43 Group

A Chronicle of Fifty Years in the Art of Sri Lanka

Neville Weereratne

Chapter II

The Flower Opens

The inaugural exhibition

The idea of forming an independent group of actists who could participate in the renaissance of the country in general and pursue their own tenets in particular, came from Ivan Peries. He it was who first put the thought to Harry Pieris and Lionel Wendt, with the first giving an assurance of Justin Daraniyagala’s support, and Wendt giving a like assurance on behalf of George Keyt.


The Harry Pieris lounge today. Photograph by Dominic Sansoni

Its immediate importance lay in the fact that these splendid painters, Daraniyagala and Keyt, were brought into their own. They had tried again and again to show in the Society of Arts exhibitions, and had been frequently rejected. The ‘43 Group was to provide the first permanent showcase for them.

This fraternity embodied a different set of values, and much has to be said for the efforts of an Englishman, Charles Freegrove Winzer, who came in 1920 to Sri Lanka as the Ceylon Government’s Inspector of Art attached to the Education Department. What he had to contribute was not new to Lionel Wendt. Justin Daraniyagala or Harry Pieris who had all been studying in Europe about the same time and were familiar with developments there but for Keyt and Geoffrey Beling, Winzer provided a window into a fresh and unfamiliar world of painting. He introduced them to the work of the Impressionists; to Pissaro. Manet, Renoir. Degas. Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh; and Picasso and Matisse. Winzer himself was an astonishingly fine draughtsman. The Colombo Art Club which he set up and at which Keyt and Beling forgathered must surely have been the precursor of the ‘43 Group.

If ever a manifesto was needed for the Group. Winzer’s view of the matter gave it expression. Stressing the need to preserve Sinhalese culture, he said: “Our materials are different, our conditions are different, the demands of the public are different, and the public must be trained and enlightened by us sufficiently not only to appreciate our work but also that of the past which is appreciated actually as are relics, as signs of past greatness but not out of time as works of art. But in spite of all the differences of time, of condition, of presentation, the eternal qualities of art, as shown at Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, should be studied, adapted to our life, and a continuity with them achieved. I may add that this continuity is closer to the decorative conceptions of modern art than to the realistic, true-to-life prettiness and cheap harmonies of academic achievement.”

Then came the influence of Lionel Wendt who had himself just returned from studies in England, studies in law dutifully undertaken at the behest of his parents; and music, selfindulgently. He had acquired a taste for modern painting and brought back reproductions of this new work. Issues of the French art magazine. Cahiers d’Art, arrived. Their impact was soon to be seen.

So here were the ancient and the modern. Here was conflict, the stuff of revolution, which was to serve as the catalyst for the creation of the ‘43 Group.

George Keyt in a Foreword to the sixteenth exhibition of the Group in January 1967 said: “Happily for us the ‘43 Group is no narrow, fanatical body in its reception of modern art and the welcome it has always extended to Western trends in Europe and what it could gather from such vital trends in America. In fact its main cause of origin was the rejection of the obsolete and the dead in the art of Ceylon and all that has resulted from the obsolete and the dead deriving from the art of Europe.” In an interview published in the commemorative pamphlet for George Keyt’s 90th birthday felicitation in 1991. Lester James Peries maintains that the idea of the ‘43 Group was solely Lionel Wendt’s. “The creation of the ‘43 Group was Wendt’s supreme achievement,” he says. “Nobody else could have done it. Bringing those painters together was an act of genius. If Lionel Wendt did nothing else, he should be remembered for being the catalyst of this enormously important historic event.” He adds: “After Lionel’s early death, it was Harry (Pieris) who kept the Group going and kept it growing. I don’t think Harry’s contribution to the ‘43 Group and to art in this country has been properly assessed. Harry was selfless in his devotion to the cause espoused by the Group. He worked quietly …”

In a memoir prepared by Ivan Peries for this account he said: “I want you to play down the fact that I was the moving spirit … because without the support of Harry (Pieris) and Lionel Wendt nothing would have happened. They gave me their wholehearted support, and credit really goes to them. I think we should play down my part in it and consider it as a three-man venture. I also would like to place on record the fact that I had letters from each of the painters of the first exhibition but unfortunately they have been destroyed.” He also complained: “There has been a letter in the papers giving credit for the formation of the Group to Justin (Daraniyagala) and Len van Geyzel. There is not a whiff of truth in this.”

