Mainland Southeast Asia
Most of Southeast Asia continues to be colonized during the first half of the twentieth century: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos by the French; Malaysia and Myanmar (Burma) by the British; Indonesia by the Dutch; and the Philippines by the United States. Only Thailand remains independent. During World War II, the colonizing powers relax their grip on the region, and the Japanese encourage nascent independence movements to push for freedom. Though the Japanese occupation of Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia proves Japan’s propaganda to be self-serving, Southeast Asia is not prepared to resume the colonialist yoke when the war ends. Between 1945 and 1957, all of Southeast Asia gains its independence.
With independence, several Southeast Asian countries turn to democracy or constitutional monarchy. However, struggles between communist and anticommunist factions plague the region for much of the 1960s and ’70s. After the Vietnam War, Vietnam is united under communism and Laos also becomes communist. Cambodia suffers under the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal communism in the late seventies. Indonesia has a strong communist party, which is influential under its first president, Sukarno (1901–1970). However, the military purges thousands of suspected communists in 1965. As for Burma, the country enjoys almost fifteen years of democracy, before a military coup installs a repressive and highly isolationist government. Overall, Southeast Asia faces economic difficulties, social and ethnic unrest, and political struggles through much of the mid-twentieth century. By the 1980s, conditions have improved, but the “Asian financial crisis” in the late 1990s is a serious setback for the region.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, Southeast Asian art is highly influenced by European art. Realism, Impressionism, and Expressionism are the favored styles. Landscapes and scenes of daily life are highly romanticized, while naturalistic portraits exalt the region’s elite. Artists study in the West throughout the twentieth century, and embrace elements of Western modernism, particularly Cubism and abstraction. With the rise of nationalism, however, artists and critics in several countries turn to increasingly political subject matter, and, in some cases, begin to question their dependence on Western techniques and idioms. Often artists turn nostalgically to traditional and folk arts in the search for new, non-Western styles. Mid-century, the dominant debate in the arts is over the relationship between East and West: modernism is equated with Westernization and the erosion of indigenous values, while tradition is embraced in the search for authentic national idioms. Naturally, many artists and intellectuals are critical of these simplistic formulations. Giving a national character to modern art remains a concern, but by the 1980s and ’90s, artists are less anxious about Westernization. Borrowing freely from a wide range of sources, many artists succeed in creating imagery that is at once personal and worldly, savvy of global trends while rooted in local concerns.
The arts develop much more slowly in communist Southeast Asia, and under Burma’s repressive military regime. Under communism, artists in Vietnam and Laos practice Socialist Realism in the service of the state. Greater freedoms are given to artists in the 1980s, but neither country encourages a sense of the avant-garde in the arts. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge put a decisive end to the arts, along with all forms of intellectual life. Following their reign, however, the country begins to develop a vibrant cultural life. In Burma, there is still a very limited art scene.
Island Southeast Asia
Among Southeast Asia’s indigenous peoples, missionary activities continue to increase in scope and intensity and by mid-century most groups have been converted to Christianity. This conversion often has a devastating effect on local sculptural traditions as people cease to create, and in some instances destroy, images of ancestors and supernatural beings, which conflict with their newly adopted Christian beliefs. The region’s textile traditions, however, continue to flourish, although weavers increasingly employ artificial dyes and other introduced materials.
Beginning in the 1970s, the broader Western interest in the art of the world’s indigenous peoples results in greater attention to and collecting of works from the indigenous cultures of Southeast Asia. Much of the region’s surviving sculpture and large numbers of textiles are acquired by dealers and collectors and enter Western museums and private collections.
Cesare Ferro is the first European painter to work for the Siamese (Thai) court.
The Buddhist stupa of Borobudur in Indonesia undergoes a major restoration, after which a monumental monograph is published (1919) with photographs of all sculptures and reliefs.
Puputans take place in Bali (ritual mass suicide of rulers and court in battles against the Dutch).
Italian artists decorate the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok.
The Poh Chang School (School of Arts and Crafts) is created in Thailand to redress the decline of traditional arts and the domination of Western influences.
