Smaller works by Singapore pioneer artist Chen Wen Hsi on display at The Private Museum

Mr Johnny Quek and Ms Jennifer Lewis with one of Chen Wen Hsi's paintings.
Mr Johnny Quek and Ms Jennifer Lewis with one of Chen Wen Hsi's paintings.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Avid collector Johnny Quek admires the composition, brushwork and colour of Chen's Blue Lotus With Red Fishes (1980-1986), part of the Lewis sisters' collection.
Avid collector Johnny Quek admires the composition, brushwork and colour of Chen's Blue Lotus With Red Fishes (1980-1986), part of the Lewis sisters' collection.PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE PRIVATE MUSEUM, JOHNNY QUEK AND THE LEWIS SISTERS
One of the works on display at The Private Museum is Chen's 1976 ink painting Sparrows, Chrysanthemums 1976.
One of the works on display at The Private Museum is Chen's 1976 ink painting Sparrows, Chrysanthemums 1976.PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE PRIVATE MUSEUM, JOHNNY QUEK AND THE LEWIS SISTERS

SINGAPORE - The late Singaporean artist Chen Wen Hsi is famous for his paintings of gibbons, but you won't find any of these in a new exhibition of Chen's works at The Private Museum in Waterloo Street.

Titled Flashes Of Brilliance, the show instead brings together 25 smaller, often overlooked works spanning about two decades. They are from the collections of Merlin Gallery director Johnny Quek, and the sisters Jennifer Lewis and Geraldine Lewis-Pereira.

Birds, prawns, carp and lotuses make frequent appearances in the paintings on display this time round. One of the most unusual ones is a 1970 Chinese ink painting of two dark egrets, from the Lewis sisters' collection. Each bird seems to have been completed in a single stroke.

"This work shows a pair of herons painted completely in black with a brush fully soaked with ink," says Mr Quek in his written commentary for his exhibition. "How mysterious! The well-positioned blades of grass bring life and vitality into the picture."

Chen, who died in 1991, was one of several Singapore artists who pioneered the Nanyang style - a term referring to art in South-east Asia that marries Chinese and Western styles and techniques of painting.

He was born in Baigong village, Guangdong, in 1906, and grew up surrounded by animals such as chickens, sparrows and fish. He attended Shanghai's Xinhua Academy of Fine Arts, and settled in Singapore in 1949, where he famously maintained a "miniature zoo" in his garden.

The ongoing exhibition comes after a showcase of Chen's paintings at his old residence in Kingsmead Road earlier this year (2019).

  • VIEW IT/ FLASHES OF BRILLIANCE

  • WHERE: The Private Museum, 51 Waterloo Street, 02-06

    WHEN: Till Sept 29, from 10am to 7pm (weekdays) and 11am to 5pm (weekends). Closed on public holidays. Mr Johnny Quek and Ms Jennifer Lewis will give a talk at the museum on Saturday (Aug 10) at 2pm.

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: theprivatemuseum.org/index.php/exhibition/copy/

Mr Quek, 72, a calligrapher himself who has amassed more than 600 of Chen's works, particularly admires the composition, brushwork and colour of Blue Lotus With Red Fishes (1980-1986), which is on display at the exhibition.

Other works range from a 1986 ink sketch of flamingoes, normally hung in the bedroom of Ms Jennifer Lewis' daughter, to several paintings of sparrows, including the seemingly disorderly Sparrows, Chrysanthemums (1976), which has a somewhat disorderly appearance.

Mr Quek found the sparrows and chrysanthemums painting rather messy-looking when he first saw a photo of it. But the Lewis sisters, who are Catholics, were drawn to the painting because of the sparrows.

"You are comforted by the fact that God looks after even the sparrows," says the elder Ms Lewis, Jennifer.

The 59-year-old communications executive first met Mr Quek at one of his exhibitions of Chen's paintings, and says she has learnt more about Chen's work from him.

"Sometimes when we look at Chen's works together, he will say, 'Jennifer, you are looking at the wrong thing.' I'm looking at the bird, or the flower, and he's looking at grass, the twigs."

Mr Quek appreciates the bold energy of Chen's brushstrokes, and says the first thing he notices when he looks at his work is "the life of the painting. You must see movement".

Ms Lewis, meanwhile, admires the deceptive simplicity of many of Chen's creations. "He can have intensity, gradations, light, darkness - all in just one stroke."