With regard to who was present at the inaugural meeting. Richard Gabriel has a different recollection. He wrote recently that though Lionel Wendt was responsible for the Group, getting the artists together was no easy job. “Ivan did the spade work, running up and down, meeting Harry, Seling, Wendt, etc. One day,” Gabriel said, “Wendt had dropped in to see Ivan and had seen one of my paintings, and this was sitting upside down. Wendt had remarked that the picture was interesting but would look better the right way up. ‘Why not rope him in too as a member?’ he had suggested. That’s how I came to be an original member of the Group … As for those present at the preliminary meeting at Guildford Crescent at Wendt’s I am certain Justin, Seling, Keyt. Lester, Harry, Ivan and I were there. It was Ivan who took me along as I was trying to back out, as usual. Manju was not there; if he was one would surely remember.”

Lester James Peries says in the interview referred to before, that Keyt, Daraniyagala, Seling and Manjusri were also among those present at the inaugural meeting of the Group. The minutes of the meeting, kept by Harry Pieris, do not mention them (See Appendix A).

The official record is that on 29 August 1943, seven people met in Wendt’s house at 18 Guildford Crescent, Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo, to form the ‘43 Group. They were Ivan Peries, his brother, Lester James Peries, Aubrey Collette, George Claessen, Richard Gabriel, Harry Pieris, and their host, Lionel Wendt. They nominated a committee consisting of Wendt, Ivan Peries, Collette, and Gabriel from among those present; and coopted W. J. G. Beling, Ralph Claessen, Justin Daraniyagala, S. R. Kanakasabai, George Keyt, and Manjusri Thero. Harry Pieris was to be the secretary; and George Claessen, treasurer.

In Lester Peries’ highly entertaining version: “My brother and I were there fairly early. He was rather silent Ivan hated two or three painters there with the depths of feeling which only Lionel and Harry (Pieris) and I knew. Lionel had cautioned him earlier – ‘Please, Ivan, be on your best behaviour, and don’t come after drinking a jar of toddy!’ But Ivan was a good boy. He didn’t disrupt the proceedings! … The real surprise of the evening was Manjusri Thero whom none of us knew much about. Lionel Wendt had kept his arrival secret. We all expected high-flown, classical Sinhala from the monk. But Manjusri Thero put everyone at ease. He only spoke about the way he primed the canvas before painting – squeezing tubes and so forth. By this time, things were moving nicely; Lionel Wendt had lost the touch of nervousness he displayed in the beginning and looked jolly.”

According to Ivan Peries it was Wendt’s original idea to call it the ‘43 Group. He said: “We all met at Lionel Wendt’s place and it was a very cosy and comfortable affair. Everyone agreed that the name was a good one. It went well with the little circle on top, and it also reminded people that the year was important in relation to the work of some of the best painters in the island.” It is easy to visualise a band of earnest young men, each agitated by his own view of art, himself, and the world around him, all needing to be held in check. Though the persons of this tableau may not have been exactly those that Lester Peries remembers, they fit into the silhouettes each conjured for himself. Lester Peries recalls them as “temperamental characters,” and, he said, “getting a whole lot (of them) under one roof could have spelt disaster. There could have been volcanic eruptions, abuse, angry talk. I think Lionel was aware of such dire possibilities.”

Aubrey Collette differed again: he recalled eight people present at the first meeting, but excluded Lester Peries and Manjusri Thero. “The most remarkable thing about the Group,” Collette said in a radio broadcast in Melbourne in 1991. “was that it was made up of artists who were so diverse in style and temperament. We were by no means a school of painting in the sense of the Impressionists in Paris or the Heidelberg School of Australia. Each member had his own individual style and outlook, and yet we held together as a cohesive whole.”

