An Art History Mystery: The Butler Did It ! .. or, The Denouement
And, yes — after three posts, two articles, a couple of trips to a train station, the library and a temple, and the adrenalin-charged joy of stumbling onto the decisive piece of evidence through sheer serendipity — there is one.
The mystery of who was actually responsible for the four statues on the facade of the Old Tanjong Pagar Station has been solved.
<lol> Ok, maybe all that’s just melodrama and puffery. After all, we pretty much already knew who created the Tanjong Pagar statuary: the four larger-than-life figures of Agriculture, Commerce, Industry and Transport that were inscribed with the names of their creators, one Angelo Vannetti, and one R. Bigazzi. (The back story here, here and here, in that order.) It was more a matter of corroborating that information. Oh, and of course (a) finding out just who those two guys were, and (b) tracking down how the Nolli myth came about in the first place.
But first things first. A confession: the er, proof about to be presented really should have come to light much earlier — at the outset, in fact. A quick hunt through the National Library’s digital archives of The Straits Times had turned up a short notice about Vannetti and Bigazzi gracing our our sunny shores in 1929 (quoted in my first post on the topic). I’d used Vannetti’s name as a search term, simply because the inscriptions on the statuary named him as the sculptor; like the fool that I am, I’d neglected to dig around with Bigazzi’s name as well. Which is exactly what I did not too long ago, and, well — ding ding ding !
The smoking gun … and then some.
So anyways, my little search turned up the following: a long article from the May 2, 1932, edition of The Straits Times (below) on the then newly-opened Tanjong Pagar Terminal Station. “Opening of Singapore’s New Terminal Station”, the headlines announced, “Magnificent Modern Railway Terminus.” The piece delves into almost every aspect of the structure in some detail, and, in a two-paragraph section titled “Allegorical Figures”, the writer — god bless her, his or its soul — clears up our lil’ art history mystery for us:
Entering the station from the first “In” gate on Keppel Road, one is immediately struck by the four huge figures occupying prominent positions on the main facade, depicting agriculture, commerce, transport and industry respectively. These are carved in marble, and surmount in turn the letters F.M.S.R. picked out in white on blue shields.
A nine-foot-high statue of a bare-footed man carrying a sheaf of corn over his shoulders and grasping a scythe in his left hand represents agriculture. Commerce is a Greek-like figure of a man holding and open scroll in the right hand and a bag of money in the other. A half-naked man with a huge block of stone on his left should represents transport, while industry is depicted by a well-built, muscular man wielding a mallet. These figures were executed by a distinguished Italian sculptor, Angelino Vanette, from the studios of Raoul Bigazzi, Florence. (Bold emphasis mine.)
There we go.
And that’s that, I think. Inscription + contemporaneous eyewitness account = a pretty air-tight case.
One other thing: I Google-d “Angelino Vanette”, since Vannetti seemed to go by quite a few variations on his name. Oddly enough, only results in Malay showed up. It turns out that the Malaysian press at least were never fooled by the Nolli story one bit — presumably because they didn’t have the benefit of Lim’s and Sabapathy’s work. A recent Utusan Malaysia Online piece on the closing of Tanjong Pagar Station ran:
Empat figura manusia setinggi 22 meter melekap pada bahagian hadapan bangunan. Ia adalah kerja tangan tukang arca terkemuka di Itali, Angelino Vanette dari Studios of Raoul, Floerence. Keempat-empat figura itu mewakil kegiatan ekonomi Singapura ketika itu iaitu perdagangan, pertanian, pengangkutan dan industri.
“Perjalanan terakhir”, Noraini Abd. Razak, Utusan Malaysia Online, June 5, 2011.
Four human figures, as tall as 22 meters, are attached to the front of the building. It is the work of the renowned sculptor in Italy, Angelino Vanette of Raoul Studios, Florence. Those 4 figures represent the economic activities of Singapore at that time, i.e. trade, agriculture, transportation and industry.
“Last Trip”, Noraini Abd. Razak, Utusan Malaysia Online, June 5, 2011. (English translation courtesy of Ms. Bernette Meyer. Thanks, babe !)
Definitely interesting …
But moving on. Some other nuggets involving Bigazzi also popped up in the archives, most of which were newspaper ads for his marble and his sculpting services. One article from the Singapore Free Press (god how mocking that sounds now) from January 19, 1955 (below), details his association with the Crosby House project, and also provides a brief history of his activities in this part of the world:
The supply and installation of all marble in Crosby House was entrusted to the well-known firm of artistic works, Raoul Bigazzi, whose Far East headquarters are in Hong Kong ……
The firm of Raoul Bigazzi has specialised in marbles, bronze, mosaics, and other branches of architectural decoration for the past 34 years.
It has contributed to some 74 banking premises and many Marajahs [sic] and residences of royalty, some of which are scattered all over the world, but mostly in the Far East, from Peking to Bombay.
In Singapore its pre-war work included Eu Villa, the Municipal Building, Supreme Court, Hong Kong Bank, Meyer Chambers, and Union Insurance Building.
The latest post war works have been the Bank of China, Finlayson House, Odeon Cinema and the Lim Bo Seng Memorial.
The marble finishing of Crosby House, both in the materials chosen by the architects and the way they have been employed, is outstanding and well suited to this latest addition to the Singapore skyline.
A. CLOUET & CO. (Malaya) LTD. are the agents for Raoul Bigazzi.
Reading the article definitely rang a couple of bells in my head — specifically its name-checking of the Supreme Court and Bank of China buildings. It’s known that Rudolfo Nolli also contributed to those projects (the former in a very big way), so Peter Schoppert’s suggestion that Nolli and Bigazzi were at the very least acquainted is made more credible by this piece. (See his comments on the Singapore Public Art site here.)
