43 Group

A Chronicle of Fifty Years in the Art of Sri Lanka

Neville Weereratne

Chapter III

New Perspectives

The view from abroad

It is ironical that the ‘43 Group had to extend itself to Europe to be recognised as a force for good. In Sri Lanka there was a tendency to treat them as the whipping-boy of every art critic and humourist writing in the press.

For Jayanta Padmanabha writing in the Daily News on the third exhibition of the Group in 1945, it was “the usual melange adultere de tout.” Justin Daraniyagala’s Nude had “an air of warmth and feeling about it which is unusual in the exhibition as a whole,” and, “much as I admire (Keyt’s) fine draughtsmanship and his sense of composition and colour, I would not personally choose to live with any of his numerous geometrical amours or abstract reveries in design.”

Another correspondent, now hiding behind the pen-name of ‘Picasso’ had this to say about the thirteenth exhibition of the Group, (and it is worthy of reproduction in full for the detail it goes into). He wrote in the Observer of 15 October 1959:

“It is an appalling experience to observe the degeneration that has set in in the works of these artists. Long years ago the late Lionel Wendt ascended Mt Sinai, forged out his message and handed the tablets to this group of fervent followers. For a brief moment they appeared to have been inspired but like water they soon found their level and for the last so many years they have been nakedly and unashamedly hogging the golden calf. I say that more in sorrow than in anger. For years they have been slogging away and the slightest hint of some real creative work, however halting, would have been considered encouraging, but so far it has been only a dreary rehashing and sloppy repetition of well-thumbed and emotionally dead themes. Spiritually and intellectually these artists have become bankrupt. Emotional immaturity and adolescent attitudes are writ large on works produced by them and fobbed off on the public as true works of art. The fact of the matter is that the ‘43 Groupers have deceived themselves and the tragedy is that they are completely unware of the fact. Through all the haze and maze of modern form and dashing technique which they have undoubtedly mastered, one can discern pimpled youths eating sweets and looking soulfully in the direction of the girls’ dormitory! They have nothing to say and they have said it in a pretty way. Ironically, the ‘43 Groupers are not aware that they are producing the very chocolate-box covers and calendar blocks which they denounced so bravely so long ago. The wheel has turned full circle, and they are contentedly munching the chocolates. One slim chance offers itself still to this group of so-called progressives and this is to hark back to the days of Mt Sinai and to agonisingly re-appraise their works – that is, if they are really serious about art and not mere flesh potters who are hankering after a cheap glory under the trumpets of modern techniques which is all they have been so far.”

Five years later, the press took another look at the Group, interestingly under the heading: Quick Change Artists, by ‘Denys Piers’, a pseudonym used by Denzil Peiris, then the editor of the Observer:

“When the ‘43 Group was formed it was the avant-garde of Ceylonese painting – an avant-garde trying to keep up with the straggling rear-guard of European art. The fashions affected were rather out-dated in the countries of their origin. It took time in the days when the airmail services were not developed for ideas to travel from Europe via England to the intellectual ivory towers located around Guildford Crescent and the other leisured areas of the Cinnamon Gardens. What was most obvious about the ‘43 Group was that these seemingly daring young men who were determined to “shock the bourgeoisie” were really quick change artists. In the course of one revolving moon one painter would do his canvases in the style of Picasso or Matisse and of Henry Moore. Rarely could one discover the individual idiom of the distinctive personality of the painter behind this protean changes of styles. This was a self-conscious art. It was obsessed with the techniques of painting – form and composition and colour. It was pastiche and not an authentic style. It had nothing to declare except that it was familiar with the modern art magazines and possibly a few modern prints. Rarely again did one detect a point of view, an intense inner vision which could transmute the grammar of art into an illuminating thought …”

Nevertheless. Denzil Peiris found at least three painters whom he could describe as “old masters” and who had something to say. He named George Keyt, Richard Gabriel and Aubrey Collette. He admitted that Daraniyagala’s Mother and Child was “movingly eloquent, pathetically haunting … in which colour and composition are used by this skilled craftsman to speak of a tormenting poverty.” He also acknowledged the work of Ivan Peries and Harry Pieris.

