Art Appreciation 101

This article is concurrently posted on The Kent Ridge Common.

Yeh Chi Wei, Drying Salted Fish (1961), Oil on canvas,
61.2 by 79 cm, collection of Mr Yeh Toh Yen  
Art is about beauty and spirit and life. It can be food for thought or comfort food. Unlike what some people may think, art isn’t reserved for a select group of people.

It is meant for everyone, the way music and movies are.

Given the universal appeal of art and the recent conversations about the Singaporean culture, why not take a look at Between Here and Nanyang, the latest exhibition at the NUS Museum?

It features paintings done by Singapore-based artists during the post-independence turmoil. Some items are on loan from private collectors, yet others are rarely-displayed pieces in the museum’s own collection. This would be a great opportunity for us to understand more about our history, through the prism of visual aesthetics.

While wandering about the exhibition, a friend asked me what should one consider in order to appreciate paintings more fully. After thinking about her question and researching online, I came up with a checklist that one may think of while viewing artworks.

Firstly, ask yourself if you like the painting before you. Do you enjoy it? If so, why? If not, why?

Then, employ the following 5 ‘C’s to help you clarify your feelings. These 5 ‘C’s don’t represent the creature comforts of ‘Car, Condominium, Cash, Credit Card and Country Club’.

These 5 ‘C’s stand for ‘Colours, Composition, Content, Context and Choice’.

1) Colours

Is the painting a dreamy red, remind you of a quiet thumping joy? Or is it a fiery crimson, angry and hurt?

Is that shade of blue serene or is it sad? Perhaps it is melancholic?

Shades of the same colour can carry different meanings, according to the painting’s subject matter. Also, the same painting may seem different depending on one’s mood while viewing it.

Self Portrait, by Ng Eng Teng (1955)
2) Composition

Also, consider the composition of the painting. Do the lines and colours lead to a focal point?

Does the artwork feel imbalanced to you?

The oil painting of the bamboos below has an asymmetrical balance for it captures the vibrant randomness of growing plants.
Bamboo, by Sunyee (Undated)
3) Content

The subject matter of the painting matters. What is it about? Does it show a group of people eating potatoes or is it a still life of a bowl of fruits?

Is it a critique of social issues? Or does it take a simple pleasure in the quiet beauty of life?

The Chinese scroll painting below by Zhang Daqian is a meditative piece showing an old man gazing at a clump of banana shoots.

Strolling under a Banana Palm, by Zhang Daqian (1963)
4) Context

When was the painting done? Sometimes, it helps to know the socio-political context during which the artwork was created.

For example, many of these displayed paintings were created during the tumultuous founding years of Singapore. As such, they may come across as being uncontroversial pieces.

Some pieces – including the one below – may record the kampung life then.

Feeding Chickens, by Chua Thean Teng (undated)
5) Choice

And finally, understand that no one has a monopoly on the interpretation of art. Even artists and art historians quibble about the nature of art all the time.

So feel free to step into the NUS Museum. It literally doesn’t cost any money to enter and might turn out to be rather fun. During certain hours, student docents would be present to give guided tours on these works by Singapore’s pioneering artists.

You do have a choice in finding out more about Singapore’s art and deciding what it means to you.

As local singer Kit Chan says, “I call on all Singaporeans to support and to nurture all our emerging and mature creative local talents, so that they may continue to tell the Singapore story through song, books, poems, films, food, beautiful clothes and furniture, and all those comforting things for living and for the soul.”

Visiting Between Here and Nayang at NUS Museum would be a positive show of support.