43 Group

A Chronicle of Fifty Years in the Art of Sri Lanka

Neville Weereratne

Chapter IV

The Canvas Stretches

International plaudits

The Canvas Stretches

International plaudits

For an artist, recognition comes in the form of patronage, or, nowadays, in the laurel wreaths that critics bestow on them. For Justin Daraniyagala, Ivan Peries, Richard Gabriel and George Claessen, tribute came in the form of prizes won at the biennales of Venice and Sao Paulo; as well as patronage. For the others, acclaim.

All this followed the much-discussed first exhibition of the Group at the Imperial Institute in London in 1952, and the highly successful showing of their work at the Petit Palais in Paris in 1953, where Ivan Peries and Gabriel enjoyed the applause of that city when the gallery bought a work from each for its permanent collection.

In London, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Beaux Arts Gallery and the Artists International Association Gallery were the venues for the next series of exhibitions of the ‘43 Group early in 1954. These were followed by a major exhibition of the Group in Cambridge to which it had been invited by the Heffer Gallery.

Scan of catalogue cover

The 29th Biennale catalogue, Venice 1958

Public discussions of contemporary painting in Sri Lanka were arranged as a means of attracting greater attention to the exhibitions. Ranjit Fernando presided at the meeting organised by the Ceylon Students Association and held at the A.I.A.Gallery. The guest speakers were Martin Russell and William Graham, author of an extensive appreciation of the work of the ‘43 Group in the art magazine, Studio. Ivan Peries was present at this meeting. The second seminar took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, with Maurice Collis presiding. The speakers were John Irwin, Peter de Francia, Lawrence Alloway and Martin Russell. Ranjit Fernando reported that Alloway, speaking third, caused a stir when he condemned the work of the Group. “Unfortunately,” recalled Fernando, “far from being an attack on aesthetic grounds, his harangue was more in the nature of a personal attack against one of his fellow critics – against Mr Collis (who was unable to defend himself from the chair) and against Mr Berger who was not present at the meeting.”

The Institute of Contemporary Art wanted an exhibition of George Keyt’s work; and the Beaux Arts that of Justin Daraniyagala. Ranjit Fernando explained that because the dates of these exhibitions seemed to coincide, it was decided to hold a third exhibition of the work of the other members of the Group at the same time. “It was felt that these three simultaneous exhibitions would make a strong impact on the gallery public of London, and certainly invite more widespread and serious attention from the British critics”, he wrote.

The Keyt exhibition opened first on 6 January 1954, followed by the A.I.A Gallery exhibition which opened five days later on 11 January, and the Daraniyagala exhibition on 13 January. The two one-man shows, wrote Ranjit Fernando, were retrospective in character and consisted of more pictures than had been seen before. The Keyt exhibition was organised by Martin Russell, a long-time patron of Keyt’s and the author of the monograph published by Marg in Bombay in 1950, and consisted largely of paintings from Russell’s own collection. They traced the artist’s development from 1943. The Daraniyagala collection went back to 1935 and contained most of his paintings up to 1953. The mixed exhibition consisted of works by Claessen, Collette, Fernando, Gabriel, Ivan Peries and Harry Pieris.

Maurice Collis traced the story of art through its various manifestions in India and in China over time to arrive at the circumstances that led to the development of the ‘43 Group. In his Introduction to the catalogue of the Daraniyagala exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Collis drew attention to the agitation in certain Asian countries for freedom from colonialism, and the equally important and parallel striving for artistic freedom. He wrote: “The urgent problem that confronts all the former colonial possessions there is how to rehabilitate their arts. Their artists are addressing themselves to the solution of this problem.” Maurice Collis identified the culture and aspirations of Sri Lanka with those of India. He described this as Hindu in a generic sense and he saw what the artists of the ‘43 Group were doing as an attempt by them to lead the way in the revival of Hindu art.

Commenting on Justin Daraniyagala specifically, Collis said that the artist was “conscious that the Ceylon of today is not only the child of its Hindu tradition but also a member of world society”, and that “he has set himself to create a style which reflects both these fundamental truths … He has humour, tenderness, gaiety and strong feeling. He is human and fantastic, simple and extravagant. His colour is clean, his textures rich, his impastos vivacious – in short, his paint has great quality. His handling is continually that of a master. A magistral personality emerges from his canvases.” He said: “London by recognising his talents will aid a liberated Asia to rehabilitate for the modern world an art tradition whose potentialities are illimitable.”

William Archer wrote the Introduction to the catalogue of paintings and drawings by George Keyt. In it, Archer traced the development of the artist from his early interest in the Buddhist revival which had expressed itself quite unequivocally in the twenties to Keyt’s discovery of “a calligraphic line derived from Sinhalese art:’ Keyt began to devote himself exclusively to painting about 1927 when he was twenty-six years of age. In the early thirties, Keyt became aware of the work of Picasso and Leger whose ideas began to dominate. “At the same time,” Archer said, “the release from naturalism which followed also released in him certain strongly Indian qualities, and thus there developed an art which, if modern in appearance, is even more Indian in its basic character … The qualities which, from 1933 onwards, have given Keyt’s painting this strongly national character are a fervid appreciation of physical form, a passionate exploration of poetic romance and a certain close connexion between his idioms and those of traditional Indian art.” (Archer was to explore this idea at greater length in his 1959 book. India and Modern Art, published by George Allen & Unwin).

