to the fact that Lim spoke English and was born in Amoy. He came to Singapore when he was a young boy, and thus has a very different background to other Nanyang artists. Eventually, Lim decided to work in watercolours, which is, itself, a medium underpinned by British colonial associations.
Curating the Exhibition
LQ: We wanted the exhibition to be a look at Lim’s works through his own eyes. As mentioned previously, Lim was an English-speaking watercolourist, he had a very different outlook and led a different lifestyle to the other Nanyang artists. Lim can be understood as, what is sometimes called, a non-professional artist; and others have described him as a “Sunday artist”. In all honesty, Lim only painted on Sundays because that was the only time he was able to do so. As such, the term “Sunday artist” cannot be seen in a derogatory sense. In order to have painted every Sunday between 1932 to 1970, Lim had to have taken painting very seriously. We wanted his voice to come through to highlight the fact that other artists outside of the Nanyang group were operating in Singapore at the time.
We know Lim was, largely, a self-taught artist. Whenever we do curatorial tours, we often highlight the fact that Lim only received formal art education only until the age of 20. Yet he read widely, and owing to the fact that he read English publications, his aesthetic and art historical judgments differed greatly from that of the Nanyang group of artists’. Furthermore, Lim never spoke Mandarin. Instead he spoke Hokkien, and that was how he conversed with artists such as Cheong Soo Pieng.
An earlier exhibition of Lim’s works had been done in 1986, and that exhibition included 250 paintings. We really sized that down to the exhibition we have here today, which showcases 60 works in total. Out of these 60 works, only a third of them belong to the gallery’s collection. Many of them come from private lenders and owners, so we spent a long time meeting with those who had collected Lim’s works over the years. Aside from the logistical issues, the fragility of some of these paintings also posed a challenge for us. When exposed to the sun, watercolours fade with time. As such, the sort of artworks we could present had to be carefully considered. After this exhibition, some of the works displayed will go back into storage for a period of time to recoup. As a curator, there are always questions as to what you show, why you show the works you do, and how you show them.
The exhibition works through the diaries to come up with a coherent narrative. The exhibition’s earlier segments break down four techniques that Lim uses in creating his works. Whilst Lim was working on these landscape paintings, he painted a couple of portraits as well. We asked ourselves how we could situate these constant shift between the indoors and outdoors, especially given Lim’s reputation as a landscape watercolourist. We also know that Lim was unable to travel as freely in the later parts of his life. During these years, he painted some abstract paintings from memory. These abstract paintings were created at about the same time [Not titled] (Pulau Saigon with a view of Supreme Court) was. As art historians, we cannot make concrete some of the speculations surrounding how these works were made but we can show clues or hint at them.
Another challenge we faced was the fact that the landscape of Singapore has shifted so much since the time Lim was working. Whilst watercolours have been described as the earliest form of photography, Lim’s paintings aren’t exactly accurate representations of the geographical landscapes of the time. We didn’t want to fix these paintings to exact locations. We tried — but, things have changed. Some of the perspectives Lim painted are no longer the way they were. Because of this, we began to question whether locking these paintings down to exact physical locations would add to their viewing or display.
We also considered the ongoing discussions amongst the watercolourists during the 1960s and 1970s. There were debates surrounding realism, and whether adhering to it faithfully still created works of impact. These dialogues fed into the curatorial display of the exhibition.
Beyond the Works
LQ: Included in the exhibition space is a selection of books that visitors are encouraged to pick up. Some of the books that we’ve included were published awhile ago, for example we have here Charles Dyce’s book, which formed a basis for mapping colonial Singapore through watercolour. We’ve also included old exhibition catalogues, and short essays on the treatment of the local landscape. We wanted to pull out all of these threads beyond a single artist’s practice.
These books were selected with their compatibility in mind — we wanted to include books that would add to the exhibition. Visitors often go through the early catalogues from the Singapore Art Show. Beyond being a prolific watercolourist, we wanted to ground Lim as an active participant in the Singaporean art scene of the time.
We hosted a performance by the poet, Pooja Nansi, in this space a couple of weeks ago. We gave her access to his diaries, and one of the things we asked her to challenge was the figure of Lim Cheng Hoe. In response to that, she pulled together a performative guided tour through the exhibition. The tour was an exploration of what it meant for artists to be using Singapore as a landscape. She said something that really made an impression, and that was: “To engage with the landscape of Singapore is to engage in fatality”. The landscapes here are constantly shifting, and her perspective lent the exhibition a very different tone — one that was pensive and almost existential. Through these activations, we wanted to interrupt and intervene in the narrative created. On one hand, we wanted to create an open-ended plein air exhibition as Lim would have wanted his works shown. Yet on the other hand, we wanted to go beyond the display of landscapes and techniques by unearthing the complexities present.
Portraying a Bygone Era
LQ: When viewers come into the exhibition, one of the first few things they look for are clues as to how Singapore’s landscape has changed over the years. We have viewers who recognise the scenes portrayed in these landscapes, and some viewers have also helped us to identify the locations depicted. Although Lim never titled his artworks, we don’t think this was intentional on his part. Hence for those paintings without titles, we refer to them as “Not Titled” instead of “Untitled”. There has been a lot of sharing and communing about the landscape, which is what the show is about.
A common theme we’ve been coming face to face with is that of nostalgia. Our country has a short post-independence history, but I personally feel that nostalgia should not be fetishised. Things exist in different times and different contexts, and we shouldn’t romanticise them outside of those times and contexts. Watercolours are incredibly prone to this process of romanticisation, and we seldom think about the painter behind these works. In order to bring it back to a present day context, we included these modern day interventions to pose questions that could be uncomfortable to some or thought provoking to others. Instead of continuously dwelling on themes about nostalgia, we consciously included points of engagement within this exhibition.
Lim Cheng Hoe: Painting Singapore is now open at National Gallery Singapore.
The exhibition will run until 9 June 2019.
More information regarding the exhibition can be found here.