‘Janus’, (D. B. Dhanapala), in The Times of Ceylon of 28 October 1956 – after an entertaining story of how he had taken a visiting American artist and his wife around Colombo – described how the artist. Lewis by name, began rhapsodising over an item exhibited in the Colombo Museum. When asked if he knew what it was that he was raving about. Lewis had replied: “What does it matter what it is? What matters is the vigour, the life and the idea it expresses.” “That.” Dhanapala had explained, since the caption to the picture had been in Sinhala, “is an old Sinhalese map of an old village, drawn by a villager,” much to Lewis’ horror. Dhanapala had begun his piece by saying that he was one of “those very inferior, low-brow persons who are unable to appreciate, understand or even put up with futuristic, surrealistic, impressionistic or ‘43 Group art”, but after the experience with the American artist “I do not feel so sorry for myself when I am unable to understand or appreciate pictures done in oils of girls with legs like deformed snake gourds or ‘still life’ that has the appearance of something between an afternoon snooze and higher mathematics. There is a good deal of the unconscious hypocrite in all these high-brows who see in hideous horrors of colours mixed with geometry the delights of sublime art. They think they are feeling far superior to us when they rave about things they themselves are mostly vague about. I feel rather sorry for them. Expression of ideas in paint or sculpture with symbolic representations as has been done in the East for thousands of years certainly has a place anywhere, anytime. But the modern tendency in this groping for symbols is to degenerate art into comic, colourful patterns without a purpose in order to fool the people who refuse to be fooled. That is why we shall always think of the ‘43 Group as ‘43 Gropers. What they are groping for nobody seems to know. Least of all they themselves.

For these and other such critics, the reception the ‘43 Group had in Europe would have been a matter for great surprise, though they may have felt themselves vindicated by the London Times review of 19 December 1952 which made out that the Group had nothing significant to offer and that there was comparatively little, apart from subject, to suggest an Asian origin.

All the exhibitions in England and in France of the work of the members of the ‘43 Group, jointly or severally, were the result of the enormous enthusiasm and effort of Ranjit Fernando who was the representative of the Group. The first exhibition took place at the invitation of the Royal India, Pakistan and Ceylon Society at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington in London from 25 November to 23 December 1952. Among those present at the opening – by the architect and architectural critic, Robert Furneaux Jordan – were George Claessen, Collette, Gabriel and his wife, Sita Kulasekera, Ranjit Fernando, and myself.

John Berger, art critic of the New Statesman and Nation, was perhaps a bit tentative in his appraisal of the work. In the Foreword to the catalogue, he wrote the story of the Group’s attempts to achieve a synthesis between the work being done in Paris by Picasso and Matisse and the ancient tradition of Sigiriya “which yet took into account the emerging power and equality of Asia in the contemporary world”, could be discovered through a careful, chronological study of their work. Of Keyt, Berger said he “would surely be recognised as an artist of important genius”, and he was immensely taken by the work of Justin Daraniyagala whom, he said, he “would unhesitatingly place … alongside any of the twentieth century masters of Expressionism – with the possible exception of the Indonesian, Affandi.” Berger found “some evidence of uncertainty and immaturity” in the work of the younger painters but, he said, “one must not underestimate the difficulties these artists have to face. In terms of their art they are trying to do nothing less than solve the problems of a world revolution. That they occasionally succeed is far more significant than that they sometimes fail.” However, in his formal review in the Statesman, he went on to draw attention to “the force of Ivan Peries,” “the nervous good drawing of George Claessen,” and “the serious imagination of Richard Gabriel.”

In Art News (29 November 1952). Maurice Collis explained that the object of the Group was “to express Ceylon in terms that are both Oriental and contemporary.” and he found such an objective right “as only thus can a modern Asian art be brought into being.” The present exhibition was evidence of the creation of an authentic Sri Lankan school. Collis said. He went into some detail. Of Daraniyagala’s Woman and Clown, he said: ‘This is a picture that could hold its own in the best company. The paint quality is very high. I know very few English artists who can paint as well and none who can paint better”: of a picture by Gabriel: “… a really choice piece of craftsmanship which shows how thoroughly the artist has studied the technique of painting”: George Claessen’s Mother and Child: “a monumental work of strong feeling.” Collis complained that although Keyt was known in London through a book about him he was “represented in the exhibition by only a few trifles.” Collette’s Tamil Labourers, Collis said, was “originally composed.”

Grey scale artistic portrait of a woman

DARANIYAGALA: Design for London catalogue. 1952

Another eminent critic, Myfanny Piper, writing in Time & Tide, observed that though the Group was founded in 1943, many of the members had been painting since the twenties. The manner of their revolt against the academic traditions of the nineteenth century was imported, she thought. “but its virtue is that it is a manner far less distorting to the possibilities of their native vision. So … there is a sense of locality and emotion peculiarly theirs.”

The Spectator published a review from Michael Middleton, who wrote: “These artists, like their contemporaries throughout Asia, find themselves at a confluence of converging and conflicting cultures. It would be idle to pretend that as yet, they have all solved the equation, (on the whole, the attractions of Paris seem to have been greater than those of national tradition), but Claessen and Daraniyagala are clearly interesting artists, while the young Ranjit Fernando’s fluent gentle, semi-abstracted landscapes in soft, light greens seem to be purely personal and free of particular influence.”

