Modernist Works of The '43 Group by Azara Jaleel

Aubrey Collette, Sapumal Foundation Collection

Left to right across tiered dimensions Geoffrey Beling, Harry Pieris, Richard Gabriel, Ivan Peries, Lionel Wendt, George Keyt, L.T.P Manjusri, George Claessen, Aubrey Collette, Justin Daraniyagala. Core Members of the ‘43 Group

The Modernist Works of the ‘43 Group were a revolt against the status quo, reflecting the evolving civilization and country of the late colonial to postindependence times of Sri Lanka. Their works sought to reconstruct and renew forms and styles to define and express new impulses in content, ambience, line and color in contrast to the sanctimonious, Western styles of academism promoted by the dominant Ceylon Society of Arts led by the academic doyen Gate Mudaliyar A.C.G.S Amarasekara (1883 - 1983). The latter ensured the growth and sustenance of the naturalist tradition of the 19th century through the Royal Academy and British Art schools until the arrival of C.F Winzer (1886 – 1940), the AngloPolish painter who was appointed Chief Inspector of Art in schools in 1921. 

Cultural Developments in the Early 1900’s

Winzer was one of the key catalysts to highlight the inadept form of Western academism in reflecting an authentic Sri Lankan experience, and consequently became a key figure who influenced the ‘43 Group’s artistic revolt against the sterile style of the times together with Lionel Wendt, the revered artist instrumental in forming the ’43 Group. Wendt vehemently and openly criticized the exhibition of paintings at the Colombo Town Hall opened by the British Governor that was reflective of the European naturalist traditions. In his essay titled ‘Dreary Insignificance’ published on the third day of March, 1930 in the Ceylon Daily News, Wendt stated that there was not one work among the 193 exhibits that possess high artistic value. This fearless critique led to a series of debates between Wendt and Mudaliyar A.C.G.S Amarasekara on the nature of good and bad art for a long time, invigorating much insight and discussion upon Modernism. While these three important figures, in their own ways and capacity influenced the style and approach of the ‘43 Group that characterized their works as a profound revolt against bleak conventions of the times, can their Modernism be pigeon-holed for a rebellion alone?

Surely not. What I find most unique about the Modernist works of the ‘43 Group is an intrinsic artistic chemistry that cohesively and seamlessly reflect upon the instinctual; of love, truth, beauty, form and spirit. Delving into the vastness of the human experience with such detail, the works of the ‘43 Group; especially the curated collection featured across this edition of the magazine are significant in unravelling the depths of emotive impulses. From Keyt’s spiritual eroticism to Daraniyagala’s dark chaos mingled with divinely faces, expounded further by Gabriel’s picturesque yet fearsome visuals highlight the ‘43 Group’s ability to collectively present the complexities, within the seemingly straightforward. The subtle imbalances of the human form that Lionel Wendt and Aubrey Collette bring out in their exquisite photography and caricature drawings respectively draws one’s attention to beauty, or that of the despicable. The ability to effortlessly switch between these opposing perceptions with acute delivery is what makes their work striking in deciphering the good, bad and ugly of the human condition.

Neville Weeraratne in his publication ‘43 Group, a Chronicle of 50 Years in the Art of Sri Lanka (1993) states that the “ ‘43 Group has contributed to the furtherance of art. The impact of the values it exhibited in the works of its members, the presence of the group established in the community, the revival it encouraged of certain basic notions of what is of lasting merit in art, as a reflection of human behavior, its belief in the inherent goodness of the country’s past, through its pleas for the proper conservation of our antiquities that have been disregarded, its conviction of the correctness of the Group’s collective attitudes - in all of these things -  the ‘43 Group has been a consistent and vigorous power.” Rightfully so, as the ‘43 Group’s work in my opinion, is significant for its novelty in bridging the Cubist and Impressionist styles of the West with that of the characteristic styles of Sri Lanka’s Historic Traditions of Classic Art, in culminating a form that was truly cosmopolitan for its times, yet uniquely Sri Lankan or perhaps Ceylonese in its esoteric.