George Groslier (1887–1945) builds the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. King Sisowath (1840—1927) inaugurates the Museum in 1920.
The French establish the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi. Until this time, painting is little practiced in Vietnam. The school promotes the art, providing training in oil painting techniques. It produces a generation of widely admired painters who blend European and Asian subjects and styles.
Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) forms the Indochinese Communist Party.
Thailand’s absolute monarchy is replaced with a constitutional monarchy in a coup d’état.
The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts opens in Singapore.
Persagi (Persatuan Ahli Gambar), an association of Indonesian painters, is formed in reaction to the romantic landscapes, genre scenes, and portraits patronized by the Dutch.
During World War II, the Japanese occupy Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
The Young Indonesian Artists is founded in Yogyakarta. The group believes that art should serve the struggle for independence. On this basis, modern Indonesian art becomes very political.
The Philippines achieve independence.
The Union of Burma is formed, independent of the British.
A major exhibition of contemporary Thai art opens in London.
Laos becomes independent of French rule. Indonesia’s 1945 declaration of independence gains international recognition; the country becomes the Republic of Indonesia.
The Indonesian artist Affandi (1910–1988) travels and exhibits outside the country, becoming the first modern Indonesian artist to achieve international recognition.
Akademi Seni Rupa Indonesia, a fine arts academy, is established in Yogyakarta; its teachers include many of the country’s best-known artists. In addition, the Art Department at the Institut Teknologi in Bandun, Indonesia, is created.
In Vietnam, two art colleges are established in Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon): the Hanoi College of Fine Arts and the Gia Dinh National College of Fine Arts.
The National Museum of Myanmar is founded.
Cambodia achieves full independence from the French.
A treaty divides Vietnam into communist North Vietnam and anticommunist South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), leader of the Viet Minh independence movement since 1941, becomes president of North Vietnam.
Malaysia is granted independence from the British.
Thai Marxist critic Chit Phumisak (1930–1966) publishes Art for Life and Art for the People.
A military coup in Burma/Myanmar establishes a military regime.
Malaysia’s National Museum in Kuala Lumpur opens.
The Gulf of Tonkin Incident leads to the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk (born 1922) establishes the Royal University of Fine Arts. The university encourages Cambodian study of national court and folk arts and traditions.
A failed coup leads to military reprisals in Indonesia; the military purges suspected communists and leftists.
The Contemporary Artists Group is formed in Thailand.
The National Museum of Fine Arts opens in Hanoi.
Indonesia, Malaysia, the Phillipines, Singapore, and Thailand create the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In the 1980s and ’90s, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar/Burma, and Cambodia join as well. The aims of the association are to promote economic and political stability, social progress, and regional culture.
The Taman Ismail Marzuki Art Center opens in Jakarta. The academy encourages freedom among its artists for the first time in Indonesia.
Increasing interest in the arts of Southeast Asia’s indigenous peoples on the part of collectors and museums results in large numbers of Indonesian and other works of island Southeast Asian being exported to Europe and the United States.
Inspired by the revolutionary writings of Chit Phumisak (1933–1966), who was imprisoned for his Marxist beliefs from 1957 to 1964, the Artists Front of Thailand forms.
Vietnam is unified under Communist leadership.
The communist Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh in Cambodia and rename the country Kampuchea. During their four-year rule of forced deurbanization in which the Cambodian population is driven into collective farms at gunpoint, some 1.2 million people are killed. Artists and intellectuals are purged and art and culture destroyed.
The Pathet Lao (Communist party) takes over Laos and renames it the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
Military rule in Thailand.
The National Gallery of Art opens in Bangkok.
The Vietnamese invade Phnom Penh and drive the Khmer Rouge from power.
In Thailand, departments of fine arts open at Chulalongkorn University, Chiang Mai University, and Rangsit University.
Massive speculative attacks on Thailand’s currency precipitate the Asian Financial Crisis, which spreads to Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.
“Southeast Asia, 1900 A.D.–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=11®ion=sse (October 2004)