In conversation with Udayshanth Fernando on Lionel Wendt Photographs and exhibitions 

The immaculate artistry of Lionel Wendt is a celebration of the ordinary aspects of life, elevated and dissected to exhibit their natural beauty through the use of innovative photography techniques. His acclaim stemmed from his blending of the modern and the traditional, the picturesque yet reflective. His legacy lives on in the public and private collections of devoted art collectors, galleries, and museums alike - of which esteemed gallerist and collector Udayshanth Fernando's role is crucial. In exploring the spread of Lionel Wendt's works and influence, we conversed with Udayshanth Fernando who not only possesses an exquisite collection, but also instrumental in showcasing a momentous exhibition of Lionel Wendt's works at the Gallery Café in 1999.

Q | In your opinion, what would you consider to be the significance of Wendt's works?  

A | Lionel Wendt has been compared to Man Ray, a revolutionary avant garde artist whose contribution to both the Dada and Surrealist movements speaks to his influence and whose surrealist, almost eerie touch has its echoes in Lionel Wendt's works, who infused them with a uniquely Sri Lankan sentimentality. Likewise, the legacy of Lionel Wendt's photographs, particularly his male nudes, can be seen in the works of Robert Mapplethorpe, an internationally acclaimed American photographer who, like Lionel Wendt, blurred the lines between erotic and high art and is most renowned for his black-and-white portraits and self-portraits of nude men and women. The fact that a Sri Lankan artist's works are not only compared to global pioneers in photography, but also contribute to the evolution of photography as an artform, makes us all proud, and puts our island on the map.  

Q | Can you tell us about the momentous Lionel Wendt exhibition that you organized in 1999? 

A | When I opened the Gallery Café in 1998 my first two exhibitions were the works of Saskia Pintelon and Jagath Weerasinghe. After the initial success of these two exhibitions, I was faced with a major issue: no artists had any paintings ready to be exhibited, and I had to come up with something quick. In an almost divine epiphany, I thought why don't I have an exhibition of Lionel Wendt's works? I went out and bought around 60 works from Mrs. Poulier and organized the exhibition. It was the first exhibition of Lionel Wendt's works that celebrated, and didn't brush over his male nudes for the sake of “propriety” or “decorum” in a conservative society. I wanted to showcase all the aspects of his photography, to portray Lionel Wendt for who he was, in his entirety, even the naked rears. 

Q | How was this exhibition received at the time? 

A | I will never forget the negative reactions to the exhibition, from visitors walking in finding the photographs repulsive and promptly walking out to a diplomat who was shocked by the prominence of male nudes. In retrospect, it was the boldness of the exhibition that was being critiqued but that didn't matter to me. As a commercial exhibition, it was very successful. 

Q | In your opinion, how did this exhibition play a role in expanding the awareness of Lionel Wendt's artistry? 

A | I intentionally priced the works affordably because my aim was to provide access to Lionel Wendt's photography not just to a cultivated elite, but to a broader audience who could revel in his artistry. Tompion, a Dutch art collector, purchased 28 photographs from the exhibition - launching him on his career of interest in Lionel Wendt's work. Many of the works he purchased were published overseas, increasing the artist's international acclaim. In 1999, one of the works featured in my exhibition appeared in a Thames and Hudson photography publication entitled 'Love & Desire.' At the same time, an Indian friend of mine, Nalin Tomar, supplemented his now fabulous art collection with Lionel Wendt's works from my exhibition. Jhaveri Contemporary, a renowned gallery in Mumbai, in turn, bought their collection from Nalin. At one of their special showcases, the Tate purchased a Lionel Wendt for their permanent collection. Tomar then approached the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan to host an exhibition of his collection of Lionel Wendt works. The promotion of local Sri Lankan art, funnily enough, is therefore an international effort. 

Udayshanth Fernando, Cover Personality of ARTRA Magazine E29, 2017 began his journey in collecting and exhibiting art in his early years. In discovering the depths of Fernando's passion, we explored his private collection extensively as he unveiled the origins and purpose of his Modern and Contemporary works of local and international artists. Founder of Paradise Road Galleries, Fernando has crafted a distinct style, imprinting Sri Lanka with his aesthetic. Despite international acclaim years later, the showcasing of Lionel Wendt's photographs of male nudes at the exhibition he organized and curated in 1999, received an onslaught of confusion and disdain from conservative society. Nevertheless today Fernando's inimitable eye and appreciation boldly celebrates the entire range of the artist's work and is a lasting reminder of the stimulative power of Wendt's photographs. 

18th February, 2021 Visual Art | Conceptual