Historical Overview of Sri Lankan Art

To provide a brief overview of the scope of Sri Lanka’s Traditional Art, the beginnings of the Historic Tradition of Classic Art are preserved in the paintings of the 5th century city and palace complex at Sigiriya and in the 12th and 13th century murals in the Tivanka Temple in Polonnaruwa state revered historians and academics Senake Bandaranayake & Albert Dharmasiri. In their splendid publication ‘Sri Lankan Painting in the 20th Century’ (2009), they further mention that the next significant development to Sri Lanka’s ancient art was the evolution that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries where one finds an extremely rich record of mural paintings in numerous Buddhist temples of the Kandyan kingdom and the Southern-Western maritime region– sharing the life of the Buddha, and means to communicate about the rituals during worship. The culmination of these two major late period schools lead to another change of historical course; the emergence of wall paintings in the so called ‘Transitional Style’. This combines the subject matter of traditional murals with adaptations of the artistic style and techniques from the Historic tradition, on the one hand, and the 19th century European and Indian art, on the other.

 The common factor that combines the nature of the art at these spaces of worship from different time periods is their primarily didactic nature – lacking individual or inventive thought. Thus the emergence of the works of the ’43 Group in the early 1900’s created a dynamism within the discourse of Sri Lankan Art as they secularize artistic expression from being didactic and religious to sovereign in thought and inventive in form, although this expression was not novel to an international art audience of the times. Bandaranaike & Dharmasiri state “Early and mid-20th century muralists represent the final stage of the transition, after which the mural tradition loses its capacity to produce works of artistic significance in an increasingly secularizing world”. With the rise of the middle class in the early 1900’s of Ceylon, that was still under the colonial influences of the British Empire and newer social demands to the times, a need for creative expression and visual stimulation in terms of painting and drawings arose outside places of worship.  At this juncture, the formation of the ’43 Group filled a large void with works of art, reflective of independent thoughts and inventive forms.

About the Artists & their Artistic Styles

Although the ‘43 Group is criticized for being Western, even the most casual reading of their work would dispute the claim. They embodied a characteristically local tradition of great novelty and authenticity reflecting the instinctual and that of a uniquely Sri Lankan esoteric in their expression of the human condition. The timeless works of Lionel Wendt (1900 – 1944) reveal a valiant imagination, reflecting the splendor immersed in the ordinary. His photographs, in my opinion, reflect unequivocally the allure of the human spirit, the beauty of the human form and the magnificence of Sri Lanka’s heritage, that we explored in great depth in ARTRA Magazine’s Lionel Wendt Photographs Edition 58 (2021).  His works capture the day-to-day, the exquisiteness of the human form and the artist’s homage to the nation’s ancient traditions, culture and heritage – in all honesty.

Similar in composition, the landscapes of Geoffrey Beling (1907-1992) are splendidly erected of which his handling of the limitless variety of greens seen in tropical nature is an accomplishment in itself culminated with a tenderness and simplicity. His lines are architectural and his arrangements are geometric, yet the fauna in his work uniquely balances the sharpness of the classical lines exuding unadultered beauty. Likewise, the works of George Claessen (1909-1999) that are simple and austere at the same time, invoke quiet contemplation. They are exquisite for their vibrant colors that exude an alluring effect to the eye and mind, with an acute understanding of space and arrangement. I find the works not only to be poetic, but contemplative in character.

Aubrey Collette (1902-1992) plays the role of a critic and the voice of social and political truth within the group, of which his caricatures and drawings have sharp edges. Collette was gifted with astute observation, as his subjects were mainly politicians and his works poignantly brought out their intents, whims and fantasies in humorous ways. Wavering between somber human emotions and conditions to grand illusions of the fantastical realms, the works of Justin Daraniyagala (1903-1967) is nothing short of a whimsical nightmare. Philosophical in nature, Daraniyagala’s works reflects his intellectual prowess and his interpretations of daily life. With vigor and finesse, impressive balance complimented with delicacy of color and technique, the artist conveys mixed emotions and complex responses through the face, human body and relations between man and animal. 

