SINGAPORE - Cinematic, vivid, dynamic. These words are often used to describe the art of Chua Mia Tee. His famous painting Epic Poem Of Malaya, in which a man reads a poem to a rapt audience of Chinese students, is no exception.
This oil-on-canvas work from 1955 is so realistic that some people tried to fan off a fly on one of the student's arms when the painting was first displayed, says Dr Seng Yu Jin, the National Gallery Singapore's deputy director (curatorial and research).
The work by Chua, one of Singapore's foremost realist painters, is one of the first things visitors will see when they step into the gallery's upcoming exhibition of his works.
Chua Mia Tee: Directing The Real opens to the public next Friday (Nov 26), a day after the artist turns 90.
The year-long event, whose title references the filmic quality of his work, is Chua's first solo institutional exhibition since 1992. It spotlights about 50 works from the 1950s to 1980s, capturing scenes and portraits of people from Singapore in its transformative years.
Fellow curator Clarissa Chikiamco notes that Chua is "incredibly technically skilled - so much so that some of his paintings might appear like photographs".
"But for Mr Chua, that was not sufficient to be an artist. An artist must go beyond objective depictions, to bring out the truth, virtue and beauty in life," she adds, referring to the precepts which are known as zhen, shan, mei in Mandarin.
Chua's daughter Chua Yang, 53, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, spoke to reporters at a preview of the show on Thursday (Nov 18). The artist was absent from the event as he had suffered a stroke in late September.
Dr Chua says: "It's very emotional (for me) to see so many old paintings that have been collected by a variety of people and corporations - some of these paintings I haven't seen since I was a kid, when they were painted at home."
She adds that her father is "managing quite well at home".
Chua, a Cultural Medallion recipient, was born in Shantou, Guangdong, in 1931, and moved to Singapore in 1937 to flee the Sino-Japanese war.
He is one of the founding members of the Equator Art Society, a group of artists who promoted the social realist style in Singapore. They were interested in depicting social conditions and the lives of the masses, particularly the labouring class.
Chua's 1974 painting Workers In A Canteen, for instance, is testament to the respect he had for blue-collar labour.
Besides scenes of everyday people, the exhibition contains several depictions of famous figures in Singapore's history- ranging from Chua's portrait of the first president Yusof bin Ishak, which appears on the country's currency notes; to a 1960 bronze bust of Zubir Said, who composed the national anthem.
Other highlights include the well-known National Language Class (1959), hauled up from the Gallery's Siapa Nama Kamu? exhibition downstairs; as well as Portable Cinema (1977), in which two boys peep through slots to view characters in motion as they turn the reels.
The exhibition also features archival materials.
Curator Lim Shujuan says: "Mr Chua made several woodcut prints that were published in magazines and some of these will be displayed in the archival showcase."
Chua has two children with the late artist Lee Boon Ngan, who died in 2017. The show includes a 1957 portrait of her from the gallery's collection - a side profile of Lee with her hair in pigtails.
The family visits the painting every Chinese New Year, Dr Chua says, adding that her father said he painted it "because she looks so adorable (ke ai)".
"He and mum always painted together, they did everything together," Dr Chua says.
"Every time they travelled together and he had a new painting - a city scene or a countryside - he would find an opportunity to sneak her in."
Dr Chua, a keen photographer, will mount her debut photo exhibition - featuring some 15 photos of her father, mostly from the past three years - at the Leica Galerie at Raffles Hotel from Dec 1 to Jan 11.
One of them shows Chua working on his latest work, a painting of himself standing next to a portrait of his wife, in April (2021).
"He had over these two years an urgency to revisit some of his iconic choices of material. He has painted Chinatown, the Singapore River, a couple of koi paintings and this last self-portrait," Dr Chua adds.
In a 1982 interview with The Straits Times, Chua likened the realism in his art to "the cinema - real horses, real soldiers".
He made a similar comparison in a 1979 television programme, where he talks about Workers In A Canteen, which has more than 70 people in it, and suggests a photographer might have found it harder to compose.
He said in Mandarin: "Painting can provide more freedom. You can paint as you desire. The painter is also the director, actor, production designer and photographer. At the same time, such a painting can be retained longer than a colour photo."
Chua Mia Tee: Directing The Real
Where: Level 4 Gallery, National Gallery Singapore, City Hall Wing, 1 St Andrew's Road
When: Nov 26 to Nov 20 (2022), daily from 10am to 7pm
MRT: City Hall
Admission: Free for Singapore citizens and permanent residents
Info: National Gallery's website
Correction note: An earlier version of this story said the reels in Portable Cinema (1977) were turned by the vendor. They were turned by the boys themselves.