The knight whose works enriched a “cultural desert”

16 06 2017

I have long been fascinated by Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli, the Italian sculptor who spent a better part of his life in Southeast Asia. Over a period spanning 35 years, his mastery in pre-cast decorative mouldings and finishes provided many of Singapore’s buildings with a finishing touch. All in all he would spend 42 years away from his native Italy, leaving his mark not just in Singapore, but also in Siam, Malaya and Brunei.

Collyer Quay at the end of the 1920s, a world that Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli had a hand in decorating.

Of the numerous structures Cavaliere Nolli lent a hand to in Singapore, it is on the old Supreme Court that we see his impressive works. Built in 1939, the old Supreme Court features the largest concentration of Cavaliere Nolli’s efforts now found in the city-state. His decorative and finishing touches cover the grand old dame’s exterior with the exception of the friezes on the porch and a now missing coat of arms. It is however the massive sculptural pieces that adorn its pediment that is most eye-catching. Weighing a total of 13 tons, and measuring 2.7 metres high at the apex and 11 metres wide, the sculptural depiction of the Allegory of Justice in very classical form is the grandest of works that Cavaliere Nolli has here to his name. It is not just the sheer scale of the work that will impress, but also the display of artistic mastery found in the sculptures.

Much of the exterior decorative work on the old Supreme Court (now the Supreme Court Wing of the National Gallery) can be attributed to Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli.

Cavaliere Nolli considered his efforts on the old Supreme Court to be his “proudest achievement”. They would have provided him with at least some measure of having achieved an ambition he had hoped to achieve by coming across to Asia in 1913 – to make a name as a famous sculptor. Once here, he found Singapore especially to be a “cultural desert” and most of what he did would be in a capacity as a stonework contractor.

A map showing the reach of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli’s work in Southeast Asia (Exhibtion panel from “The Italian Connection”).

As a stonework contractor, Cavaliere Nolli worked tirelessly. He excelled in plasterwork – a skill he picked up working on the finishing on the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok – and also in casting artificial stone. There was particularly in high demand for the latter driven by the use of new building techniques such as the use of reinforced concrete. He produced artificial stone finishing tiles to clad these new edifices. These granolithic tiles, made from cement with aggregate mixed in, gave the new buildings the appearance of having been built out of solid granite without the expense involved. The lightweight tiles were made very economically through the use of moulds. This allowed both repeatability and consistency necessary for mass production.

The Billiard Room of the Singapore Club – showing the exquisite plasterwork of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli on its barrel vaulted ceiling. The room is now the Straits Room in the Fullerton Hotel (The Fullerton Heritage).

The technique could also extended to produce stone-like ornamental pieces and other decorative elements such as crests and coats of arms. It was for such work, commissioned for the completion of the (second) Ocean Building, that drew Cavaliere Nolli from Bangkok in 1921. Cavaliere Nolli was also employed to provide similar finishes for the Union Building and the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers, two more additions made to Collyer Quay in the 1920s.

A close-up of the smooth granolithic finish on the exterior of the old Supreme Court.

Nolli was heavily involved in the decorations of many more of the decade’s new buildings such as the David Elias Building, Connell House and the Netherlands Trading Society Building. Castings of crests, coats of arms and semi-sculptural work were also popular and that same decade, the Edward VII College of Medcine, Elgin Bridge, Crawford Bridge, and the Fullerton Building were beneficiaries of this work. Much, much more was to follow. Granolithic finishes produced by Nolli found their way to numerous new erections, one of which was the old Supreme Court.

One of the works of Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli on the (Edward VII) College of Medicine Building – an eagle with spread wings (a symbol of protection).

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli’s skills in casting, also extended to the production of artificial stone columns and their capitals. The Ionic capitals he produced for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Chambers was one of the first he worked on. Also out of Cavaliere Nolli’s Scotts Road workshop were the huge columns and intricate Corinthian capitals that we see on the old Supreme Court.

Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli at the top of the old Supreme Court with a close up of the columns and the intricate Corinthian capitals that were cast by him (Lina Brunner Collection, National Archives of Singapore).

Cavaliere Nolli was bestowed with the Order of the Crown of Italy – a form of knighthood that carried with it the title Cavaliere – in 1925. While his life here may have appeared to have gone on rather smoothly, it was not without incident or setback. A motoring accident, early one Sunday morning in October 1934 at Meyer Road, left him seriously injured. Both of the sculptor’s arms were fractured and he required surgery on the right arm. A citizen of one of the Axis states, Cavaliere Nolli was also interned in Australia during the Second World War from 1941 to 1945. On his return to Singapore in 1946, he found his Scotts Road studio and workshop in a rather poor state. All that he had left in it was also missing, including a collection of over 300 art books and his set of tools.

