Showcase of late artist's work: Carving a path not just through wood

Retrospective exhibit showcases artist Lim Mu Hue's versatility across mediums and genres

The late Singapore artist Lim Mu Hue may be better known for his woodcut prints, including a large-scale mural bearing his woodblock designs at Esplanade MRT station, but the first posthumous show of his art brings to life a versatile artist with a rich and diverse body of work.

The retrospective exhibition at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) features more than 60 of his works from the 1950s to 2008, spanning myriad mediums from oil and Chinese ink paintings to pastel and charcoal drawings. The array, which includes pieces shown in public for the first time, also features still lifes, landscapes and abstract and conceptual art.

Lim, the adopted son of a nightsoil man and housewife, drew delight from art from the time he was young. His daughter, graphic designer Lim Chwen, 48, the eldest of three children, says: "As a child, he made such a realistic drawing of a lizard on the wall that my grandmother smacked it thinking it was alive."

His passion led him to pursue an art education at Nafa and his lack of finances - he could afford only a portion of the $15 school fee then - did not stop him from seeking admission. He persuaded the academy's founding principal Lim Hak Tai to admit him at a discount and he graduated with a diploma in Western painting in 1955.

He taught at the school for a few years before becoming a cartoonist at Singapore's now-defunct Nanyang Siang Pau newspaper. Later, he ran his own printing company and continued to make art on the side until he died from oesophageal cancer in 2008 at the age of 72.

Work on this show began last year to commemorate the fifth anniversary of his death.

Ms Lim says that while her father excelled in oil painting and Nanyang-style ink painting, which depicts local scenes in traditional Chinese ink - "many collectors and museums come asking for these works" - the public mostly remembers him as a trailblazer of woodblock art in Singapore. The reason: he was featured in the seminal 1966 exhibition, Woodcuts: Six-men Show.

It was the first major art show of postindependent Singapore and it featured other established artists such as Foo Chee San and Tan Tee Chie. The 40th anniversary of that landmark exhibition was marked by a commemorative show in 2006 at the National Library.

The new exhibition at Nafa seeks to show how Lim was "always trying out new things" and making works of art which were constantly "evolving and changing", says a spokesman of its Art Galleries. This focus is underscored in the show through deliberate juxtapositions of works.

The opening section, for example, has life-like drawings of busts and still lifes hanging next to experiments in the vein of Cubist art, with its characteristic geometric planes, and oil paintings which borrow elements from the way Chinese ink paintings are composed.

As one turns the corner, one encounters Lim's conceptual art piece, Heavenly Book Without Writing. The work comprises three books with a single Chinese character occupying a distinct position on each page. When pieced together on one page, the characters form a rhomboid arrangement and read as aphorisms.

Lim's woodcut prints are also featured in the exhibition. Of them, Ms Lim says: "Although he did well in other types of art and painting, his woodcut art is one of a kind. He was able to handle negative and positive space well and describe different types of textures - a straw mat, wooden planks, cotton pyjamas - just using carved lines."

Indeed, his relentless push to create a distinct vocabulary of art was what he lived his life for.

Ms Lim says: "In his diaries, which we read after his death, every page was filled with writings about art, his meetings with artists, their conversations about art, his thoughts on exhibitions he saw and his ambition to influence the art world through what he was doing."

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