Gabriel remarked: “On the whole the members of the Group were close friends. I doubt if there was ever professional jealousy …”

In a memoir prepared for the present account. George Claessen said the beginnings of the ‘43 Group were vivid in his memory: “It blossomed as though it had to be – its growth till that moment had been somewhat invisible. But minds were at work in men and women everywhere – but let me confine myself to the art world of that time, where an intellectual resurgence had already begun but had as yet no legitimate expression. Justin Daraniyagala, Harry Pieris, George Keyt, and Geoff Beling (themselves important artists and a source of inspiration and encouragement). Lionel Wendt. Arthur van Langenberg, Harry Wendt, Harold Pieris, Mrs Forbes, Lyn Ludowyk and many more, were intellectually alive.” Claessen recalled the atmosphere of the evening “… amid the unrest of that period … We, as artists, had each his own instinctual way to follow – but what became truth in art was accepted regardless of fashion or restrictive notions of differing cultures, the essence of art being universal and without epoch. What this manisfestation had was the spark of life – the rest had to follow.”

There was no manifesto needed among a company of people who, though they practised in different and unique styles, were committed to certain fundamental considerations on the nature and function of art.

In due course, the painters among them and the one sculptor, Ralph Claessen, held their first exhibition in a huge corrugated-iron warehouse at 525 Darley Road, Maradana, which also housed the Photographic Society of Ceylon. There were no speeches: an exhibition opens like a flower, Wendt had said. A journalist present at the preview found the opening night made good newspaper copy.

“To begin with, there were the surrealistic surroundings amid which one discovered that hidden hall in Darley Road. Then there was the crowd of artists and their ‘arty’ friends. Hardly a Philistine in sight: but many a proud papa and fond mama basking in the reflected glory of their off-springs’ genius.

“Models were also apt to come to life disturbingly. You admired the portrait of a despondent chess player in khaki, and suddenly the identical slim lieutenant stood beside you in the flesh. One or two pianists obstructed your view of their painted conversation piece.

“Dominating the scene was an artist who explained his pictures, or the correct attitude towards art with almost ferocious intensity.

“Some people were more thrilled by the titles of the pictures than by the pictures themselves …”

The sarcasm was characteristic of the popular approach of the press.

Still, there was kinder reception as well. Tori de Sousa, sometime editor of The Times of Ceylon, found the inaugural exhibition of the ‘43 Group “a stimulating relief from the usual pictures of old men with long beards, temple elephants and flamboyant trees. There are at least half a dozen works that would do honour to any exhibition anywhere in the world, and more than three times that number of exhibits that repay closest study …” But even so, de Sousa could not resist the calculated comic metaphor: “George Keyt continues to fascinate with his geometry and algebra, his tangents and segments and his quadratics equating the human figure with all manner of harmonies, exciting and at all times satisfying rhythms and patterns. The Journey, one of the biggest of his pictures is a splendid example of his one-track genius.”

This reluctant applause was, at least, good-humoured, but not so the scorn lavished on the ‘43 Group by a British army officer, John Napper, official war artist and public relations man, who wrote in the Ceylon Review of 1 December, 1943:

“My strongest impression of this exhibition was that it was conceited (dictionary definition: ‘Conceit – over-high opinion of oneself; personal judgment’ … )

“I liked the work of one man. Manjusri Thero, for I felt that in his work there was a decided attempt to see things for himself through his own eyes.

“For the remainder, whilst I reiterate that any artistic endeavour is better than none and the reaction of the ‘43 Group is splendid, they might well be not very good copies of paintings by Picasso, Rouault, Mark Gerther, and even Ethelbert White …

“… they must realise that the world that has grown up with Max Ernst, Dali, D.H.Lawrence, Ernest Toller and Stravinsky is no longer shocked and considers such behaviour as rather childish, and if not, affected. Let them spend their time going out amongst the earth, seeking genuine feelings and passions.”