One of the first postwar works Cavaliere Nolli produced was this precast crest for Hongkong and Shanghai Bank on MacDonald House in Orchard Road.

Cavaliere Nolli overcame that setback and received several commissions before his retirement in 1956. Among his last works in Singapore were a pair of sculptured stone lions for the Bank of China and a coloured sculptured plaque for Van Kleef Aquarium. The last large scale project he worked on before his retirement was the decorative stonework for the magnificent Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Bagawan, Brunei. He returned to his native Italy following his retirement and passed away in December 1963 at the age of 75. He left a daughter, the then Hong Kong based Mrs Lina Brunner, behind.

One of Cavaliere Nolli’s last works in Singapore was a pair of lions for the Bank of China. Left: Cavaliere Nolli with one of the lions in his studio (Lina Brunner Collection, National Archives of Singapore). Right: The pair of lions seen today.

To discover more on Cavaliere Nolli’s life and work and his reach outside of Singapore, do visit The Italian Connection, which I had a hand in curating for The Fullerton Hotel. Held at the East Garden Foyer of The Fullerton Hotel, the exhibition has been put up as part of the Fullerton Building’s 89th Anniversary this June. Besides providing a glance at Cavaliere Nolli’s life, the exhibition also looks at the Italian community and  its connections with modern Singapore that go back to the early 19th century. There is also that connection that the Fullerton Building has, through Cavaliere Nolli at its very beginnings and today through the illustrious General Manager of The Fullerton Heritage, Cavaliere Giovanni Viterale.

One of Cavaliere Nolli’s more obscure works – reliefs of angels made for the chapel of St. Anthony’s Convent in 1952.


More on the exhibition and the works Cavaliere Rodolfo Nolli can also be found at:


The old Supreme Court’s Allegory of Justice

Cavaliere Nolli’s Allegory of Justice in the tympanum of the old Supreme Court.

The old Supreme Court’s sculptures, which took Cavaliere Nolli more than a year to complete, are as interesting as they are impressive. Its centrepiece is Lady Justice, which alone weighs 4 tons. Quite noticeably missing is the blindfold, an attribute thought to be central to the depictions of Justice representing impartiality.

There has been many suggestions as to why this may be so, but Justice’s depiction in this manner is actually quite consistent with many classical representations through history, which Cavaliere Nolli would have drawn inspiration from. A beautifully executed example of this is Luca Giordano’s 1680s Allegory of Justice. The blindfold, the use of which was apparently popularised in the 16th century, is also missing from several well-known depictions of Lady Justice, such as in the Old Bailey.

Two other attributes of Lady Justice, a pair of scales and a sword turned downwards, are in plain sight. The scales, weighing evidence, are positioned well above the sword delivering punishment; the symbolism of this being that evidence and court takes precedence above punishment in the administration of justice.

As with many classical representations, deceit, discord and strife is counterbalanced by the order and security that the administration of the law achieves. Deceit, represented by the the two-headed snake, is seen biting a man far to Justice’s right. Legislators and the bent figure of a supplicant, begging for mercy, are also depicted and represent the administration of justice. The fruits of order and security – abundance and prosperity – can be seen in the bull and a farmer leading a rich harvest of wheat on Justice’s left.


The old Supreme Court friezes and works incorrectly attributed to Nolli

The old Supreme Court friezes, which some have attributed to Cavaliere Nolli, are the work of Alec Wagstaff. They were based on designs made by George Thomas Squires as part of a competition. The son of the illustrious Hong Kong based British sculptor W W Wagstaff, Alec was killed in action during the Second World War. Squires, who lived at the Crescent Flats in Meyer Road, as it turns out was the father of Isabel Mary Ferrie – the wife of James Westwater Ferrie. Ferrie was a well-known figure in the field of architecture as well as being an artist known for his watercolours of local seascapes. Many were painted at his house by the sea in Sembawang, His architectural firm, James Ferrie & Partners, is now run by a son Alasdair. 

