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Colombo ’43 Group

The Colombo ’43 Group was a school of modern mid-20th-century painting in Ceylon, established in 1943. The group was essentially an association of like-minded painters who had broken away from the Ceylon Society of Arts, led by photographer and critic Lionel Wendt, including key members Harry Pieris, George Keyt, Justin Daraniyagala, Ivan Peries, Aubrey Collette, Richard Gabriel, George Claessen, Swanee Jayawardene, and L T P Manjusri Thero.

Lester James Peries became a latter associate of the group. The paintings of the group constituted a historic break in Ceylon and, more generally, South Asian tradition. Art historian Jagath Weerasinghe wrote that the most significant achievement of the 43 Group was their localization of European modernist trends into a distinctively Ceylon modernist art. They also promoted Kandyan dance and other Sri Lankan dance forms.

This group was decisive in the history of art in Sri Lanka, because it unified a non-academic art scene and promoted another form of art, far from a certain English Puritanism. As such, it is often compared to the Salon des Indépendants which has been held in Paris every year since 1884 and which associates all artists claiming a certain form of independence.

The 43 Group, by Aubrey Collette. 
From left to right: Geoffrey Beling, Harry Pieris, Richard Gabriel, Ivan Peries, George Keyt, Lionel Wendt (seated), George Claessen, Aubrey Collette, Justin Daraniyagala, Manjusri Thero. 
Watercolor (61 x 70 cm), 1943. Sapumal Foundation, Colombo.

One of the routes for the dissemination in Sri Lanka of the most recent art trends in Europe was the work of artists such as Lionel Wendt, Justin Daraniyagala or Harry Pieris who went to study in England in the 1920s.

Lionel Wendt, while studying law and music in London from 1919 to 1924, traveled throughout Europe. From 1922 to 1927, Justin Daraniyagala studied law in Cambridge and fine arts in London before enrolling at the Julian Academy in Paris in 1928. As for Harry Pieris, after having studied in London in the 1920s at the Royal College of Art, he stayed in Paris for six years in the first half of the 1930s.

But it is to the English painter Charles Freegrove Winzer (1886-1940), who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1921, that the credit is due for being the first to present the latest European trends in this country and to have used them. While fulfilling his role as an inspector for art attached to the education department with the government of Ceylon, he had the audacity to found the Ceylon Art Club which opposed the official and Victorian Ceylon Society of Arts. The annual exhibitions of the Ceylon Art Club from 1920 to 1930 were the scene of major clashes of painters who were just starting out, such as George Keyt , Geoffrey Beling, Justin Daraniyagala and Harry Pieris, who would later constitute Group 43.

To this list must be added the name of Lionel Wendt (1900-1944) who returned from Europe in 1924. Known both as a pianist and as a talented photographer, this cultivated man, animated by an experimental spirit – considered to be rightly like the “Man Ray of Sri Lanka” – and progressive ideas was subscribed to many art and literature reviews like The Studio, Cahiers d’art, Minotaure and Transition. But he is also and above all known to have been the extremely devoted protector of a group of painters which included, among its members, his childhood friend George Keyt.

It was Wendt who gave the group its name (it was founded and presented its first exhibition in 1943), arranged for an exhibition hall (the rooms of the Photographic Society of Ceylon in a dilapidated warehouse in Union Place, no longer in existence), drew up the first catalogue and paid for it, and wrote to the papers defending the Group against a hostile reviewer.

Although he died suddenly in his sleep in 1944, at the age of forty-four, Wendt’s name lives on in present-day Sri Lanka in the Lionel Wendt Memorial Theatre and Art Gallery and in his superb book of photographs published by Lincolns Praeger in London, Lionel Wendt’s Ceylon, which is today a collector’s item.