Lionel Wendt’s response was adroit. Some months later, following a Ceylon At War exhibition in 1944, he wrote in the Ceylon Daily News that Napper had offered no criticism, but “only accusation – ‘conceit’, ‘copies’, ‘childish’, ‘affected’ – and a tone of Olympian patronage that today is funny because we have now seen Lt Napper’s own work, presumably the result of growing up with the queer hotch-potch of Ernst. Dali. Lawrence, etc, and ‘going out amongst the earth’ etc.”

Wendt had more dexterous remarks to offer about Napper, whose part in this story is important if only because it led to the resignation of Manjusri Thero from the Group. Manjusri had been singled out by Napper, and the monk had enjoyed the accolades and the attention.

After Manjusri’s resignation. Lester James Peries was asked to fill the vacancy as an honorary member. And after Lionel Wendt’s death, Arthur van Langenberg was, in Ivan Peries’ expression, “gathered into the fold.”

Recalling those first days. Ivan Peries said: “There was a great deal of rivalry between George (Keyt) and Justin (Daraniyagala), and I am afraid we took sides. All the younger painters, with the exception of George Claessen, were on the side of Justin. George (Claessen), on the day of the private view, persuaded Martin Russell to buy all the Keyts. I was trying to persuade Martin to buy the portrait of Mrs Nihal Gunasekera (by Harry Pieris) because it was a stunning picture and it was priced at 750 rupees which was a bit much at that time. The Keyts were fairly cheap. They were 75 rupees upwards, and in the end, on George Claessen’s advice, Martin bought the whole lot up.”

The Group disdained officiousness, and one of the first matters it gave its mind to at the inaugural meeting was that the committee “may not appoint a board of judges.” This overcame the sorts of problems the Ceylon Society of Arts created when it relied on a Selection Committee that pandered to its prejudices, and endorsed its tastes. In this way, the society had repeatedly rejected the work of George Keyt, Justin Daraniyagala and W. J. G. Beling. By saying that the Group would not depend on a board of judges, it was placing greater reliance on the member’s own judgement, the kind of judgement the artist is called upon to make at all times in the serious pursuit of his craft.

The minutes of that August 1943 meeting add: “It is the intention of the Group that contributing artists will select their own work before submission and the usual practice will be to exhibit all works submitted.” This generated a self-discipline of a very distinguished order.

“In furtherance in every way of art in all its branches”, as allowed for by the constitution, the Group organised several exhibitions and performances outside the work of its own members. They included, for instance, exhibitions of Kandyan dancing by the Madhyama Lanka Nritya Mandala, among whose members were Suramba, Ukkuva, Guneya, Punchi Gura and Jayana (at the King George’s Hall, 30 September 1945, and later; and on several other occasions at the Lionel Wendt Memorial Arts Centre with these and other dancers); a documentary film on the work of Rodin; photographic reproductions from Ajanta; a photographic exhibition of Hindu and Buddhist sculpture from the ancient Khmer empire of Indo-China; French Impressionists, an exhibition of prints and originals (18 Guildford Crescent, 10-23 July 1948); The Hiroshima Panels, the unique response of two artists. Iri Maruki and his wife Toshiko Akamatsu, to the deaths of more than 400,000 people killed by the atom bomb on 6 August 1945 (Colombo Art Gallery, 18-28 July 1957); and so on.

Putting all of these things together became Harry Pieris’ very special delight. He designed and supervised the hanging of every exhibition in the Darley Road warehouse, in the Art Gallery on Green Path (now the Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha), and at Guildford Crescent, first in Lionel Wendt’s house and later in the gallery that was part of the memorial arts centre built there. Harry Pieris also compiled and designed the catalogues for each of the exhibitions organised by the ‘43 Group; and he it was who designed the logo of the Group with the dot on top, not Lionel Wendt as Ivan Peries would have us believe.