A number of other prominent sculptural works have also been incorrectly attributed to Cavaliere Nolli. These include the triumphal figures on the façade of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, as well as the two lions of the Merdeka Bridge monument now hidden away in SAFTI Military Institute. Both sets of works were in fact contracted to Signor Raoul Bigazzi, a Florence based sculptor and businessman. Signor Bigazzi ran a successful marble supply and sculptural business and took on quite a fair bit of work in Asia. The railway station’s sculptures were crafted by his firm’s artistic director Professor Angelo Vannetti. The Merdeka Bridge lions were sculptured in the Philippines based on a design made by Mr L W Carpenter of the Public Works Department.

The friezes seen on the porch of the old Supreme Court are the works of Alec Wagstaff, the son of Hong Kong based sculptor W W Wagstaff.


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To infinity and beyond with Yayoi Kusama

9 06 2017

Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow opens at the National Gallery Singapore today. The highly anticipated exhibition takes visitors through the preeminent Japanese contemporary artist’s seven decade long career. Even if you are not a big on her artistic expressions – which are attempts to give form to her delusions – the exhibition is worth a visit just for the opportunity to be obliterated by the artist’s mirrored installations. Admission charges apply for exhibition, which runs until 3 Sep 2017. More information, including that on talks, workshops and other exhibition related activities can be obtained at the National Gallery Singapore’s website.

A video installation, Song of a Manhattan Suicide Addict.

A must visit infinity mirrored room: Gleaming Lights of the Souls.

Reflections off a mirrored box installation, I Want to Love on the Festival Night.

A peek into I Want to Love on the Festival Night.

Another peek into I Want to Love on the Festival Night.

Invisible Life.

Another must visit mirrored room: The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens.

The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens.

The Spirits of the Pumpkins Descended into the Heavens.

Statue of Venus Obliterated by Infinity Nets.

It takes balls of steel – Narcissus Garden in the City Hall Chamber.

A view across Gallery A. The exhibition is spread across three galleries of the SINGTEL Special Exhibition Gallery on the Level 3 of the City Hall Wing.

Left-over Snow in a Dream, a soft sculpture from 1982. The artist applied sewing skills she picked up working in a parachute factory as a schoolgirl during the Second World War.

Women’s Castle.





Great fun for the young ones at the National Gallery

27 05 2017

The National Gallery Singapore’s inaugural Gallery Children’s Biennale, themed Dreams and Stories, opened to a bang last week and on offer is one of the many exciting events our very fortunate children in Singapore can indulge in this school holiday season. Great fun for the young ones, the festival features interactive art showcases, performances and activities curated for kids and the young at heart and runs until 8 October 2017. More information can be found at https://www.nationalgallery.sg/see-do/highlights/childrens-biennale-2017.

Minister Tan Chuan Jin opening the Children’s Biennale.


Some highlights

Joining the dots – Yayoi Kusama style, at The Obliteration Room.

Not water under this bridge – Mark Justiani’s ‘Firewalk: A Bridge Of Embers’.

It takes balls – TeamLab’s Homogenizing And Transforming World.

Lynn Lu’s growing mess of memories penned on ribbons – This Changed My Life.

Where participants get to pen memories on ribbons and put them up.

Head in the clouds? Lynn Lu’s Duplet.

Flowers with stories – Tran Trong Vu’s The Sonnet in Blue.

Poem / Stories on handmade flower petals.






The Singapore Biennale 2016

2 11 2016

The 5th edition of the Singapore Biennale,”An Atlas of Mirrors”,  opened last week. Running until 26 February 2017, this year’s edition features works by 63 artists and art collectives from 19 countries and territories across Southeast Asia, East and South Asia that have a strong element of history in them. Curated around nine sub-themes the works are being displayed across eight locations with the Singapore Art Museum and SAM at 8Q as anchor venues. More information on the programmes, venues, artwork and ticketing can be found at the Singapore Biennale 2016’s website.

The Great East Indiaman by David Chan on the National Museum of Singapore's front lawn.

The Great East Indiaman by David Chan on the National Museum of Singapore’s front lawn.

Giving art a finger - Lim Soo Ngee's Inscription of the Island.

Giving art a finger – Lim Soo Ngee’s Inscription of the Island.


A selection of installations

Titarubi - History Repeats Itself at SAM. Featuring robes of gold coated nutmegs, it recalls the legacy of colonial conquest. to facilitate the control of the valuable trade in a spice said to have been worth its weight in gold.

