Cate Blanchett visits a gem of an exhibition in Singapore

23 04 2016

A gem of an exhibition – literally, Van Cleef & Arpels: The Art and Science of Gems, opens at the ArtScience Museum today.  Brought in by the famed Parisian house of high jewellery, with the participation of the French National Museum of Natural History, the drool-worthy exhibition see over 400 of Van Cleef & Arpels’ exquisite works of love as well as 250 minerals from the Natural History Museum’s extensive collection.

Model of the Varuna Yacht, c. 1907.

Model of the Varuna Yacht, c. 1907.

Founded in 1906, the Maison’s beginnings is in itself a work of love, following on the 1895 marriage of Estelle Arpels – the daughter of a dealer in precious stones to Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a lapidary and diamond broker. Together with Estelle’s brothers, they opened their first boutique at 22 Place Vendôme – an address that the house maintains to this day in serving a clientele that has over the years included the likes of Maharajahs, Queens, Princes and Princesses.

A replica of the crown created by the Maison for the coronation of Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran.

A replica of the crown created by the Maison for the coronation of Empress Farah Pahlavi of Iran.

The house’s rich history is one of the main themes of the exhibition, an introduction to which is given to visitors as they enter. The entrance is also where one of the Maison’s iconic pieces and one of my favourite pieces at the exhibition, a pendant with a flying bird carrying a huge 96.62 carat yellow diamond once owned by Polish opera singer and socialite, Gianna Walska, is showcased. The piece, commissioned by the then new owner of the diamond in 1971 to celebrate the birth of her son, adorned the cover of the Van Cleef & Arpels catalogue in 1972, where it was seen flying over the Place Vendôme. The piece is also transformable – a feature in many of the house’s pieces with the bird becoming a pair of winged earrings and the diamond worn as a pendant.

An iconic masterpiece, Van Cleef and Arpels' Bird Clip and Pendant, which features a 96.62 carat yellow diamond once owned by Polish opera singer Gianna Walska, greets visitors to the exhibition.

An iconic masterpiece, Van Cleef and Arpels’ Bird Clip and Pendant, which features a 96.62 carat yellow diamond once owned by Polish opera singer Gianna Walska, greets visitors to the exhibition.

Beyond the bird that flew over the Place Vendôme, the exhibition proper is arranged across eight galleries, which are all full of delight and discovery, seven of which have displays of Van Cleef and Arpels’ creations arranged according to seven themes: Couture, Abstractions, Influences, Precious Objects, Nature, Ballerinas and Fairies and Icons.   Each gallery also contains a parallel exhibition relating to the science of precious stones and feature gems and minerals from the French National Museum of Natural History’s renowned collection. These are arranged according to eight themes, representing the Earth and the seven major principles critical to the formation of precious stones: Pressure, Temperature, Transport, Water, Oxygen, Life and Metamorphism.

A 21,560 carat blue topaz crystal from the French National Museum of Natural History's collection.

A 21,560 carat blue topaz crystal from the French National Museum of Natural History’s collection.

One of the largest uncut black diamonds to be found.

Also from the French National Museum of Natural History’s collection – one of the largest uncut black diamonds to be found.

A diamond encrusted in a stone.

A diamond encrusted in a stone.

Amongst the seven galleries, one that I found particularly interesting was Influences in which the fascination Europe had with the orient that started in the 1920s, is seen in the pieces on display – some of which are very recent creations.

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Griffon Clip, 1971 with amethysts, coral, emeralds, diamonds on gold.

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Dragon vanity case, 1923.

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Dragon mystérieux clip, 2013 featuring garnets, emeralds, Mystery set rubies, sapphires and diamonds on gold.

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Carpe Koi bracelet watch, 2014.

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Table Clock, 1957.

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Egyptian Inspiration Bracelet, 1924, which features sapphires, rubies, emeralds, onyx and diamonds on platinum.

An especially delightful gallery is Ballerinas and Fairies, featuring ballerina clips that were born out of Louis Arpels’ passion for dance dating back to the early 1940s. The dainty and exquisitely crafted clips feature gemstone laden tutus  – which have grown shorter with time. The clips also have very fine details in the rose-cut diamond faces crowned with headrests of precious stones and gemstone dancing shoes.

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The dainty Ballerinas and Fairies clips will delight any visitor.

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Another area worth dwelling (not that the others aren’t) has to be the last gallery, Icons. Here is where several the icons  of the twentieth century ranging from royalty and to stars of the silver screen, have icons of the Maison created for them, displayed. This part of the collection includes several pieces made for the Duchess of Windsor, Princess Faiza of Egypt and starlet turned princess, Grace Kelly of Monaco.

A 1929 collaret created for Princess Faiza of Egypt - on display for the very first time.

A 1929 collaret created for Princess Faiza of Egypt – on display for the very first time.