As late as 1955, after the Ninth Exhibition of the 43 Group, a newspaper reviewer snidely invoked Wendt’s name: “Everywhere that Lionel Wendt the lambs were sure to go”, suggesting that it was Wendt’s influence and prestige that kept the Group together and in the limelight. At that time Wendt had been dead for eleven years. Yet in November 1952 the Group, invited by the Royal India, Pakistan and Ceylon Society, had exhibited in London at the Imperial Institute Gallery, South Kensington, and were invited on the strength of their London show to exhibit at the Petit Palais in Paris in 1953. It would seem that their power lay not only in Lionel Wendt’s promotional ability but in the art of the 43 Group itself.

Organisation of these important first European exhibitions (and later ones) was carried out by Ranjit Fernando, who became the Group’s representative abroad. Members of the 43 Group today stress that their successes in Europe were due in large measure to Fernando’s efforts, which were especially onerous because there was no official financial support to rely on. Funds had to be raised privately as neither the Ceylon Arts Council (the governmental body) nor the private Ceylon Society of Arts were willing to contribute to the expenses of either exhibition. Fortunately, the Asia Foundation and private donors made possible transport of the paintings from Ceylon to Europe.

In the February 1954 issue of the international art magazine based in London, The Studio, William Graham blamed the Ceylon Society of Arts for stifling all real talent, saying that even after eleven years the 43 Group was beset by ignorant opposition, insufficient patronage, and a complete lack of official recognition at home.

British exhibitions in 1954 included individual shows by George Keyt at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (arranged by an Englishman, Martin Russell, who had become acquainted with Keyt and his art while serving in Ceylon during the war) and Justin Daraniyagala at the Beaux Arts Gallery, with a group show running concurrently at the Artists International Association Gallery. The Heffer Gallery in Cambridge held an exhibition of one hundred 43 Group paintings which was opened by E.M. Forster. Like the first European exhibitions Ranjit Fernando was solely responsible for organising these smaller shows.

Critics who reviewed the exhibitions included John Berger, Maurice Collis and Myfanwy Piper in major papers and journals such as the Manchester Guardian, Art News, Time and Tide, Spectator, New Statesman and Nation, and The Times. Yet requests for exhibitions from galleries in Amsterdam, Mexico, Dublin, Rio de Janeiro and Israel had to be declined because sufficient funds could not be found.

Leekeli by Richard Gabriel. Signed and dated 1949. Oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches.
Anton Wickremasinghe Collection

Harry Pieris, who deserves to be named along with Lionel Wendt as prime mover and sustainer of the 43 Group, has preserved an invaluable collection of newspaper cuttings, catalogues, and other information pertaining to twentieth century art in Sri Lanka. He is only too happy to share his archives and personal reminiscences with interested people, and has described to me how the idea of the 43 Group first arose. To appreciate their aims and hopes, one should have some acquaintance with art in Ceylon during the half- century or so preceding 1943.

While the peasants and villagers, as was the case from time immemorial, were acquainted with art only as it depicted sacred stories in Buddhist temples and shrines or informed the rituals of daily life, the educated, moneyed classes in Colombo had gradually acquired European attitudes towards art as towards everything else. In the 1880s there was a group composed of Ceylonese and Europeans called the Colombo Drawing Club or Portfolio Sketch Club, whose members circulated their own sketches and once a month met to select the “Painting of the Month”. They held their first public exhibition in August 1887 at the Coffee Tavern on Prince Street. This group seems to have metamorphosed a few years later into the Ceylon Society of Arts, with the objective of “encouraging pictorial art in Ceylon”. Given the times, it turned out that they were promoting specifically Victorian studio painting. Only the subject matter — elephants, costumed drummers, tropical vegetation — distinguished it from British academic painting of the same time.

… with proper encouragement and the cooperation of the Government in establishing a picture gallery in the island, where aspirants might study works of art by leading masters and derive practical help in the pursuit of their ideals, the artistic instinct in the Ceylonese, so long dormant and neglected, is susceptible of cultivation. What has hitherto been wanting is the incentive to high aspiration that can only arise from knowledge of what is really good and sound art … a number of prominent European and Ceylonese ladies and gentlemen have volunteered to offer prizes for the best work; and this has persuaded many amateur artists to take to their studies with greater zest and keenness.