Titarubi – History Repeats Itself at SAM. Featuring robes of gold coated nutmegs, it recalls the legacy of colonial conquest. to facilitate the control of the valuable trade in a spice said to have been worth its weight in gold.

The dreams of a Shaman's wife. Tcheu Siong, a Hmong shaman's wife has her dreams reinterpreted as 'story' clothes in which one finds the spirits she sees in her dreams, represented by the lanky figures alongside representations of mountains, humans and animals.

At SAM, the dreams of a Shaman’s wife. Tcheu Siong, a Hmong shaman’s wife has her dreams reinterpreted as ‘story’ clothes in which one finds the spirits she sees in her dreams, represented by the lanky figures alongside representations of mountains, humans and animals.

Also presented alongside are the works of Tcheu Siong's husband, Phasao Lao.

Also presented alongside are History, the works of Tcheu Siong’s husband, Phasao Lao.

Paracosmos by Harumi Yukutake at the SAM.

Paracosmos by Harumi Yukutake at the SAM.

Rubbish by Kentaro Hiroki, which features recreated items of rubbish picked by the artist.. On display at both SAM and 8Q.

Rubbish by Kentaro Hiroki, which features recreated items of rubbish picked by the artist.. On display at both SAM and 8Q.

Rubbish attrracting a crowd at SAM.

Rubbish attrracting a crowd at SAM.

Another view of Inscription of the Island, by Lim Soo Ngee.

Another view of Inscription of the Island, by Lim Soo Ngee.

Freakily leeky - Chia Chuyia's Knitting the Future at 8Q. The artist knits leeks to create a body length garment over a five week period. Leeks, as a food item, hold significance to the Teochew community to which the artist belongs.

Freakily leeky – Chia Chuyia’s Knitting the Future at 8Q. The artist knits leeks to create a body length garment over a five week period. Leeks, as a food item, hold significance to the Teochew community to which the artist belongs.

Knitting the Future.

Knitting the Future.

Rathin Barman's Home, and a Home, inspired by the experiences of the migrant Bangladeshi community in Singapore.

Rathin Barman’s Home, and a Home, inspired by the experiences of the migrant Bangladeshi community in Singapore.

Melissa Tan and her If you can dream a better world you can make a better world or perhaps travel between them.

Melissa Tan and her If you can dream a better world you can make a better world or perhaps travel between them.

Music boxes - which feature impressions made by physical features are part of teh installation.

Music boxes – which feature impressions made by physical features are part of the installation.

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The Great East Indiaman features a recreation of the whale skeleton that once hung inside the National Museum of Singapore in wood.

The Great East Indiaman features a recreation of the whale skeleton that once hung inside the National Museum of Singapore in wood.





Exploring emptiness: Kamolpan Chotvichai’s Fragility of the Self

23 09 2016

An interesting exhibition that will open at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery at Gillman Barracks this evening is emerging Thai artist Kamolpan Chotvichai’s “Fragility of the Self“. The solo exhibition features thought provoking works each of which is an image of the artist’s body with parts of her anatomy hand-cut into a ribbon like form. The works explore the concept of emptiness in Buddhism, through the process of stripping away her physical form and challenge  at the same time gender based prohibitions.

Ms. Kamolpan Chotvichai at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery.

Ms. Kamolpan Chotvichai at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery.

The process to create the works is a painstaking one that starts with a sketch and involves a fair bit of detailed planning. The process of slicing parts of the images for which Ms Chotvichai uses an ordinary utility knife, takes two weeks on the average. Ms Chotvichai, who holds a Master of Fine Arts degree, experimented with several techniques to achieve the desired effects prior to settling on her current methods.

Her work has been featured at Saatchi Gallery in London alongside those of renowned Thai artists Rirkrit Tiravanija, Navin Rawanchaikul and Udomsak Krisanamis and was chosen for the cover of the book accompanying the exhibition, Thailand Eye. Ms. Chotvichai was also the youngest artist to participate in Frontiers Reimagined, an exhibition of global art – a Collateral Event of the 56th Venice Biennale.

The exhibition held in association with the 5th edition of the Singapore International Photography Festival, will run until 9 November 2016. Ms. Chotvichai, who is in town for the opening of her exhibition, will be having an Artist Talk on Saturday 24 September 24 at 3 pm for which registration is required through this email address: rsvpsg@sundaramtagore.com. More information on the exhibition can be found at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery’s website.





