A startling pair of artworks hang 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 depict 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 and posture, suggest the same model posed for the two Singaporean artists, although Chua’s work is dated 1975 while Lim’s is from 1974.
A graphite drawing by Chua Mia Tee and an oil painting by Lim Yew Kuan.
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 curriculums and become (at a time) a significant part of art education.”
The Culture Story co-founder Chong Huai Seng, 70, says he 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’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.
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 personal 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 gungho.”
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 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 learned 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.
Book it/ Of Human Bondage
Where: The Culture Story, 2 Leng Kee Road, 03-06 Thye Hong Centre
When: Till June 30, by appointment only, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 6924 9742
This article was originally published in The Straits Times.
(Related: What to see at Singapore Art Week)