There are also several programmes being held in conjunction with the exhibition to look forward to including a talk at 2pm today on gemology and artistry. Punlic guided tours are also available on 23, 24, 29, 30 April and 2, 6, 8 13, 15, 20 and 27 May, 3, 10 , 17 and 24 June. A workshop on gemstones is also being held. The exhibition runs until 14 August 2016. More information on the exhibition, as well as a downloadable audio app, can be found at: The Art and Science of Gems website.

A surprise visitor to the exhibition - the beautiful Cate Blanchett.

A surprise visitor to the exhibition – the beautiful Cate Blanchett.

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The wild rose minaudière, 1938, inspired by a cigarette box.

The wild rose minaudière, 1938, inspired by a cigarette box.





The unseen passageway in the National Gallery

4 04 2016

One of the functional spaces now can a glimpse of within the former Supreme Court in its reincarnation as a wing of the National Gallery Singapore, are the two prisoner cells. Once part of what I often refer to as the caged passageway – a unseen network of spaces under the courtrooms through which defendants in criminal cases could be bought for their court appearances with a minimum of fuss and away from public spotlight, the cells are the most visible of the parts of this network that are still with us today.

The entrance to the Holding Cells.

The Holding Cells today – a popular spot for a photograph to be taken.

Much of it, including interview rooms and office spaces arranged around the cells, have since been converted. Part of a corridor, I am told, and the two cells – once part of a row of twelve, are all that is left today to remind us of the unseen passageway. Now a popular spot to have a photograph taken at, the two cells are now the unseen passageway’s most visible part, serving to remind us of the building and its short but eventful history.

The caged passageway seen with indicted Japanese soldiers being tried for war crimes being led to the courtroom from the holding cells (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).

The caged passageway seen during the post-war war crimes trials (source: Imperial War Museums © IWM (IND 4999).


Photographs of the “caged passageway” taken in 2010

The entrance - the steel doors opened up to the service road being the courthouse and ii was through them that vehicles ferrying defendants from prison to the Supreme Court entered.

The entrance – the steel doors opened up to the service road being the courthouse and ii was through them that vehicles ferrying defendants from prison to the Supreme Court entered.

Entry to an office space.

Entry to an office space.

Another office space.

Another office space.

A filing cabinet.

A filing cabinet.

A caged stairway.

A caged stairway.

The row of cells.

The row of cells – there would have been twelve such cells.

Inside a cell.

Inside a cell.

The WC inside the cell.

The WC inside the cell.

The passageway leading to the courtrooms.

The passageway leading to the courtrooms.

The stairway up to a courtroom, entry to which was through a trapdoor (which can still be seen in their closed positions).

The stairway up to a courtroom, entry to which was through a trapdoor (which can still be seen in their closed positions) placed behind the dock.


 

 





The 16th century sailor seen wandering at the National Museum

30 01 2016

With all that’s been rumoured about the National Museum, the curious sight of a lost soul dressed in the manner of a 16th century Portuguese sailor wandering around one of its galleries would not be unexpected. Strangely though, rather than stay well away from the sailor – as one might expect, those present in the gallery seemed instead to be drawn to him.

The Level 2 galleries.

The National Museum – where the past comes alive in more ways than one.

There is little that is sinister about the sailor who roams the basement gallery with two muses in tow. On a quest to find what he thinks will offer an escape from the curse of his long but lonely existence – attributed to the consumption of the Elixir of Life, the sailor enlists the help of those around. The sailor, the two muses, and his quest – to find the greatest treasure in the world, is all part of the fun of an experiential play, “The Greatest Treasure in the World”.

A muse and Aesop (as well as several other characters from the past), also help Afonso in his quest.

A pair of muses and several other characters from the past, also help Afonso in his quest.

The experiential play also has the audience take part.

The experiential play also has the audience take part.

The play, created by Peggy Ferroa, has the audience, embark on a rather enjoyable adventure through time with Afonso, the Portuguese sailor – whose full name sounds as long as the life he has had. The search for the treasure takes place in the in the Treasures of the World from the British Museum exhibition –  where Afonso suspects he would, with the help of the audience, find what he seeks.

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Tickets to join Afonso on his quest cost $38 and can be booked through SISTIC. Two sessions of the hour-long experience will be held on the evenings of 30 January, 25, 26 and 27 February, 24, 25, and 26 March and 28, 29 and 30 April 2016. More information on the The Greatest Treasure in the World can be found at the National Museum of Singapore’s website.

The cast with Peggy Ferroa (standing second from right).

The cast with Peggy Ferroa (standing second from right).

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Treasures of the World from the British Museum

8 12 2015

The British Museum’s Keeper of the Department of Asia, Ms. Jane Portal, speaking at the opening of the Treasures of the World from the British Museum exhibition.  The exhibition, which opened on 4 Dec 2015, has been brought in by the National Museum of Singapore in collaboration with the British Museum. It features 239 exceptional artefacts from the British Museum’s collection, representing a period of some 2 million years and runs to 29 May 2016. Further information on the exhibition can be found at : Highlights: Treasures of the World from the British Museum.

