I was at the opening ceremony of ‘Flashes of Brilliance: Selected Works of Chen Wen Hsi from the Collections of Johnny Quek and the Lewis Sisters’ which was held at The Private Museum last week.

This special edition of the Collector Series showcases previously unseen works of the late Singaporean pioneer artist, Chen Wen Hsi

The Founding Director of TPM, Mr Daniel Teo, shared during the opening address that this exhibition is in line with the not-for-profit museum’s philanthropy work to bridge the gap between artists, collectors and the public. TPM is celebrating Singapore’s birthday month with Chen Wen Hsi’s rich subject matters, which showcase the diverse cultural and natural landscape of our island.

Seasoned collector Johnny Quek as well as the Lewis sisters, Jennifer Lewis and Geraldine Lewis-Pereira have come together for this exhibition. The selected works are accompanied by stories and memories from the collectors, coupled with rare insights into Chen Wen Hsi’s artistic process.

Chen Wen Hsi: The Artist

Flashes of Brilliance is an exhibition of interesting contrasts coming at a time that sees a rapidly growing popularity of the art of Chen Wen Hsi.

We’re excited for the public to get to know Chen Wen Hsi through the sharing of his outstanding work and memories behind his works” shares Johnny Quek.

The award-winning artist Chen Wen Hsi began his art career in China at the age of 21, with his first exhibition in Swatow in 1929. In 1937, he received the recognition and praise of Chinese painter Xu Beihong at the second Chinese National Art Exhibition in Nanjing. In the year 1947, he left China to explore Southeast Asia. A year later, he decided to settle in Singapore as he was fascinated by the tropical foliage and environments of the Straits Settlements. 

Chen was proficient in both traditional Chinese ink and Western oil painting and experimented with a variety of styles, including fauvism and cubism. The artist was also fond of studying landscapes and animals. In Singapore, he sought to replicate that experience by making the local topography, flora and fauna the subjects of many of his Chinese ink paintings.

Transcending Size: Chen Wen Hsi’s Smaller Ink Paintings

Drawing parallels to the size of our city-state, TPM is shining the spotlight on Chen’s small-scale ink works for the first time, unlike past retrospective surveys of the esteemed artist. TPM has taken the lead to put together a selection of Chen’s much overlooked smaller ink paintings from two collectors of decidedly different backgrounds, adding a refreshing perspective on the appreciation of Chen’s work. 

While both Johnny Quek and the Lewis Sisters share a similar passion for the deft eloquent brushstrokes and finger strokes of Chen who was equally articulate in oil painting, they represent different approaches and responses to their respective selections.

Seasoned collector Johnny Quek teams up with elder sister Jennifer Lewis, a senior corporate communications executive, who feels reluctant to be placed in the same league with the veteran saying, “I feel uncomfortable being referred to as a collector because I was at the very beginning drawn to Chen’s art purely for the emotion that it evoked in me rather than his creative genius which I came to recognise later. I am far from scholarly like Johnny!”

The exhibition, therefore, presents an interesting contrast in terms of tastes and preferences largely shaped by the aesthetic experience of two individuals each responding to Chen’s paintings with intensely personal feelings though vastly different, yet equally deep and valid, nonetheless.

For both sisters, Chen’s paintings, particularly those of sparrows such as three pieces from their collections, hold special memories and strongly resonate with their Catholic faith. “It was an intimate emotional connection rather than an intellectual one. As the Bible tells us how much more God would look after us if He will protect even these tiny birds,” recalls Jennifer.

From freshwater prawns to a pair of herons and farm chickens to unusual lotus- Flashes of Brilliance brings together a rare collection of extraordinary small ink paintings by Chen. However, my personal favourite out of these exquisite paintings was the ‘Bamboo and Sparrows’ collection.

Bamboo And Sparrows: How Animals As Small As Sparrows Can Be As ‘Complete’ And Full Of Life

These two paintings were done in the 1970s. The sparrows were painted to appear bigger and the bamboo leaves darker. 

“Wen Hsi was fond of painting smaller subjects as he was amazed at how animals as small as sparrows can be as ‘complete’ and filled with life as their larger counterparts. He was especially enamoured by sparrows as they were his childhood playmates. In each of his works, Wen Hsi attempted to capture the ubiquitous vitality and dynamism of his subjects; as such, even after painting hundreds of sparrows, [the viewers] can see that the sparrows in each painting are unique,” commentscollector Johnny Quek.

This work of art resonates with me on several levels. The first thought that comes to my mind when I see these happy sparrows in the painting, is the sheer lack of them around us.

Today, we live in concrete jungles where it is rare to catch sight of the once common house sparrow. This painting also inspires feelings of nostalia, taking me back to my days of growing up in suburban India, at a time when bamboo trees and sparrows were a common sight. It all seems like a different life today. The symbolism of something so small being so full of life is yet another important message these paintings inspire, reminding us to appreciate the little things in life we often take for granted, until they are no more.

TPM’S Flashes Of Brilliance: Selected works Of Chen Wen Hsi from the collections of Johnny Quek and The Lewis Sisters is a must-visit for art lovers. The exhibition opened to the public on 2nd August and will continue till 29th September 2019.

The Private Museum is located at 51 Waterloo Street #02-06. For more information, click here.