In contrast to the works of Daraniyagala, tranquil settings characterized the works of Richard Gabriel (1924-2016). Deeply devoted to the pillars of tradition, the artist brings out the ceaseless scuffle within the simple life where the common man had the freedom to dream - placid, graceful and quiet whilst also highlighting the conflict between man and beast and that of between beasts as well. His works exude charming qualities that are idyllic but simultaneously with underpinnings of darkness and skepticism through his skillful use of color. Similarly, the works of Ivan Peries (1921-1988) are ingenious, realistic, romantic; similar to a beguiling poetry. Of awe & angst, Peries’ works were built in with grief and ecstasy that transmuted into scenic serenity that were both sensitive and of restrained tenderness. The highly textured, almost monochromatic works of his last years were a sound progress towards a simplicity, which made his works serious and charming at the same time.

Unlike the others, George Keyt (1901 - 1993) maintains a cultural conscience when he approaches content and form as he is a classicist in thought yet modernist in style.  His large contribution to art is his tenacity in ensuring that tradition is taken forward, and interpreted from wider perspectives. Keyt’s works are seeped in cubistic elements influenced from European traditions that which he combined with the resolute line of the East. To justify his adoration for women, he leaned toward Indian and Hindu thoughts and literature in reflecting a sense of divine creativity with a penchant for erotic philosophies although he did depict the life of Buddha at the Gothami Vihare in Borella, Colombo. Whilst portraying the majesty of the Sri Lankan people, his work is emblematic of a sensual spirituality.

Corresponding to the concept of divine creativity, L. T. P Manjusri (1902 -1982), who left the ‘43 Group after the third exhibition was considered the Maverick. Although during his later years, his works engaged in erotic interpretations of the female body, of which one is featured on this curated selection in this edition of ARTRA Magazine, his works were primarily conditioned by the monastery and the preservation of temple paintings, specially of those from the 17th, 18th century Kandyan kingdom. Shamil Wanigaratne in his brilliant publication ‘L.T.P Manjusri, Artist & Scholar’ (2020) shares a beautiful testimony by Manjusri (1977) himself in which he states “By the end of 1930’s, I was not only doing my own paintings but also spending much of my time studying and copying temple murals…As the murals were often damaged, an element of interpretation and even occasionally, of reconstruction was necessary. 

I tried to create the spirit of the mural in its original state, while being faithful to its existing condition: color, tonal variations, weathering and decay, the vitality of line, compositional relationships – all this came into play.”

Wanigaratne further states that the importance of the history of art was not realized until the revered Historian Ananda Coomaraswamy and Manjusri campaigned for its preservation. Ananda Coomaraswamy in his open letter to Kandyan Chiefs in 1905, called for the preservation of this art, of which the impact of this letter was profound. Although Manjusri would have been only three years when this polemic piece of writing was published, 30 years later he was inspired to preserve its copies through his paintings of them.

Lastly, the portraiture of Harry Pieris (1901 - 1988) is transient in its ability to convey the innate persona of the subject in all its grandeur and follies. In conversation with Rohan de Soysa, the Chairman of the Sapumal Foundation over the many visits to the space over the years, he stated that most of Harry Pieris’ portraits were given back to the artist by those commissioned for capturing characteristics they were not happy to flaunt in fervor, thereby highlighting Pieris’ excellence in capturing more than that meets the eye, in subtlety that only the subject notices, often with prejudice. Pieris’s ability to paint beyond the picturesque, and express the emotive impulses and the tactile nuances with acute precision is his most gifted talent, which is similar and different to that of Collette’s caricatures, which make the works of the ‘43 Group extremely ecstatic for its beauteous paradoxes and varied delivery in form and style. 

In conclusion, the Modernist works of this eminent collective are suffused with a fresh vigor, intelligence and utmost sincerity. Though not denying the existence of a fair amount of pictorial and malleable influences of contemporary European art, they were stirred with their open eye to stimulate the viewers with a sense of the whimsical, and dark realities of the human condition. From those of political truths to social stigmas, the works of the ’43 Group are symbolic to visual idioms of the East & West, reflecting their vast understanding of the world, its goingson and the trends of the times with that of their pure intent to preserve a sense of our ancient drawings and traditions through lines, content and motifs. Whilst the works of the ’43 Group is mostly associated with that of elitism, academism and appreciating economic values within art fraternities, collectors and auction houses – their spirited works of wonderous styles contribute to a far more riveting conversation that reflects their cosmopolitan stance of their time.



3rd October, 2022 Visual Art | Paintings