Ms. Jane Portal, Keeper of the Department of Asia, British Museum at the opening of the exhibition.

Ms. Jane Portal, Keeper of the Department of Asia, British Museum at the opening of the exhibition. The picture in the backdrop is of one of two Lewis Chess Piece made of Walrus Ivory from about AD 1150-1200, measuring about 9 cm in height, found on the Isle of Lewis that is on display at the exhibition.

 

 





Highlights: Treasures of the World from the British Museum

4 12 2015

It is from the treasure trove of what our ancestors have left behind that we find out much of what makes us who we are, the remarkable progress of the human race, and perhaps the common values that binds humans even the most diverse of cultures together. We have now an opportunity in Singapore to have a look at some very significant artefacts that have help to tell us the colourful and eventful story of humankind’s existence when the Treasures of the World from the British Museum exhibition opens on 5 December 2015. The exhibition, which will run for six months until 29 May 2016 , brings some of the best from the British Museum’s rather sizeable collection to the National Museum of Singapore.

Bust of Emperor Hadrian. From Tivoli, Italy. Around AD 125–130. Marble.

Bust of Emperor Hadrian. From Tivoli, Italy. Around AD 125–130. Marble.

The British Museum’s repository of history provides us with a view that spans a period of more than two million years. For the exhibition, the oldest object being brought over is an 800,000 year old hand axe. The Quartzite axe, dates to the lower Palaeolithic period and originates from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Said to be the “Cradle of Mankind”, the gorge is where some of the earliest evidence of existence of our ancestors has been found.

Stone handaxe. Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Lower Palaeolithic, about 800,000 years old. Quartzite.

Stone handaxe. Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Lower Palaeolithic, about 800,000 years old. Quartzite.

The exhibition has been laid out such that it spans out from the axe, much as humankind has spread out from the African continent. Objects are presented at a regional or continental level, providing a taste of the evolution of the diverse cultures in regions such as Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, the Americas and Oceania.

The exhibition spans out from the 800,000 year old axe.

The exhibition spans out from the 800,000 year old axe.

Among the exhibits, all of which have more than a story to tell, several caught my eye. There is the must-have mummy plus objects from the tomb from the museum’s well-known collection of Egyptian antiquities. The 2nd Century mummy, that of an adolescent boy, is particularly interesting for its “mummy portrait” – which shows the influence of the Greco-Roman tradition. The portrait – an Egyptian practice, is Roman in terms of style and technique. Such naturalistic portraits are thought to be among the finest surviving works of art from classical antiquity.

Mummy of an adolescent boy. Hawara, Egypt Roman period, AD 100–120 Human tissue, linen, gold, wax.

Mummy of an adolescent boy. Hawara, Egypt Roman period, AD 100–120
Human tissue, linen, gold, wax.

Among the funerary objects is 900 BC mummy board that gained the reputation of being an Unlucky Mummy. A series of misfortunes were attributed to the board – including a suggestion that it was onboard the ill fated SS Titanic when she sank on her maiden voyage.

Mummy-board. Probably from Thebes, Egypt Late 21st or early 22nd Dynasty, 950–900 BC Wood, painted detail on plaster.

Mummy-board. Probably from Thebes, Egypt Late 21st or early 22nd Dynasty, 950–900 BC Wood, painted detail on plaster.

Another exhibit that is worth looking at is a memorial portrait bust of a priest from Palmyra – especially so with the recent destruction of the antiquities there. The limestone bust dates from AD 150 to 200 and is identified as that of Yedibel, the son of Oge Ya’ut. The hat identifies him as a priest.

A memorial portrait bust of a priest from Palmyra, Syria.

A memorial portrait bust of a priest from Palmyra, Syria.

A set of objects from pre-Columbian America also provide a rare insight into the cultures of the period. One artefact that caught my attention is a deity mask representing Xipe Totec, a principal god of the Aztecs. The stone mask, interestingly, has a decorated inside surface carved with a four-armed figure – thought to represent a priest or the deity. Another interesting fact is that Xipe Totec means the “the flayed one”. This apparently alludes to the practice of wearing the flayed skin of sacrificial human victims during springtime planting festivals to ensure the renewal of life – the mask of dead skin was likened to dead vegetation concealing new life beneath it.

Deity mask. Mexico. Aztec (Mexica), around AD 1400–1521. Grey volcanic stone. (The reflection shows the carved inside surface).

Deity mask. Mexico. Aztec (Mexica), around AD 1400–1521. Grey volcanic stone. (The reflection shows the carved inside surface).

Lintel showing a Maya ruler. Yaxchilán, Mexico. Maya, AD 600–900. Limestone.

Lintel showing a Maya ruler. Yaxchilán, Mexico. Maya, AD 600–900. Limestone.

Besides the Aztec mask, the funerary and memorial objects, many other representations of human forms and deities are noticeable throughout the exhibition. There are some of the tallest and heaviest exhibits that are found amongst these. One seemingly friendly chap is a 2.4 metre Welcome figure of the Kwakwaka’wakw people from Vancouver Island, who holds a hand out in welcome. Another tall object and striking form is one that was one half of a pair of door posts from a New Caledonian chief’s house.