A published description of the Society, written in 1907 in Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon

The names of the earliest individual Ceylonese artists are associated with the Ceylon Society of Arts: Mudaliyar A.C.G.S. Amarasekara (Harry Pieris’s first teacher), J.D.A. Perera, Gate Mudaliyar Tudor Rajapakse and David Paynter. Harry Pieris as a young man was a member of the C.S.A. He exhibited with them, collected money for them, and was on their selection committee.

The First Amateur Art Exhibition, Held at the Coffee Tavern, Colombo, August 1887, the artist unknown. Reproduced from the cover of “Diamond Jubilee Exhibition of Art in Ceylon 1887-1947”, organised by the Ceylon Society of Arts in Colombo from February 10th-29th, 1948

The names of the earliest individual Ceylonese artists are associated with the Ceylon Society of Arts: Mudaliyar A.C.G.S. Amarasekara (Harry Pieris’s first teacher), J.D.A. Perera, Gate Mudaliyar Tudor Rajapakse and David Paynter. Harry Pieris as a young man was a member of the C.S.A. He exhibited with them, collected money for them, and was on their selection committee.

A lone anti-establishment voice in Ceylon of the 1920s was that of an Englishman, C.F. Winzer, the Ceylon Government Inspector of Art in the Education Department. Winzer believed that the eternal qualities of Ceylonese art, as found at Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Polonnaruva, should be studied by contemporary artists and adapted to modern life and art, thus achieving a continuity between the past and present. The revolutionary idea Winzer espoused was that such continuity was closer to the decorative conceptions of modern Western art than to the realistic, true to life prettiness and cheap harmonies of academic achievement.

Whether or not this idea was consciously in the minds of the 43 Group artists, it was supported by their accomplishments, vindicating what must have sounded heretical in 1931 when Winzer stated it at his farewell speech to the Ceylon Art Club, which he had founded in 1929. After Winzer’s departure in 1932, the Club folded.

In the late 1920s and 1930s Lionel Wendt, whose pen and tongue were equally sharp, engaged in newspaper controversies with A.C.G.S. Amarasekera about modern art. Wendt collected Hanfstaengel prints of recent European paintings — Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Fauves, Cubists, and Orphists — and showed them to those who cared to see. George Keyt’s cousin, Dr Hugh Modder who was a surgeon in England, sent him prints of early twentieth century painters, including issues of the Cahiers d’Art of 1932 and 1933. When Harry Pieris returned to Ceylon in 1938 after a number of years studying art abroad, he agreed with other young painters that everything was still discouragingly the same at home, and eventually they decided to form their own little group. In 1943, then, the inaugural meeting was held at Lionel Wendt’s home.

It was decided to keep organisation to a minimum: no President, only a twelve-member Committee including an Honorary Secretary and Honorary Treasurer. These were W.J.G. Beling, A.C. Collette, Ralph Claessen, J.E.P. Daraniyagala, R.D. Gabriel, S.R. Kanakasabai, George Keyt, Manjusri Thero, Ivan Peries and Lionel Wendt. Harry Pieris was Honorary Secretary and George Claessen Honorary Treasurer. Beling, who had succeeded Winzer as Inspector of Art in the Education Department, stopped painting in 1945. Manjusri, who was at the time a Buddhist priest, exhibited in the first two exhibitions before resigning from the Group in 1944. Ralph Claessen and S.R. Kanakasabai also stopped exhibiting with the Group after the first few shows.

Members would be proposed and elected, with one blackball keeping a person out. Subscriptions would be five rupees per year. Meetings were monthly, first at Wendt’s, then at the home of Harry Pieris. Wendt, not being a painter, was the final arbiter in choosing paintings for exhibition and otherwise resolving any disagreements that arose among the artists.

