There’s a long-running debate in the art world as to whether it is necessary to understand the story behind a painting to appreciate it fully. On one side of the argument is the movement within art know as Narrative Painting or History Painting, where the picture itself clearly depicts a known event. Before the advent of photography this was often the dominant style in art, but in the Twentieth Century it became less prominent, particularly as the abstract movement developed.
One of the Twentieth Century’s most famous paintings is an unusual example of the combination of History Painting with an abstract feel – Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Picasso painted Guernica as a protest against the bombing of the Basque town Guernica by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the request of the Spanish Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War, but it’s a very hard painting to decipher without knowing this backdrop.
We are firmly on the side of the debate that, stated simply, of course you can still enjoy a painting without knowing or understanding the story, but without it you are only seeing half the picture. We are with the American cartoonist and humourist Al Capp, who once memorably said: “Abstract art: a product of the untalented sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.”
We discussed this broader subject in a previous blog post – What’s in a name? - when looking at how the title of a painting is a crucial part of its essence. However, it came to mind again during our recent visit to The National Gallery in Singapore and one particular painting displayed there – National Language Class, by Chua Mia Tee.
Without knowing anything about the picture, it certainly stands on its own two feet as a beautiful painting, showing a number of students gathered around a table in front of a teacher and a blackboard. The title of the piece hinted at something important, so during our visit to the Gallery we asked the guide to tell us more. Its story puts the painting into its proper context, and completely changed the way we looked at it, understood it and appreciated it. The story transformed the painting from a gorgeously painted work which hinted at something more interesting into a painting that says something very important about Singapore as a country and is clearly a cultural icon.
To understand the picture, you need to understand a little about the history of Singapore. It’s a tiny island country off the Southern tip of Malaysia, and to use the standard unit of size comparison, it is only around one thirtieth the size of Wales, yet is home to 6 million people and is a true economic powerhouse. Singapore ranks in the Top 10 countries in the world on GDP per capita, has the busiest port in the world outside China, and is consistently ranked highly in Quality of Life scores globally.
And yet the country is not even 60 years old.
Although the island had always been inhabited, it only began to develop meaningfully in the early 19th Century, when Sir Stamford Raffles (who gave his name to the famous hotel) established a trading colony there and at the time the island’s population was barely 1,000. Singapore became an official British colony in 1824 and became known as the Gibraltar of the East, due to its size amd strategic location on major shipping routes. It remained as part of the Empire until 1942, when it fell ignominiously to the Japanese after their sweep through British Malaya. In 1945 it returned to British hands, became self-governing in 1955, became part of the newly formed Malaysia in 1963, before finally only becoming an independent country in 1965.
The first Prime Minister of Singapore – Lee Kwan Yew – once remarked that when Singapore became independent, this was the fifth different nationality of his adult life – British, Japanese, British again, Malaysian and finally Singaporean. By then he was only 42 years old.
As a result of its history, Singapore is very diverse - the majority of the population is ethnically Chinese, but there are significant Malay, Indian and Eurasian communities. Against this backdrop, the primary struggle for Singapore, in the mind of Lee Kwan Yew, was to forge a strong national identity to unite all the different groups within the fledgling country.
It is here that we can return to the painting. It was created in 1959 by one of Singapore’s most celebrated artists, Chua Mia Tee. A measure of his standing is that it was Chua who drew the portrait of Singapore’s first president, Yusof bin Ishak, which appears on Singaporean banknotes.
Chua moved to Singapore from his native China in the 1930s, as his family fled the Sino-Japanese War, and he painted National Language Class just as Singapore became self-governing for the first time in its history.
In order to try to forge a cohesive national identity, and as part of Lee Kwan Yew’s vision of becoming part of a united Malaysia, it was decreed that Malay would become Singapore’s national language. The painting therefore depicts a group of ethnically Chinese Singaporeans learning the new national language. What’s most interesting about the painting, and something hidden to those who do not speak Malay, is what’s written on the blackboard.
The teacher has asked two questions – What is your name? Where do you live? – and these questions are written in Malay.
In a piece published by the Asian Civilisations Museum entitled Singapore in 60 Objects, the author Kennie Ting beautifully sums up National Language Class:
“Chua …was part of a generation of young artists who had participated in Singapore's independence struggles of the 1950s. In the painting, some Chinese students are seated around a table, learning the national language from a Malay teacher. Behind the teacher hangs a blackboard, on which these two basic questions about identity and belonging are written.
Both questions are so simple but powerful, going to the very essence of what it means to belong to a place.”
To understand all of this background about Singapore, its struggles for self-identity and social cohesion is to understand the painting. Without this context, and viewed in isolation, the picture holds little meaning. The context here is everything, and the painting suddenly becomes very powerful, wrapping up the hopes, dreams and challenges of an emerging nation into a single 44” x 60” canvas.
As the artist himself said of his work: “only when a piece of work possesses the truth of reality does it have historical value.” I’d go as far as to say it is worth visiting Singapore just to see this one painting.