Welcome figure. Vancouver Island, Canada. Kwakwaka’wakw people, 19th century AD. Wood.

Welcome figure. Vancouver Island, Canada. Kwakwaka’wakw people, 19th century AD. Wood.

Door post. New Caledonia. 19th or early 20th century AD. Wood.

Door post. New Caledonia. 19th or early 20th century AD. Wood.

The Oceania section.

The Oceania section.

A skull holder from New Guinea.

A skull holder from New Guinea.

Two Young Explorers’ Zones, designed for children aged 7 to 12, will provide the younger ones with an excellent learning opportunity to. The zones feature activity sheets and learning stations. Also, in conjunction with the exhibition, public programmes such as workshops, curated tours, lectures by representatives from the British Museum and other historians, and theatre performances will be held. More information on this can be found at the National Museum of Singapore’s exhibition page. Admission charges apply.

An activity sheet for young explorers.

An activity sheet for young explorers.

A young explorer zone (in the foreground).

A young explorer zone (in the foreground).


Some other highlights:

Figure of a pregnant woman. Cyclades, Greece. Early Bronze Age, 2600–2400 BC. Marble.

Figure of a pregnant woman. Cyclades, Greece. Early Bronze Age, 2600–2400 BC. Marble.

During the third millennium BC, relatively prosperous and wellpopulated settlements flourished on the Cycladic islands in the central Aegean Sea. Among the most striking artistic creations of this period are schematic figures carved in marble. Most are female and are typically shown with their arms folded across the chest, the right arm always placed under the left. This well-carved example is notable for its swollen abdomen, which suggests pregnancy.

The significance of Cycladic figures has been the subject of considerable debate. Many come from graves, perhaps indicating that they were made particularly for funerary use. However, since numbers of them have also been found in settlements, they may have been important in the rituals of the living as well. The depiction of sexual characteristics, and occasionally pregnancy, points to an emphasis on female fertility.


Early erotica perhaps. Marble group of a nymph escaping from a satyr. Tivoli, Italy. 2nd century AD. Marble.

Early erotica perhaps. Marble group of a nymph escaping from a satyr. Tivoli, Italy.
2nd century AD. Marble.

In ancient Greek myth, satyrs were part-human, part-animal beings closely associated with Dionysos, the god of wine. Given to wild passion, they are often shown in art as sexual predators chasing after nymphs and maenads, the female followers of Dionysos. In this marble group, a nymph struggles to free herself from a rapacious satyr who has locked his arms around her waist. Such images of amorous wrestling couples gave vivid expression to male erotic fantasies.

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The sculpture is one of several known Roman versions of an earlier Greek work of the second or first century BC (now lost). With its complex composition of interacting bodies, designed to be seen in the round, it is typical of Hellenistic (later Greek period) art. The collector Charles Townley acquired the sculpture in 1773 through the English dealer Thomas Jenkins. It appears in the famous painting by Johan Zoffany, Charles Townley’s Library (1781–83), now in the collection of the Townley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnley, England.


The Three Crosses. Rembrandt (Harmensz van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606-1668). AD 1653. Dry point etching.

The Three Crosses. Rembrandt (Harmensz van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606-1668). AD 1653. Dry point etching.

The celebrated Dutch painter Rembrandt made over three hundred etchings, and the present work is one of his masterpieces. This scene of Christ’s crucifixion is extraordinarily dramatic on account of the bold contrast between light and shade, with the frail figure of Jesus spotlighted in the centre. The crowd of figures beneath the cross can just be made out in the gloom, an effect that heightens the sense of confusion and suffering that surrounds Christ’s death.

Rembrandt began training as an artist in Leiden at the age of 15. His skill and imagination led to great success once he moved to Amsterdam in 1631. Printmaking was a central element of his production. It supplemented his income and due to the portability of prints it also won him an international reputation, which was important to him since unlike many Dutch artists, he never travelled to Italy.

The Reformation emphasised the importance of private prayer, and prints such as this were both great works of art and a means of bringing Biblical stories vividly to life.


The heaviest treasure, approximately 1100kg. Grave Relief. Probably from Athens, Greece. 4th century BC; head re-cut in the early 1st century AD. Marble.

The heaviest treasure, approximately 1100kg. Grave Relief. Probably from Athens, Greece. 4th century BC; head re-cut in the early 1st century AD. Marble.

This grave relief depicts the idealised figure of a youth, naked but for a cloak over his left arm and shoulder. He holds a scraper or strigil, identifying him as an athlete. Although the stele and its image are of the 4th century BC, it was reused in the early 1st century AD to commemorate the death of a certain “Tryphon, son of Eutychos”. His name is inscribed on the architrave above the figure in Greek letters of the Roman period. To personalise the stele even further, the head was re-carved in contemporary Roman style. Once again, the “portrait” is idealised and may have borne no resemblance to the actual person it was intended to represent. This recycled artefact has survived in remarkably good condition.


Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles collection. General view of the temple at Borobudur. Around AD 1814. Watercolour on paper.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles collection. General view of the temple at Borobudur. Around AD 1814. Watercolour on paper.

The temple complex at Borobudur in Central Java is undoubtedly one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world. It was built in the 8th and 9th centuries under the patronage of the kings of the Saliendra dynasty (ruled around AD 775−860) as a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Shaped like a stepped pyramid, the main temple is remarkable for its terraces that are richly decorated with relief carvings and Buddha figures. The site began to decline in the 10th century as royal power shifted away from Central Java to the east, and was eventually abandoned in the 16th century.

Borobudur was brought to the attention of European audiences by Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781−1826) during his time as British Lieutenant-Governor of the island. In 1814, when Raffles was informed about a huge “lost” monument deep in the jungles near Yogyakarta, he dispatched the Dutch engineer H. C. Cornelius to investigate. With a force of 200 workers at his disposal, it took Cornelius two months to clear the site and partially reveal the huge terraced pyramid seen in this drawing. It seems likely that the image was produced for Raffles around this time.


Earliest recorded batik and Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles collection. Batik cloth. Java, Indonesia. Before AD 1816. Cotton.

Earliest recorded batik and Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles collection. Batik cloth. Java, Indonesia. Before AD 1816. Cotton. In the foreground, Dagger and scabbard. Java, Indonesia Before AD 1816. Metal, silver, wood.

Indonesia and the island of Java particularly, is unrivalled for the scope and variety of its batik textile production. Although the technique of patterning cloth through the application of wax is known in other parts of the world, it reached the highest level of refinement and complexity on Java.

This sarong skirt cloth is one of two in the British Museum that are among the earliest known examples of Javanese batik in any collection. It consists of a central panel (kepala) made up of triangular motifs (tumpal) with vertical panels to either side, and a main body (badan) on which the broken knife (parang rusak) design has been drawn. Stylistic traits, particularly the parang rusak pattern that was restricted to royalty, mark it as a piece from the Central Javanese court of Yogyakarta.

As Lieutenant-Governor of Java, Stamford Raffles visited the Yogyakarta court on two occasions, in December 1814 and again in January 1816. It is probable that the British Museum batiks were presented as diplomatic gifts on one of these state visits.

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A kris (or keris) is a type of dagger associated primarily with Indonesia and Malaysia, but also found in other areas of Southeast Asia. It is composed of three parts – the blade, the hilt and the scabbard – each of which may be decorated, with significance coming from the form and patterning. The blade is often, but not always, of a wavy shape. Worn by men, the kris was supposed to correspond with its owner’s physical proportions and temperament. As well as being weapons, kris are also heirlooms, part of ceremonial dress and a marker of social status. They are believed to have numerous magical properties, such as bringing good fortune or enhancing bravery. While a kris might bring back bad luck to one owner and have to be discarded, it could function benevolently with another individual.

This kris was collected by Sir Stamford Raffles during his posting as British Lieutenant-Governor of Java from 1811 to 1816.


Standing figure of the Buddha. Ancient Gandhara, Pakistan. AD 100–200. Grey schist.

Standing figure of the Buddha. Ancient Gandhara, Pakistan. AD 100–200. Grey schist.

Located in the region between modern northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, ancient Gandhara flourished as a major centre of Buddhism in the early centuries of the first millennium AD. Under the patronage of the ruling Kushan dynasty, numerous monasteries and shrines were constructed and furnished with narratives reliefs and devotional sculptures of the Buddha and bodhisattvas (Buddhas-to-be).

This serene figure, carved in grey schist, is representative of the classic Gandharan image. Draped in an elegant monastic robe, the Buddha assumes abhayamudra, the gesture of reassurance, offering protection to the worshipper with his raised hand (now lost). The halo surrounding the head signals his enlightened status. The sculptural traditions of Gandhara were greatly influenced by Greco-Roman prototypes, as is revealed here in the deeply cut folds of the robe and treatment of the hair.


(L) Painting of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra. Tang dynasty, around AD 750–850. Ink and colours on silk. (R) Painting of Lokapala Virūpākṣa, Guardian of the West. Tang dynasty, around AD 850–900. Ink and colours on silk.

(L) Painting of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra. Tang dynasty, around AD 750–850. Ink and colours on silk. (R) Painting of Lokapala Virūpākṣa, Guardian of the West. Tang dynasty, around AD 850–900. Ink and colours on silk.

The subject of this painting is the bodhisattva Samantabhadra, the special patron of the followers of the Lotus Sutra. He is shown seated on a lotus and riding a six-tusked white elephant, his familiar mount. During the Tang dynasty (AD 618–906) Samantabhadra was closely associated with Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva of wisdom, and the painting may have been one of a pair of votive banners that were hung together for use in worship. Though the colours are today quite faded, in its original state the painting would have featured sumptuous highlights in blue, yellow, pink and red.

