Fort Canning Park: Come Face-to-Face with Monet and Modigliani

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As you climb the gently rising hill in Fort Canning Park, the path through the trees opens up to bring you to the doors of the Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris. In the stately rooms of this fine mansion building, formerly the Fort Canning Arts Centre, are works of art by Monet, Modigliani, Tintoretto, Picasso, Rembrandt, and others.

But there’s a twist: This is not really an art museum. National collections of art can seem like libraries of visual knowledge, with artworks arranged by century, artist, or period, which can be overwhelming at the best of times. Here you’ll find a different approach that’s much more suited to a cosy, rainy afternoon with good company in the quiet setting of an international private gallery.

The Fort Canning Park gallery is a sister gallery to the original Pinacothèque de Paris, which draws millions of visitors annually. But here in Singapore, you’ll find a more intimate, personal experience. A pinacothèque refers to the original Greek idea of a box of paintings, and this idea explains the curation behind these carefully chosen pieces. Director Marc Restellini has tried to create a montage of artworks that reflect the idea of transversality: artistic forms with similar subjects approached from different starting points. An art collection put together by a private collector in this way is more of a record of private insight and inspiration that leads to each acquisition, rather than an attempt to share the history of the painter or a country’s art movements.

You venture into the dimly lit gallery room, and the charcoal coloured walls resonating with the greens, reds, and golds of sharply lit canvasses on all sides. Here and there, tribal art is mixed into Restellini’s “cabinet of curiosities.” As you explore the space, you stop occasionally to appreciate the tribal art from South East Asia, Javanese funeral art, and fertility gods fashioned in wood and stone from Timor and Vietnam, a welcome divergence from the many and elegant European faces peering out from across the centuries.

If you’ve chosen to take the guided tour with the docent, you’ll get a flurry of questions and conversation prompts rather than a lecture on art. What do you see? What does this remind you of? Docents here try to cultivate a response in the minds of the visitors, rather than overloading with historical information.

On the right, as you enter, Soutine’s remarkable rendering of The Bellboy sits high on the wall with his ruddy face and smirking grin. Next, you’re confronted with a gigantic golden shape fashioned in brass. Modigliani’s Young Lady with Earrings and its proximity to an East Java death mask provides a striking visual counterpoint that’s hard to avoid.

Across the room sits Picasso’s Woman in an Armchair, her contorted face expressing some unarticulated sense of anxiety. Paying the minimum of respect to academic notions of art historical order, an offering column with four faces from Timor flanks the painting and draws your mind away to ponder the way in which the human face has been imagined in different parts of the world.

Female features are represented again in the impressionism of Monet’s Suzanne with Sunflowers, whose tired and troubled expression was the result of terminal cancer. You feel her sense of defeat and find a comparable sentiment in Renoir’s rendering of Georgette-Marie Malivernet.

Afterwards, you retire downstairs to continue the experience at the elegant Balzac Brasserie. A brisk glass of the Beaujolais de Bourgogne provides the perfect pairing with Balzac’s platter of charcuterie. The duck rillettes, pork pâté, and the saucisson sec make connections of their own, lingering on the palate, as talk turns back to the art upstairs.

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