By Daniel Chong
If you were told that a grandmaster of 20th century modern art from France is exhibiting in Malaysia, would you believe it?
It’s true! And you read it here first!
But which art icon would show in Malaysia and where? Most certainly not at our Balai Seni Lukis Negara! That’s a space in constant motion, rebuilding roofs and websites, revolving directors and excavating for missing artworks. Very little of it forward looking though, as its too busy rehashing old thematic shows, regurgitating the same talents or respecting the national cultural political policies, to show any truly internationally reputed masters or masterpieces.
Must be at Galeri Petronas then ya? Tak. This space is doing the work that that other space should be doing. Thus along with all the ‘Malaysia Boleh-lah’ type fanfair you already get at Balai, for several years now, tokoh-tokoh seni like Latiff Mohidin, Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, and Chang Fee Ming have sought out the cari-gali gallery to seal their national reputation with big budget shows. Somehow, Galeri Petronas has not really tested itself and attracted world class events like its sister Dewan Filharmonik Petronas has, even though both spaces are built to international standards and have access to loaded coffers.
So if it is neither a national public institution nor a corporate power, where else in Malaysia can the money and expertise be found to bring in the work of a true seni sifu to our capital? A little private gallery? Well, on rare occasions we have been treated to brief showings of token works by a master artist, or, in a gesture akin to winning the consolation prize of a rice cooker at the company dinner, graced by the works of the wife or apprentice of an art icon.
But this show I’m talking about, its massive and has been on view for free since the space opened its doors in November 1999!
Okay now that I have made my three pronged jab at our local art institutions (your standard Malaysian art writing cliché / typical attention grabbing blogging-type opening rant), lets introduce the mystery artist.
The great one on show, madams and messieurs, is the “wild beast” of coloring! The mighty marker of pure and gentle lines! The genius painter of domestic pleasures and myths! The only one who can rival Picasso for the title of greatest 20th century artist: Henri Matisse!
Yes Kakisenimanians, come see his amazing works at … MidValley Megamall.
On the third floor, hanging along the grand hallway that connects the centre court to the south court (Golden Screens Cinema section) are eight monumental works of this visual virtuoso. They come in the form of huge rectangular sheets arranged in two staggered rows. Each sheet measures approximately three meters across and five meters down and repeats its image on both side.
The scale of the show, both in the reputation of the artists and the physicality of the work, leaves us with a puzzle: where is the promotion or press releases announcing the presence of Matisse in Malaysia? The official launch with ribbon cutting and fried spring rolls? For over seven years, millions of MidValley shoppers have passed by these bright, fresh and colorful images hung high over their heads. Without any wall text or labels in the vicinity, to aid our crippling ignorance of art history, few would guess that these lively images were created by a septuagenarian invalid who could no longer sculpt or really paint before an easel anymore.
Indeed, from the late 1940s till his death in 1954 at the ripe old age of 85, the grandmaster resorted to making most of his last works using a form of collage called ‘cut-outs’. He would instruct assistants to paint papers with coats of opaque gouache. He himself would then cut into these brilliant sheets, releasing one organic form after another. The crucial phase came when Matisse took these various multicolored forms and recomposed them by hand himself, or with the help of his assistants, into a final image.
Many of these gouache cut-outs were pasted onto fresh white or colored paper as finished works. Not only did this new medium overcome his physical disability, it also offered a solution to his artistic quest to ‘bridge the gap between painting and drawing, between colour and line’*. Later cut-outs grew into the scale of murals, covering entire walls in his apartment. In some cases, the design of the paper cuts were converted into prints, book covers, tapestries, stained glass, or wall murals by specialists working under the strict guidance of the artist.
When contacted about these laser printed PVC reproductions, the PR Department of MidValley Megamall initially responded positively to the prospect of a free promotion. However, when questions regarding copyright were posed in an email, their reply sidestepped the issue and stated that the floor should not be highlighted as there would be a ‘facelift and upgrading works’ there in March or April this year. Ah… after all these years. I wonder what better solution will they find to hide the fact that shoppers are walking under a drab and naked ceiling that looks not much better than that of your neighborhood wet market?
Since Mall authorities did not care, I appealed to Google’s image search wizard and several clicks later I was able to piece together the original sources for our Malaysian Matisse. From “Jazz”, a book published in 1947 containing 20 colour plates and accompanying handwritten text by the artist, comes three images:
Icarus (VIII), Monsieur Loyal (Ill), and part of the Knife Thrower (XV). Two of the banners are taken from the sections of a paper cut entitled Thousand and One Nights (1950). Beasts of the Sea (1950) provides the source for three more banners.
Everytime I pass by these Matisses, the simplistic and bright organic shapes still manage to offer me a means of escaping the materiality of the noisy commercial environment below. It is amazing how great art works can stand all kinds of abuse over time and space. My favorite, Icarus, is a figure that floats amongst the stars without the assistance of wings, as if the mere power of his heart can achieve flight. On my pessimistic days, Icarus is falling as according to legend, and no one below even cares to see him fall.
It heartbreaking to realise that an artist as awesome as Matisse can only ever reach our shores in such an artificial and dishonorable fashion. Since I am someone who has accumulated over 300 pirated DVDs, I will not be making an issue here on originality, copyright and piracy. To copy or not to copy, that is the question for another article.
What I, along with many other writers before me, will not stop complaining about though, is the miserable state of our public art institutions. We bash the Balai because deep down we’ve loved the Balai, ever since it first opened its doors in 1958 in an improvised gallery at Dewan Tunku Abdul Rahman. We need our National Art Gallery to shape up. We need our galleries, museums, theaters to stand out. Even our libraries too! Let us have Southeast Asia’s biggest and most used library, instead of settling for the largest Borders bookshop.
And we need these institutions to grow up now faster then ever, because gigantic malls are gobbling into every juicy corner of the country and they are not the least bit shy, these days, at announcing their role in preserving tradition and promoting culture. As the Matisse in MegaMall illustrates so perfectly, it’s a role that is mired in inauthenticity, disrespect and ignorance.
Seriously, are we ready to let our nation’s soul be fed by those whose main interest is in emptying our pockets and maxing out our credit card in the guise of providing us with a ‘lifestyle’? Do we want to pay homage to the artists we respect one floor above the pharmacy where I recently bought wart removal cream? Do we have to settle for mall decorations as art and accept the gargantuan KLCC Christmas tree as the might of Malaysian creativity?
Sitting here, writing this right below the banners at a cafe named ‘Zen’, I notice a majority of folks are really just window shoppers in search of breathing space outside their crowded homes, busy office or just sheltering from Malaysian weather and traffic. If we were given more interesting exhibitions and convenient access to public cultural spaces in the city, then perhaps we might multiply and grow into thoughtful kakiseniman, instead of breeding into generations of distracted mallrats. Imagine that!
First Published: 06.02.2008 on Kakiseni