43 Group

A Chronicle of Fifty Years in the Art of Sri Lanka

Neville Weereratne


H. A. Ian Goonetileke

The ‘43 Group is fifty years old this year, on 29 August to be precise. Neville Weereratne has written its history with loving care and a compassionate understanding. It will serve as a lasting memorial of an artistic movement which blazed new trails and created waves in the sluggist backwater of art in a dying phase of colonialism in the island. Of the principal founder-artists only three are alive and still active at their easels – Keyt at 92 a bright particular star. Lionel Wendt, its guiding light and virtual father-figure died fifteen months after the initial thrust had been achieved, but the momentum was never less than vibrant for the next quarter of a century. It would be true to say that if the Group had not been born at that point of time, it would have had to be invented, so compelling was the necessity for change and upheaval. Sanctimonious styles of academism, pseudo-Oriental impersonations, and ill-digested imitations of Western naturalism had for too long held sway into the nineteen-thirties.

The new painters decided to break free of these swaddling bands and strike out at the establishment. Their work was suffused with a fresh vigour, intelligence and sincerity. Though not denying the significant pictorial and plastic influences of contemporary European art, they were inspired by an open-eyed and intent dedication to the crafts and skills of draughtsmanship and colour in original and indigenous ways. The congenial idioms of East and West were, however, assimilated with a confident eclecticism, dictated by the personal conditioning and intellectual evolution of each artist concerned.

It is this cultural awakening and the desire to recreate and renew outmoded concepts, forms, and symbols to define and express new urges in content, mood, line and colour which Neville Weereratne sets out to delineate. His zeal and passion for the task have combined with memory and desire to provide an entrancing and informative chronicle of the years before 1943 and after, when the Group made its greatest impact on the promotion and nurturing of the arts in Sri Lanka. Neville Weereratne documents from contemporary sources, the reminiscences of the artists themselves, and a culling of bouquets and brickbats from the critics a fascinating story of the emergence of this unique collective, its successes, and the international exposure it received. Besides, a whole new clan of younger artists was discovered and presented to widen the circle, and the ripples continue to spread, even though the last formal Group exhibition (its 16th) was held as long ago as February 1967.

Its secretary and moving spirit from the beginning, Harry Pieris, died in March 1988, and this important and timely book, more than ten years in the making, will serve as a worthy tribute to him as well. The Group admitted non-artists to membership, and I was duly elected to its select fold in October 1945. Aware of its activities and close to some of its founders by then, entry was a springboard to a rewarding and sustaining experience of the arts in my own life. It has been, therefore, a honour and a privilege to have been asked to contribute this Foreword, and I thank Neville Weereratne for allowing me to become a small part of his commendable enterprise. Reading it I have relived 1943 and all that.

H. A. Ian Goonetileke
Sri Lanka,
5 January 1993