Cubic Roots

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 Chow.

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.

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