The Manchester Guardian review by Stephen Bone (15 January 1954) saw in Keyt’s large figure compositions painted in plain, bright colours “a style which is individual though it obviously owes a good deal to both folk art and Picasso. His decorative sense,” Bone said, “is vigorous, and he makes admirably simple, lucid statements, never detracting from their effect by timid qualifications.” On the other hand, Peter de Francia writing in Art News and Review (23 January 1954) found little of the West in Keyt’s painting, work that was “full of a formal sensuality, of a type that was hardly ever found in Western art, and completely lacking in any type of painting of the 20th century.” De Francia thought the drawing “extremely economical, thought out more than felt … His pictures have a particularly singing quality.” T. W. Earp, writing in the Daily Telegraph observed that while Picasso and Matisse had borrowed from Indian tradition. “the technical idiom of the Ceylonese artists is often unmistakably that of the School of Paris … But Keyt,” Earp added. “brings his own invention in lustrous colour to the dynamic design compressed into his canvas. The pictures of Ceylonese life and landscape throb with rhythm and there is great charm in his figurative interpretation of modes in Indian music.”

The critics voted each way in attempting to assess Keyt. John Berger was to dismiss him while suggesting that he was “important because his paintings represent an attempt to create a new and national synthesis. He gathers together elements from Picasso in Paris, the Indian cave paintings at Ajanta, and the Sinhalese at Sigiriya. But unfortunately”, said Berger. “his works remain ‘arrangements’. He lacks the fire to fuse the elements together because his mood is too nostalgic and his observation too schematic.”(New Statesman and Nation. 23 January 1954). The Connoisseur of April 1954 published quite a contrary opinion of the principal painters by Bernard Denvir. “Seeing how they manipulated shapes and colours which had been forged in the ateliers of Montparnasse and Montmartre, one came to realise how their predecessors reacted to the varying influences of Buddhism, of Islam, and of the West”, Denvir wrote. He thought Keyt’s work “the most aggressively sensual. But whereas his paintings looked often enough like not very happy pastiches of Picasso, his drawings had a dignity of line and a plastic seriousness reminiscent of Matisse at his best. Daraniyagala”, said Denvir. “has absorbed the Western consciousness more completely. His work is instinctively Occidental, and it is only in the subtle gradations of his colours that one senses an individual personal exoticism.” Denvir thought that none of the other painters approached the stature of Keyt or Daraniyagala though, he said, “the works of Ivan Peries and Ranjit Fernando showed the exercise of genuine sensibility and plastic power.”

E. M. Forster opened the exhibition of the ‘43 Group at the Heffer Gallery of Cambridge on 22 February 1954. It consisted of 100 pictures selected from the three London shows and was the largest and most impressive of the Group’s exhibitions, occupying two floors of the gallery. In Maurice Collis’ assessment (in Art News and Review. 20 February 1954), the Group had not succeeded in bridging the East-West dichotomy, though, he said, “it may be that Asian painting in oils, which must at first build itself on a European foundation, is bound to resemble Western contemporary painting more than old Oriental for a considerable time. The creation of a distinctive style evolved from both may take a hundred years.” It was his view that Keyt and Daraniyagala were artists of considerable merit who had learned a great deal from studying in the West and “had been able to combine what they had learned with elements in the traditional styles of India. Conscious that the Ceylon of today is not only the child of its Hindu tradition, but also a member of a world society, they have set themselves to create a style which reflects both these fundamental truths.”

Collis also observed that the London critics could not agree in their assessment of Keyt and Daraniyagala. “Some argued that in Keyt’s case there was a close connection between his idiom and those of traditional Indian art; others were of the opinion that his style was dominated by Picasso and Leger. On the whole one felt that his style would not be as easy for Indians or Ceylonese to understand as might be supposed were it really an evolution of their own classical or folk art. The fact that over here it offered little difficultly was, I think, an indication that it was closer to our sources than to Asia’s. The general view of Daraniyagala was that the quality of his paint was extremely high, and that he could hold his own in that respect with European painters of the first class. As his mode of expression could not be traced so easily to any one European school, he was probably the more successful in giving an impression of synthesis between East and West. Nevertheless, some critics thought that Daraniyagala was only one more recruit of the School of Paris, though they allowed he had a great talent.” That talent was recognised when Daraniyagala won one of two UNESCO prizes from among over 4700 works exhibited at the 28th Venice Biennale in 1956 and one of his paintings – The Fish, now in the collection of Dr and Mrs Ralph Deraniyagala – was reproduced by the New York Graphic Society for UNESCO’s World Art series of colour prints.