The minutes of the first meeting stated that “the Group exists for the furtherance in every way of art in all its branches”. The unstated aim was to break away from the academism of nineteenth century European studio painting and to create a synthesis of twentieth century Western European art with Ceylon’s ancient heritage of Hindu and Buddhist culture. Additionally, by mounting interesting exhibitions for the public, both by member artists and by other artists, it was hoped that the Group could help develop taste and knowledge of art in the public and encourage new talent.

Between November 1943 and September 1950 the 43 Group had annual exhibitions of their own work; additionally they sponsored exhibitions of Kandyan dancing, reproductions of Ajanta frescoes, French Impressionist prints, and photographs of Khmer sculpture. In the early fifties, as described above, they exhibited in London and Cambridge, Paris, Venice, and São Paulo; then from 1955-1959 there were five more Group exhibitions in Colombo. In 1964 the last two exhibitions of the 43 Group were held, number 14 in January, and the 21st Anniversary Exhibition in November.

Over the years more than forty artists had shown their works, primarily paintings and drawings, but also sculpture, ceramics and tapestry. Justin Daraniyagala had brought international acclaim to his country when he won one of two UNESCO awards among 4728 works exhibited at the 28th Venice Biennale in 1956, and one of his paintings was reproduced by UNESCO as a colour print. George Keyt gained renown in India and England where his works were placed in important collections. Richard Gabriel was made an Honorary Member of the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno of Florence, as a result of his contributions to the Venice Biennale in 1956. The City of Paris bought canvases by Ivan Peries and Gabriel, which were placed in the Petit Palais.

What members of the 43 Group held in common was not a style but a conviction that Ceylonese art could be modern without sacrificing specifically Ceylonese values and traditions. Many of today’s younger Ceylonese artists exhibited in 43 Group shows of the fifties and sixties (for example, Sushila Fernando, Swanee Jayawardena, Neville Weeraratne, Stanley Kirinde and Tissa Ranasinghe) and thus had their first public exposure under 43 Group auspices. These and other younger artists formed a Young Artists’ Group which held other exhibitions in the 1950s and 1960s.

The 43 Group’s influence was less in the form of a specific style than as an example. They showed that Ceylonese life, and values, with roots in ancient tradition, could be portrayed in a twentieth century manner. This created an atmosphere both of confidence that there was such a thing as modern Ceylonese art, and the permission to create it. Those with interest and talent in the arts tried new and unprecedented things and had remarkable, far-reaching success in such areas as handloom weaving (Edith Ludowyk and Barbara Sansoni); film making (Lester James Peries); batik design (Ena de Silva, Laki Senanayake, Anil Jayasuriya, Jean and I. Arasanayagam); theatre (E.F.C. Ludowyk and Ediriweera Sarachchandra), and architecture (Geoffrey Bawa and Minnette de Silva). Many of these names are internationally known as innovators, as respected artists, and as Ceylonese. They all came to maturity in the 1950s and 1960s when 43 Group influence was at its strongest.

The controversy surrounding the 43 Group exhibitions served to spawn an interest in contemporary art among a small segment of the public who began for the first time to collect art objects for their homes. Although enthusiasm for art is still much smaller in modern-day Sri Lanka than in the West, it has become de rigeur in certain circles to own original works of art, if possible by 43 Group artists. More importantly, there is a continuing achievement by dedicated practitioners of the arts, and their work is definitely not in the tradition of the nineteenth century academic studio.

Harry Pieris, whose charming Colombo home serves as an informal gallery and exhibition hall of 43 Group art, is still as keen as ever to encourage the appreciation and advancement of art in Sri Lanka. To this end he has established a non-profit foundation, called Sapumal, in the hope of being able permanently to preserve his priceless collection and archives in one place and to continue to foster the study and development of the arts.

Forty-three years after 1943 few Sri Lankans are aware of the progressive and vital force that inherited in the efforts and convictions of the 43 Group and its supporters. What was once ridiculed and dismissed can today be acknowledged as one of the most fecund contributions to national self-awareness and achievement in post-war, post-independence Ceylon.

Credit – Suravi France

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Sri Nagala Rajamaha Viharaya

Bothale Walauwa