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This painting shows the lokapala Virūpākṣa, one of four heavenly kings who together protect the cardinal points of north, south east and west. He is depicted holding a sword, the jewelled scabbard of which rests directly on a demon’s head, only the sparse red hair of which remains. As with many such banners from Dunhuang, the image originally featured borders down each side and a band of lozenges at the bottom.


One of two brass plaques. Benin, Nigeria. Edo people, 16th century AD. Brass.

One of two brass plaques. Benin, Nigeria. Edo people, 16th century AD. Brass.

The powerful West African kingdom of Benin is famous for its brass castings, and particularly for its relief plaques which are unique in Africa. They were made from around 1550 to 1650 and were probably produced in matching pairs to clad the wooden pillars of the royal palace in Benin City. The palace was the centre of political and religious activities that ensured the well-being of the entire Edo state.

Some of the plaques portray important historical events while others depict scenes from court life and ritual. Both plaques illustrated here are dominated by the imposing figure of the Oba, or king, of Benin. On the left (a), the Oba is shown in the act of sacrificing a cow, assisted by five male priests who hold the animal’s legs and head still for him. He wears several items of royal regalia, including an elaborate headdress and necklace that signify his elevated social status and power. On the right hand plaque (b), the Oba is depicted with a spear in one hand and shield in the other. On his belt is a brass ornament in the form of a leopard’s head; the leopard being one of several creatures closely connected with royal power and authority. In the upper corners a pair of Portuguese traders are shown, each carrying a gift for the king. Depicted below are two attendants wearing pangolin (scaly anteater) skin helmets of the type associated with the leopard hunter’s guild.


Book of the Dead papyrus. Egypt. 21st Dynasty, 1069–945 BC. Ink on papyrus.

Book of the Dead papyrus. Egypt. 21st Dynasty, 1069–945 BC. Ink on papyrus.

This sheet of papyrus comes from one of the longest illustrated manuscripts of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead to have survived. Originally over 37 metres long, it is now cut into 96 separate sheets. The Book of the Dead was a collection of spells, typically written on papyrus and placed in the tomb. These spells ensured that the deceased had access to the knowledge required to be successfully reborn into an eternal life. This sheet records part of spell 17, a long and complex discussion of the nature of the creatorgod. The illustration depicts the falcon headed sun-god Ra-Horakhty wearing a headdress composed of the solar disc.

The manuscript was made for a woman named Nestanebisheru, the daughter of the High Priest of Amun Pinedjem II. In this particular illustration, she is seen kneeling in front of Ra-Horakhty, raising her hands in adoration. She is accompanied by her spirit (ba) in the form of a bird with a human head.


(L) A divine attendant Nimrud, northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, 810–800 BC. Limestone. (R) Relief showing a protective spirit. North-West Palace, Nimrud, northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, around 875–860 BC. Gypsum.

(L) Second heaviest treasure. A divine attendant Nimrud, northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, 810–800 BC. Limestone. (R) Relief showing a protective spirit. North-West Palace, Nimrud, northern Iraq. Neo-Assyrian, around 875–860 BC. Gypsum.

This is one of a pair of guardian deity figures that stand in an attitude of attendance. The figures originally flanked a doorway in the temple of Nabu, an important god of writing, in the Assyrian capital of Kalhu (modern Nimrud). The cuneiform inscription carved around the guardian’s body states that they were dedicated to Nabu by the local governor, on his own behalf and on behalf of king Adadnirari (ruled 811–783 BC) and the queen mother Sammuramat. The inscription ends with the request that the reader should trust Nabu above all others.

The statues were discovered at Nimrud in 1854 by Hormuzd Rassam, who was excavating the site on behalf of the British Museum. According to his account, there was another pair of statues without inscriptions carrying basins, but these were subsequently lost or destroyed.

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This relief from a royal palace shows an Assyrian protective spirit. The winged eagle-headed spirit, originally one of a pair that reached out and touched the “sacred tree”, carries a tree cone or “purifier” that was probably covered in liquid from the bucket. The sacred tree, partly preserved on the left, possibly represents the fertility of the land.

The decoration of Assyrian palaces with extensive stone bas-reliefs was an innovation from the West first found in the palace of king Ashurnasirpal II (ruled 883−859 BC) at Nimrud. While some of the decoration in this palace, particularly in the throne room, was narrative and depicted events, the majority of reliefs depict protective spirits that were designed to ensure the well-being and prosperity of the palace’s inhabitants and Ashurnasirpal’s kingdom.


Ivory figure of St. Joseph. Hispano Philippine. 17th Century AD. Ivory, gilded.

Ivory figure of St. Joseph. Hispano Philippine. 17th Century AD. Ivory, gilded.

This carved ivory figure of St. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, was produced in a workshop in Manila. Many fine ivory figures of Christian saints like this were produced in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Philippines was under Spanish control. They were intended for churches, monasteries and wealthy homes in the Americas and Spain.


