Rare nudes by local artists on show

A graphite drawing dated 1975 by Chua Mia Tee (right) and  an oil painting dated 1974 by  Lim Yew Kuan (left).
A graphite drawing dated 1975 by Chua Mia Tee (right) and an oil painting dated 1974 by Lim Yew Kuan (left).PHOTOS: THE CULTURE STORY

A startling pair of artworks hangs side by side in Of Human Bondage, a new show of nudes at home-grown gallery The Culture Story.

A graphite drawing by Chua Mia Tee and an oil painting by Lim Yew Kuan each depicts a slim girl seated with her legs tucked to one side, hands folded on a cloth draped discreetly over her lap.

The similarities, from facial features to hairstyle to posture, suggest the same model posed for the two Singaporean artists, although Chua's work is dated 1975 while Lim's is from 1974.

Dr Yanyun Chen, 34, who researches the issue of nudity in Singapore art, says it has been difficult to find documentation about figure drawing practices in the 1970s.

She says: "These works reveal life figure drawing practices among Singaporean artists in the 1970s and can point us towards understanding how such practices could have found their way into local art curricula and become (at the time) a significant part of art education."

The Culture Story co-founder Chong Huai Seng, 70, bought Lim's work from a Malaysian art dealer.

After the purchase, he had a moment of disquiet about its provenance, so he got in touch with Lim, former principal of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) and son of the school's founder Lim Hak Tai. "He said, yes, it was his work, and even issued me a certificate of authenticity."

A year after acquiring Lim Yew Kuan's painting, Mr Chong was wandering around Tanglin Shopping Centre when he saw the Chua sketch hanging in an art gallery.

He noted the similarities at once. "My mind was working overtime. These two works might be historically important - the artists might have been in the same class."

Chua, a Cultural Medallion recipient known for his social realism and landscapes, studied at Nafa and was taught by Lim Hak Tai.

There are other rare nudes by Singaporean artists in the show, including a pair of bold sketches by Tang Da Wu, an oil painting by Tan Choh Tee and one by Lee Boon Wang. There are also three large works by Teng Nee Cheong, one of Singapore's best figurative artists.

In total, there are 38 works by 22 artists, including Chinese, Indonesian and Mexican artists, on display.

  • OF HUMAN BONDAGE

  • WHERE The Culture Story, 03-06 Thye Hong Centre, 2 Leng Kee Road

    WHEN Till June 30, by appointment only, e-mail admin@theculturestory.co or call 6924-9742

    ADMISSION Free

    INFO theculturestory.co

Mr Chong has been collecting nudes for more than 30 years since purchasing his first sketch in St Ives in Cornwall, England in 1986. He says: "I believe in using stories to connect with art."

As he takes visitors around the gallery he co-founded with his daughter Ning Chong, he shares anecdotes about how he came to own the pieces.

An early watercolour on paper by Chinese artist Long Rui, for example, was part of about 30 works he bought in the 1990s when the artist showed in Singapore.

When there were unsold works at the end of the show, Mr Chong says the gallerist offered them to him at a discount. He bought the bundle. "I was a stockbroker then and quite gung-ho."

The connection proved useful later when he was trying to organise an art show in Beijing and needed Long Rui's help to endorse the show. By then, the artist had become the head of the China National Academy of Painting. In the light of Mr Chong's early patronage, Long offered him a 50 per cent discount on payment for services.

"My manager and I had to lug two paper bags full of one million yuan to his office in the middle of winter," recalls Mr Chong.

Over the years, he has noticed a relaxation of attitudes towards nudes, from frowning judgment to acceptance. When artists and collector friends learnt he was putting together this show, he adds, many told him they collected nudes too.

"Maybe this show will trigger some awakening or thinking with other collectors to re-evaluate this genre of art," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2021, with the headline 'Rare nudes by local artists on show'. Print Edition | Subscribe