The real find of the day, though, was this: a fairly recent Straits Times article, from 2006, on the publishing of a book on local Chinese temples — in Chinese, by the Shin Min Daily News 新明日报 (below).
Doesn’t sound too relevant, does it ?
And indeed it started off exactly as the title suggested, “Pray tell, where is this?: A new book on Chinese temples here uncovers fascinating facts”:
Did you know that at Loyang Tua Pek Kong Temple, Chinese and Indian Singaporeans worship both the Taoist deity and Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god?
Or that the 130-year-old Po Chiak Keng Temple is devoted to a general of Empress Wu Zetian’s time?
And Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple stages more than 100 Hokkien opera shows a year – ahead of even the active gezaixi theatres in Taiwan? (Gezaixi is Mandarin for Hokkien opera.)
The stories of these and 35 other Chinese temples in Singapore can now be found in a new Chinese-language book titled Temple Culture.
The 224-page volume by the evening newspaper Shin Min Daily News includes articles on Chinese cultural beliefs like bai tai sui (the Chinese New Year practice of praying to one of the 60 deities who take turns to preside over each year, for peace in the months ahead).
About 21,000 of the 30,000 copies of the book have been sold since its publication two months ago.
Book in hand, LifeStyle takes you on a tour of some of Singapore’s colourful Chinese temples.
But then there was this fantastic little gem in a section dubbed “From Italy with Love”:
Two languid marble lions guard the entrance of the Peck San temple.
These were sculpted in the 19th century by an Italian named Raoul Bigazzi, and seem less stern than their Chinese counterparts.
Mr Wong Ah Fook, the late leader of Singapore’s Cantonese community, bought them for the tomb of his family.
His descendants donated them to the temple after it moved to its new address at the temple complex at Singapore Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng.
That definitely got me excited.
An extant piece of sculptural work by Bigazzi in Singapore ? (His known projects so far seemed to be all architectural.)
I had a gander at the book in question, which brought more good news. The relevant portion of the book is reproduced below (Chinese text quoted verbatim; English translation mine):
福德祠旁边是碧山庙, 这也是一座超过百年的古庙. 中国的古庙门口, 都有两只石狮守护着, 而碧山庙的石狮, 不是传统的中国石狮, 而是一对西洋造型的石狮, 走近一看, 石狮旁刻着雕塑师的名字。 他是十九世纪意大利雕塑家劳勿.毕卡西。说起这对石狮, 它体现了先辈们的族群互爱的精神。
这对石狮, 原是本地名人黄亚福家族购买来守护家族墓园的镇山之宝, 政府征用碧山亭的土地后, 黄家后人将这对珍贵的艺术品赠给碧山亭, 于是原本守护一家的石狮, 现在守护整个碧山庙。
庙宇文化, 第一本 (Singapore: Focus Publishing Ltd., 2005), p. 47.
Pek San Temple Guardian Lions
Sculpted by an Italian Sculptor
Next to the Fuk Tak Temple* is Pek San Temple, another historic temple dating back a century or more. The old temples of China always had a pair of stone lions guarding the doorway, but the Pek San lions aren’t your traditional Chinese lions; rather, they’re a pair of Western-style stone lions. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that they were inscribed with the sculptor’s name: Raoul Bigazzi, a 19thcentury Italian artist. [Bold emphasis mine.] It must be said that they evince the communal spirit of our forebears.
These lions were originally purchased by the family of local notable Wong Ah Fook to stand watch over the family’s burial ground. The descendants of the Wong family donated these valuable art objects to the Pek San Theng, when the temple’s lands were expropriated by the government. As a result, the lions, which once watched over a family plot, now stand guard over the Pek San Temple instead.
Temple Culture, first volume (Singapore: Focus Publishing Ltd., 2005), p. 47.
* [The Kwong Wai Siew Pek San Theng complex houses a Fuk Tak Temple; it’s not to be confused with the older Fuk Tak Chi Museum on Telok Ayer St.]
Uh huh !
Apparently these pair of cuddly marble kitties, secreted away in a Chinese temple, were inscribed.
I made a beeline for Bishan.
The Kwong Wai Siew Pek San Theng 广惠肇碧山亭 complex lies just behind the sprawling RI-RJC campus, tucked away innocuously on a quiet, leafy backlane, dwarfed by its prodigious neighbour.
Who would’ve guessed that it held a piece of the puzzle ?
But that, it did.
Bigazzi’s felines are wonderfully expressive, playful creations (above). Unlike the usual male-female pairing one finds with Chinese guardian lions, here the yin-yang polarity is conveyed through an emotional disjuncture instead: the creature on the right is a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed presence, peering at the viewer, if one faces it head-on, with a curious, roguish regard. Its partner, also a male cat – the implications are delightful – seems a lot less jolly, its head resting glumly on its paws, its eyes sunken and its mien melancholic. Otherwise, both statues are very vivid representations, the musculature of their bodies and the wavy tresses of their manes articulated with a certain stylized flair.
I decided I’d dub them Alert and Abject.
Both were inscribed with the same epigraph on their bases: “Raoul Bigazzi” on one line, and beneath it, “Sculptor and art dealer”; and beneath that, quite simply, “Florence.” Alert had his on the left-hand side of the base, near the front, while Abject’s was on the right-hand side, towards the rear. The script employed was regular and even, in keeping with the inscriptions on the Tanjong Pagar statues (see my first post).
If ever someone decided to make a close study of the four Vannetti-Bigazzi figures, here’s ready material for a compare-and-contrast exercise.
Mucho, muchos gracias to the wonderful folk of the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library ! – you guys made my research a breeze.