Ru dish with emperor's inscription. Qingliangsi, Henan province, China. AD 1086-1125. Stoneware with celadon glaze.

Ru dish with emperor’s inscription. Qingliangsi, Henan province, China. AD 1086-1125. Stoneware with celadon glaze.

Ru is the rarest of all the major Chinese ceramic wares. It is greatly admired for its elegant forms and duck egg blue glaze. The pink blushes on the glaze of this dish may have been caused by the great fire at the Chinese imperial palace in Beijing in 1923. On the base is an inscription by the Qianhong emperor (ruled AD 1736-1795), which comments on the quality of the vessel.


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The National Gallery Singapore: a sneak peek

23 11 2015

After five long years, the transformation of two of Singapore most recognisable National Monuments, the former Supreme Court and City Hall into the National Gallery Singapore, is finally complete. The new cultural institution, which oversees the largest collection of modern art in Southeast Asia, will open its doors to the public tomorrow – an event that is being accompanied with a big bash.

Visitors to the gallery can expect to see a display of Singapore and Southeast Asian art drawn from Singapore’s huge National Collection in the permanent exhibitions, Siapa Nama Kamu? – featuring close to 400 works of Singapore art since the 19th Century, and Between Declarations and Dreams, which features close to 400 works of Southeast Asian art from the same period.   There will also be two special exhibitions that can be caught from 26 Nov 2015 to 3 May 2016. One, Beauty Beyond Form, features the donated works of traditional Chinese painter, Wu Guanzhong. The other After the Rain, will see 38 works of one of Singapore’s leading ink painters, Chua Ek Kay on display. Also on display will be the beautifully restored interiors of the two buildings, and the stunning impact the architectural interventions have had on them (see also : The National Gallery, Naked).

More information on the National Museum’s opening celebrations and visitor information can be found on the celebrations brochure (pdf) and also at the National Gallery Singapore’s website. Admission to the National Gallery Singapore will be free for all visitors from 24 November to 6 December 2015.


A Sneak Peek at the National Gallery Singapore

The former Supreme Court, which houses the galleries of the UOB Southeast Asia Gallery

Art in a former courtroom.

Art in a former courtroom.

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The former Courtroom No. 1.

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Manit Sriwanichpoom’s Shocking Pink Collection.

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Reflections on the Rotunda Dome.

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The former Courtroom No. 1.

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The spiral staircase to the main Supreme Court dome.

An art resource centre in the former Rotunda Library.

An art resource centre in the former Rotunda Library.

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Inside the resource centre.

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City Hall, which houses the DBS Singapore Gallery, the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, the Wu Guanzhong Gallery and several education centres

The Keppel Centre for Art Education.

The Keppel Centre for Art Education.

Chua Mia Te's Epic Poem of Malaya.

Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem of Malaya.

Liu Kang's Life by the River.

Liu Kang’s Life by the River.

The DBS Singapore Gallery.

The DBS Singapore Gallery.

Lots to think about ...

Lots to think about …

City Hall Chamber.

City Hall Chamber.

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The red SG50 Steinway.

The red SG50 Steinway.

Not quite a permanent display.

Not quite a permanent display.


Miscellaneous Views (see also: The National Gallery, naked)

The columns of City Hall.

The columns of City Hall.

Corridors of the former Supreme Court - the original rubber tiles, which contained asbestos, had to be replaced.

Corridors of the former Supreme Court – the original rubber tiles, which contained asbestos, had to be replaced.

Another view.

Another view.

The former City Hall Courtyard.

The former City Hall Courtyard.

Roof terrace bars at City Hall.

The roof terrace bars at City Hall …

... provides stunning views of the cityscape.

… provide stunning views of the cityscape.

The view of the Padang, the Esplanade and Marina Bay Sands from the roof terrace.

The view of the Padang, the Esplanade and Marina Bay Sands from the roof terrace.

 

 





Beauty isn’t only skin deep

28 10 2015

There is nothing like the sheer elegance of a well crafted article of leather, especially one that comes from a house that has a long tradition of fine craftsmanship in skins. The house, Hermès, which had its beginnings as a master harness-maker and later as saddlemakers, has just that. Founded in Paris in 1837 by Thierry Hermès, the house has come a long way in the business of creating and crafting fine objects of desire from some of the most beautiful skins in the world.

Inside Hermès' wonderful Little Room of Wanders at Empress Place.

Inside Hermès’ wonderful Little Room of Wanders at Empress Place – a rare show of objects from Emile Hermès’ collection which is now a source of inspiration for the house’s designers.

As a treat specially crafted for this jubilee year, the house gives us in Singapore an opportunity to step into the world of fine leather craftsmanship in a exhibition Leather Forever that runs from 25 October to 13 December at the ArtScience Museum. The exhibition, which also includes a prelude to it at the Little Room of Wanders at Empress Place, takes visitors through some of the inspirations behind its creations, to the art and craft of leather working and to the house’s intriguing range of products that include some rather quirky looking items from its Special Orders  Workshop.