Scan of catalogue cover

Cover for the Petit Palais catalogue, Paris. 1953

An unsigned notice in Freedom (15 November 1952) said that while the Group had benefited greatly from the stylistic developments of contemporary European art the painting of its members “remains, in feelings, rooted in the soil of their island and draws its vitality from the imaginative interpretation of the day to day life of the people. Equally free from the propagandist motives of refined escapism, this painting reveals another aspect of resurgence in the East and must be a stimulating challenge to the Western artist”. Roy Sackman urged utmost support for the Group in a review published in the same journal on 13 December.

As Ranjit Fernando describes it almost as inevitably as night follows day, “two months after the close of the exhibition (at the Imperial Institute), and as a result of the excitement it had obviously caused, an interest was shown by the French Embassy in London, in the possibilities of holding a similar exhibition in Paris.”

In July 1953, on an invitation extended by the cultural attache, Rene Varin, Ranjit Fernando took a few selected examples of the work of the artists to Paris. These were seen by Madame Suzanne Kahn, deputy director of the Petit Palais who immediately suggested an exhibition in the autumn of that year.

The next month Fernando accompanied by Richard and Sita Gabriel travelled from London to make final arrangements. The original collection was augmented with more paintings sent from Sri Lanka and, wrote Fernando. “a complete exhibition of sixty paintings and drawings was transported to Paris by boat and overland by road, in November.” The Arts Council of Ceylon had rejected an application for funds to help with the costs of transportation but notes Fernando, non-painter members of the Group responded effectively. However, the full collection did not arrive in Paris in time, because of exceptionally heavy fog, and the exhibition opened on 13 November 1953 with only 35 pictures on show. “It was a measure of the success of the exhibition, and of the interest it aroused, that several critics and members of the public visited the show a second time, after the second day when all the pictures were seen together to great advantage in the revealing light of Paris”, Ranjit Fernando said. He reported further that in five weeks, more than 10,000 people visited the show. A few days before the exhibition closed. Harry Pieris arrived in Paris after his tour of the United States.

The Foreword to the exhibition which ran from 13 November to 21 December 1953, was written by Andre Chamson, director of the Petit Palais, who also supervised the hanging of the pictures. The Introduction to the exhibition, by Peter de Francia, went into considerable detail on the background of the country from which these paintings had come. It was an island with perhaps the most beautiful scenery in the world, and her art was 2000 years old, de Francia said. “Formed from Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Sinhalese art usually reflects a temperament which is more peaceful, rational, sceptical and less violent than that of India: a temperament which has employed sculpture and the fresco as a basis for expression, and has never neglected the close relationship between the plastic arts and architecture”, he said. Of the present exhibition de Francia wrote: “What characterises this school and makes it a living thing, is the degree of accomplishment in forming a synthesis between an age-long tradition and the twentieth century … In spite of an artistic inequality and tendencies so varied and necessary at present, the unity of sentiment, and the essentially lyrical quality of these canvases are evidence of a remarkable vitality. They form, very certainly, the foundations of a great art: they mark a beginning only, but a beginning of plenty and hope.”

The leading French art and literary journal. Les Lettres Francaises, edited by the poet Louis Aragon, published a comprehensive review by the art critic, Georges Besson. He found the painters of the ‘43 Group to bring “a new vision of living beings, and of their country,” and proceeded to assess the eight painters in the exhibition. He wrote: “Side by side with the oldest of the exhibitors, George Keyt, who in spite of the revolutions in European painting, was among the first to rediscover the Sinhalese tradition, and the youngest painter in the Group, Ranjit Fernando, whose talent is being developed without any concessions to the art of the West, there is the work of Richard Gabriel, interpreter of rural life: the portraits of Harry Pieris: compositions by George Claessen, Aubrey Collette (Tamil Labourers), Ivan Peries (The Beach), all of them varied, subtle, austere and powerful, bearing witness to superb craftsmanship. It is likely, however, that the French public will give their particular attention to the nineteen works of Justin Daraniyagala which are like fragments of a huge monumental composition, bursting with life and bearing a very special kind of formal lyricism … This realist painter, this man of vision from Ceylon, with his extraordinary chromatic range of colour, this Daraniyagala, whose name we should all remember, will be known from now on as one of the important revelations of our time.”

To crown this reception came the purchase of two paintings for the permanent collection of the Musee du Petit Palais – the Portrait of Iranganie by Ivan Peries, and Fighting Bulls by Richard Gabriel.

Shortly after the Paris exhibition had been arranged, it was decided to hold more exhibitions in London – this time in the West End.