Romancing The Picturesque Edenic Tropics

Singaporean Donna Ong’s fascination with tropical landscapes in relation to the era of colonization has led to her “Letters From The Forest (II)” and “The Forest Speaks Back (I)” sharing display space in the Singapore Art Museum’s “After Utopia” exhibition in 2015 and her solo show, “My Forest Has No Name”, at Fost Gallery earlier this year.

In the current exhibition, “Five Trees Make A Forest”, her project of illuminating and complicating colonial tropes of the forest ‘talks’ with colonial paintings and illustrations that include Charles Dyce’s works from the NUS Museum’s collection, to give us insight into the varied artistic and academic phases involved in the making of these landscapes.

Here, she discusses the tropics through an interpretative blending of scientific journals, travelogues and illustrations initiated by the 18th-to-20th-century colonial voyages; with displayed lithographic reproductions from her personal collection of antique prints and photographic images of this equatorial location, acquired from her travels abroad.

And she converses with the Charles Dyce collection of 35 watercolour paintings and a 22-page handwritten manuscript illustrating his voyage and residence in the English settlement of Singapore, Malacca, Penang and Batavia in the mid 19th century to highlight the colonial view of tropical landscapes.

The exhibition, thus, showcases the different modes of this colonial representation – from its imaginings to the relations of the spectator-artist as an active agent in it.

But what are they? Victor R. Savage’s contribution to Irene Lim’s book, “Sketching The Straits: A compilation of the lecture series on the Charles Dyce collection”, offers us sneak peeps into this.

In Savage’s “Aesthetics And The Western Sojourners’ Experiences in Southeast Asia”, he writes that the impressions formed stemmed from contrasting Southeast Asian tropics with temperate Europe. Moreover, these notions had undergone changes over the centuries – from the classical belief of an inhospitable region to the 19th century romantic portrayal of never ending summers and picturesque Edenic landscapes replete with beauty and plenitude of tropical floral and fauna, peopled by ‘noble savages’.

This mindset was partly encapsulated in the western Romantic Movement that arose during the industrial and scientific revolutions in Europe within the 1800s, leading European society to rebel against their countries’ new urban-industrial landscapes. Nature in the form of gardens, parks, trees, and any form of growing vegetation became artistic metaphors for being different from the time’s western modern avant-garde.

The African-inspired paintings by Switzerland-based Paul Klee and Swedish Ivan Aguéli exemplified this motif’s emphasis on slowing down motion as an unconscious resistance to the growing mechanized apparatus of their western world – showing their preference to get off a moving train to walk alongside the road to linger with their gaze and leisurely pick up impressions along the way.

For another, the colonizers embraced an Edenic tropics as Europe in the 19th century was still a highly Christianized region, where western civilization remained basically the Church’s creation, and the western mind carried all of the Holy Bible’s myths, symbols, beliefs and geographical lore.

In this context, Asia was often seen in biblical terms as the place where the Garden of Eden – the Shangri-La for followers of Christ – is located, with Jerusalem as the navel of the world. As Asia was, thus, deemed to be closer to heaven, Medieval T-O maps positioned it in the northern hemisphere. In Southeast Asia, such Christian ideas gave rise to the myths of the Bird of Paradise, the lands of Solomon’s Ophir, along with an eastern terrestrial paradise.

Even then, scientific and industrial revolution in the West provided Europe with confidence in its colonial extensions in Africa and Asia, whilst travel to these regions convicted Christian missionaries that their pagan idolaters needed Christianity to save them from sin and ignorance and on to civilized living.

Lastly, the colonial perception of picturesque Southeast Asian tropics arose from its comparison to the West’s definitions of ‘beautiful’ and ‘sublime’. The latter evokes spiritual soulful feelings that take one’s breath away – think blazing sunsets, awe-inspiring landscapes, as well as holy places of worship and majestic historical ruins. The former defines objects of symmetry almost to the point of geometric balanced precision – like the flowerbeds in Le Norte’s formal gardens of Versailles, which became the standard model for European gardens in the 17th century.

The colonizers, consequently, found tropical Southeast Asia’s asymmetrical semblance of concurrent symmetry, chaos and disorder fitted neither aesthetic category. It was, instead, ‘nature in its most savage and romantic moods’ – a highly prized ‘picturesque’.

These romanticized Edenic and picturesque concepts, thus, became the lenses through which artists, naturalists, travellers (amongst others) creatively and artistically transformed Southeast Asian reality into impressive images and iconography; capturing the dynamic relationship each individual has with the landscape; be it over hours, weeks or even years of influence on his moods, sentiments and feelings at the time he applied paintbrush to canvas. Thus, reflecting a more subjective depiction of the locality.

Yet, back then, these pictorials gave the West the first glimpse of a geographical area that was hitherto a blank map; through books written on Southeast Asia by sojourners and travellers before the 1900s; with drawings, paintings, diagrams and maps as illustration.

In addition, Savage argues that since Charles Dyce painted as a hobby, his works better reflected ‘a fascination with specific scenes that captivated his eyes in his travels through’ what was then an English settlement. Hence, he could be regarded as a ‘documentary’ artist with paintings that portray places caught in the 19th century time frame, through the western romantic Edenic relationship with its natural tropical landscapes.

At the same time, Dyce’s painted pictures embodied the British love for picturesque scenes – they are handsomely imbued with asymmetrical shapes and forms, a riot of colours and unbalanced composition. All underscoring the rich tropical vegetation and fauna of diversity and plenitude while exemplifying the descriptions used by 19th century naturalists in Southeast Asia: ‘charming’, ‘enchanting’, ‘inviting’ and ‘a feast for the eye’.


Exhibition: Five Trees Make A Forest

Venue: NUS Museum, 50 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119279

When: Till 4 September 2016


[Image Credit: Detail from Donng Ong, Five Trees Make A Forest, 1896, Antique original lithograph with annotation: Araceen, 19.5 x 25.8cm]

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