Dali at the REDSEA

11 09 2016

The Pierre Argillet Collection, the result of a partnership over a thirty year period between the master of surrealism Salvador Dali and his publisher Pierre Argillet, is being brought to us in Singapore for a second time in just over two years.

A selection of etchings and watercolours, and also Aubusson tapestries and porcelain that has never been seen here, will be available for viewing and acquisition at the REDSEA Gallery from 11 September to 5 October 2016 at an exhibition, “Salvador Dali & Pierre Argillet: Thirty Years of Collection”.

The exhibition will provide an opportunity to hear from Pierre Argillet’s daughter, Christine, whose summers spent in the company of Dali has allowed her to gain an intimate understanding of the artist and the works the collection. This opportunity will come through a Q&A Session on 11 September 2016 at 2 to 3 pm being held at the gallery. The gallery is also providing public guided tours on 17 and 24 September, and on 1 October, at 2 to 3 pm.


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Madame Argillet describing how two copper plates were used to produce the etching Pegasus.

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Another etching with a mythological theme, Saturn.

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Medusa, for which an octopus Dali found on the beach was used to produce the etching on a copper plate.

Women in Waves. The circular patterns were made during a public appearance at which Dali was high on LSD. He rescued the effort by adding the figure of a woman to the etching.

Women in Waves. The circular patterns were made during a public appearance at which Dali was high on LSD. He rescued the effort by adding the figure of a woman to the etching.

Theseus and Minotaurus, a combination of random splashes of acid with finely sketched etchings.

Theseus and Minotaurus, a combination of random splashes of acid with finely sketched etchings.

One from the Hippie Series, Old Hippie.

One from the Hippie Series, The Old Hippie.

Bullfight with Drawer from the Surrealistic Bullfight series, which was inspired by Picasso’s “Tauromachie” series.

Bullfight with Drawer from the Surrealistic Bullfight series, which was inspired by Picasso’s “Tauromachie” series.

Piano under Snow, in which you can see the shape of the hat and also the face of a Matador.

Piano under Snow, in which you can see the shape of the hat and also the face of a Matador.

Seen for the first time in Singapore, limited edition porcelain plates developed in 1973 and made in Limoges.

Seen for the first time in Singapore, limited edition porcelain plates developed in 1973 and made in Limoges.

Each plate is individually numbered.

Each plate is individually numbered.

An Aubusson Tapestry of Argus.

An Aubusson Tapestry based on the etching, Argus.

Two copper plates, on display for the first time ever, can be viewed at the exhibition.

Two copper plates, on display for the first time ever, can be viewed at the exhibition.






Art Stage Singapore 2016

21 01 2016

Southeast Asia’s flagship art fair, Art Stage Singapore, is back for its sixth  edition. The four day event, with an intended focus placed on contemporary Southeast Asian art, is being held at Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention from 21 to 24 January 2016.

The sin-full creations of Kittisak Thapkoa at Number1Gallery.

A reflection on Qin Chong’s Evolving Ink.

For 2016, Art Stage Singapore brings the Southeast Asia Forum – an extension of the Southeast Asia Platform it introduced in 2014. The forum in its inaugural year is titled Seismograph: Sensing the City – Art in the Urban Age – and has an emphasis on urbanisation and will have both an exhibition and a talk component. The projects of 19 Southeast Asian artists, which relate to issues and sentiments in the wake of rapid urbanisation in their own countries, will be brought into focus. More information on the Southeast Asia Forum can be found here.

Takeshi Haguri’s Tengu, presented by Toki-no-wasuremono.

Entang Wiharso’s Feast Table: Undeclared Perceptions presented by ARNDT.

This year’s fair, the anchor event for Singapore Art Week, features 173 galleries from 34 countries with some 75% or 133 galleries from Asia. Art Stage Singapore 2016 will also see several public artworks being exhibited at public areas, a special exhibition of photographs and oil paintings by Hannes Schmid – best known for his iconic Marlboro Man series in the 1990s, and a return of Video Stage .  The fair runs until Sunday. More information on it can be found at http://www.artstagesingapore.com/.

Yayoi Kusama’s Kei-Chan and Reach up to Heaven ‐ Dotty Pumpkin (Black) presented by Opera Gallery.

Close-up of Pink Collar by Ma Han – a public artwork.

The $170.4 million sale in 2015 of Modigliani’s “Nu Couché” to a Chinese based collector points to the rise of Asia in the International art market according to Art Stage President and founder Lorenzo Rudolf.








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