A side facing saddle for a woman in the Little Room of Wanders.

A side facing saddle designed to seat a woman in the Little Room of Wanders.

Equestrian objects such as spurs feature in the collection.

Equestrian objects such as spurs feature in the collection.

A intricately decorate trunk from Spain.

A intricately decorated trunk from Spain.

The Little Room of Wanders offers a rare peek into Emile Hermès' collection.

The Little Room of Wanders offers a rare peek into Emile Hermès’ collection.

Especially fascinating is Hermès’ Little Room of Wanders which contains a rare public display of a selection of objects from the incredible collection of Emile Hermès, the grandson of the founder. Emile Hermès, who took over the business in the early 1900s, had spent a lifetime assembling some a 15,000 item collection. Now housed in the private by-appointment-only Emile Hermès Museum, the collection of  objects of art, equestrian objects, ingenious mechanisms, books and the most unusual of knick-knacks has since become a source of inspiration for Hermès’ designers.

A camera shaped flask in the collection.

A camera shaped flask in the collection.

A close-up of a saddle from China.

A close-up of a saddle from China.

A travel case in the collection.

A travel case in the collection.

The exhibition proper, Leather Forever, at the ArtScience Musuem is also well worth a look at. This starts with visitors having a look at some of the background work in Hermès’ creations in its leather reserve seen in the Savoire Faire section. Here an introduction is give to the classification, cutting and assembly of skins. What must certainly be a treat will be a chance to see artisans, flown specially in from the house’s Parisian workshops, at work in recreating some of the house’s iconic leather bags.

An artisan from Hermès' Paris workshop at work at the ArtScience Museum.

An artisan from Hermès’ Paris workshop at work at the ArtScience Museum.

Part of Hermès' Leather Reserve.

Part of Hermès’ Leather Reserve.

A demo of how the leather is prepared for cutting.

A demo of how the leather is prepared for cutting.

Finished objects of desire.

Finished objects of desire.

Speaking of icons, a selection of the house’s range of its legendary Kellys and Birkins, are also conspicuously on show along with variations as well as other leather crafted objects that the house’s icons have inspired. Among the variations of the Kelly, which was re-christened after Princess Grace (Kelly) of Monaco used it famously to conceal her pregnancy from the paparazzi, or as the house puts it, as a bodyguard for the future Princess Caroline, are five Kellydoll bags on display designed to each represent each decade of Singapore’s independence.

Variations on the legendary Kelly.

Variations on the legendary Kelly.

Horsing around with a rocking Kelly.

Horsing around with a rocking Kelly.

One of the five Kellydoll bags designed to each represent a decade of Singapore's independence.

One of the five Kellydoll bags designed to each represent a decade of Singapore’s independence.

The exhibitions are opened from 10am to 7pm from Saturday to Thursday and from 10am to 9pm on Friday and admission is free. More information on them can be found at http://lfe.hermes.com/sg/en.

The first ever bag with a zipper, aka the

The first ever bag with a zipper, aka the “Hermès Fastener,” fitted to it. Emile Hermès held a patent for the zipper which was fitted to a bag designed to be quickly secured for the age of the automobile.

A saddle leather bustier designed Jean Paul Gaultier for Hermès (notice the Kelly inspired straps).

A saddle leather bustier designed Jean Paul Gaultier for Hermès (notice the Kelly inspired straps).

A baseball glove out of the Special Orders Workshop.

A baseball glove out of the Special Orders Workshop.

An apple carrier (complete with knife and holder) on loan from its owner who commissioned it to allow him to carry his apple a day.

An apple carrier (complete with knife and holder) on loan from its owner who commissioned it to allow him to carry his apple a day.

A gift commissioned by the Duke of Windsor for Wallis Simpson, a leather wheelbarrow, inspired by his observation that the duchess already had

A gift commissioned in 1947 by the Duke of Windsor for Wallis Simpson, a leather wheelbarrow, inspired by the Duke’s observation that the duchess already had “wheelbarrows” of fragrances and gloves.

A winged saddle made at Hermès Sellerie workshop.

A winged saddle made at Hermès Sellerie workshop.

Zouzou, a ostrich skin rhino created by Leïla Menchari for the windows of the 24 Faubourg Saint Honoré store in 1978 at the entrance to the exhibition.

Zouzou, a ostrich skin rhino created by Leïla Menchari for the windows of the 24 Faubourg Saint Honoré store in 1978 at the entrance to the exhibition.

The exhibition gives visitors a chance to horse around.

The exhibition gives visitors a chance to horse around.

A case of miniatures.

A case of miniatures.

A door bolt inspired fastener.

A door bolt inspired fastener.

A flight of fancy on a motorcycle.

A flight of fancy on a motorcycle.

Travel cases from the days when the romance of travel was at its height.

Travel cases from the days when the romance of travel was at its height.

A travel wardrobe.

A travel wardrobe.

A dance inspired leather bag.

A dance inspired leather bag.








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