43 Group

A Chronicle of Fifty Years in the Art of Sri Lanka

Neville Weereratne


1943 and all that

I undertook the prepartion of this account of the ‘43 Group more than 10 years ago, at a time when I thought I had sufficient time at my disposal for the task. As things happened various other commitments came in the way and this project was, of necessity, put off.

As originally planned, the book was to consist of an introductory chapter describing the circumstances under which this fellowship of artists came together as the ‘43 Group. This was to lead to a series of essays on each of the principal members of the Group, contributed by several scholars. Each of the artists I contacted was most enthusiastic about the project – Harry Pieris, Ivan Peries, Aubrey Collette, George Claessen and Richard Gabriel. None of the people I invited to write, however, responded – much to my initial disappointment and to the amusement of Harry Pieris, who suggested that this was because each of them secretly wished to write his own history of the Group. He himself very kindly sent me his collection of papers to be copied here in Melbourne. I have used this, other archival material and the recollections of some of the original members of the Group to compile this chronicle. I have drawn freely on Ranjit Fernando’s report on the activities of the ‘43 Group in Europe in the years 1952 to 1954 – activities planned and executed by him with meticulous care and overwhelming success. I have also relied on my own recollections of those times and events and my association with these painters over many decades. To avoid pedantry, I have used the first person singular. I hope this will not detract from the overall narrative.

In one of the numerous letters that were exchanged at the time Harry Pieris was keen to see included “all the adverse criticisms about the Group.” It had been my intention that he should read this text before it went into print, and give it his imprimatur. Alas he died in March 1988, shortly after the death of Ivan Peries in London. Aubrey Collette died in Melbourne in January 1992, and Geoff Beling died in March 1992. Justin Daraniyagala died in 1967 and Lionel Wendt much earlier in 1944. And so, of the founder-members, that leaves only Richard Gabriel and George Claessen to whom I can turn for verification of the details contained here. George Keyt now in his 90s, is best left to savour his own good, great years.

In compiling this history it is necessary to recall three painters who, though they were not members of the ‘43 Group – and who may indeed have been vigorously opposed to it – contributed to the development of contemporary painting in Sri Lanka. The self-taught centenarian Mudaliyar A. C. G. S. Amarasekera had been, at one time or another, the first tutor of both Justin Daraniyagala and Harry Pieris. The Mudaliyar staunchly maintained a different set of principles from that of the Group and was ever prepared to debate his point of view – as he did in the press, in a series of exchanges with Lionel Wendt. The Mudaliyar led the Opposition, so to speak, and jealously guarded the interests of the Ceylon Society of Arts. With him must be remembered J. D. A. Perera who had worked with C. F. Winzer during his time in Sri Lanka from 1920 to 1931. With Winzer and Lionel Wendt. Perera had been associated in the organisation of the Ceylon Art Club. He came under the influence of Dame Ethel Walker during two years spent in London on a Government scholarship in the early 1940s. David Paynter was Ivan Peries’ and Aubrey Collette’s teacher briefly. On a four-year scholarship to London in the early twenties he attended the Royal Academy Schools winning awards along the way. His later travels in Italy, also on scholarship, left a deep impression on him, particularly the Italian Renaissance. Both Paynter and J. D. A. Perera served as principals of the Government College of Art. None of its students, however, became members of the ‘43 Group.

Apart from what everyone agrees was the premature exit of Manjusri in 1944, the Group experienced a moment of anxiety in 1959 when George Keyt offered to resign. He did this, he said in a letter to Harry Pieris, because an article appearing in a local journal called Sankha had been critical of his work, and the writer of the piece had been identified as a member of the Group. It had embarrassed him before the Peradeniya university community, he said. I was the author of this offending essay. I argued that Keyt had successfully created a formula for solving the problems of design which he applied freely to illustrating incidents from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. He read this as an implied criticism though I had meant it to be a simple description of Keyt’s pictorial vocabulary. However, the matter was soon resolved, George Keyt accepting my position and the apology I offered for his discomfiture. The episode served to confirm Keyt’s place in the heart and mind of the Group, and of the Group’s in Keyt’s.

Among its many vicissitudes and the Group’s hostile critics was an encounter with the Department of Inland Revenue which, one might say, became almost vexatious. Sometime in 1948, the Group applied to the commissioner for an exemption from income tax. The plea was rejected, the department maintaining that the Group existed mainly to further the interests of its members. The Group had shown that in its first five years it had sponsored ten public exhibitions of painting, sculpture and prints, and staged recitals of Kandyan dancing. It was argued that members received no pecuniary benefit except from the sale of paintings and sculpture and that these proceeds were naturally liable to individual income tax. What the Group received from subscriptions (five rupees a year it always remained), collections at the door and from commissions on the sale of exhibits was devoted partly towards the advancement of the objects of the Group, the rest being donated to such charities as the Deaf and Blind School, the Social Service League and the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund. An appeal to the Income Tax Board of Review, against the levy of 25 per cent on the Group’s receipts, also failed. A newspaper took up the matter earnestly and published a leading article arguing that “far from seeking to exact from them contributions to revenue, the Government should subsidise their activities.” However not even the formidable skills of N. K. Choksy K.C. who appeared for the Group were of any use. Another newspaper suggested that in this case the law might well be considered to be the proverbial ass.

But that too was a long while ago, and having recollected those anxious moments and let them pass, it is necessary to see where the achievement of the ‘43 Group leaves us fifty years later.

Put quite simply we have to acknowledge that the Group has acted in every way for the furtherance of art in all its branches as declared in its constitution. The impact of the values it exhibited in the work of its members, the presence 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 behaviour), its belief in the inherent goodness of the country’s past (though its pleas for the proper conservation of our antiquities 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. The Group was prepared to test itself within the severely critical frame of European practice, and, as our story will tell, went on to enjoy its applause.

The principal artists of the Group have now each acquired a stature and a place for himself that no longer requires the steadying hand of the co-operative. For those who do, the Sapumal Foundation, so thoughtfully set up by Harry Pieris, serves as the natural repository and heir to the philosophy and programme of the Group. If the retrospective exhibition of the work of Justin Daraniyagala in October 1992, twenty-five years after his death, is any indication, the George Keyt Foundation which sponsored it may also be expected to provide the means for continuing these activities.

The influence of the Group would be seen in other areas of interest. The Young Artists Group was founded by Cora Abraham from among the students of the Melbourne Art Classes which had been set up in Bambalapitiya in 1949 in collaboration with Sita Kulasekera. It produced, for instance, Laki Senanayake, whose original work so greatly enhanced Ena de Silva’s already excellent batiks. Ena de Silva herself encouraged the revival and development of a distinctive Sri Lankan architecture in the design for her home in Colombo by Geoffrey Bawa, who has himself since developed a characteristic style and personal ambience. And there is Barbara Sansoni, whose spectacularly colourful and quite superb handwoven fabrics have achieved a worldwide reputation. All these developments are entirely within the ambit of the ‘43 Group’s concerns. These works now embellish many hotels and public buildings in Sri Lanka. Indeed, its power to attract popular interest may be gauged from the use an astute bookseller made of the ‘43 Group. In October 1955, Justin de Silva of K. V. G. de Silva & Sons, invited an exhibition of the Group to be hung among the art books in his shop in Bambalapitiya which served splendidly to satisfy the shop’s commercial interests and, as Mervyn de Silva observed in the Daily News at the time, helped “to foster a wider recognition of the creative achievements of our artists, a recognition so necessary and so richly deserved”.

It is also quite amusing to recollect the discomfiture of a newspaper columnist upon seeing the catalogue of the thirteenth exhibition of the Group in 1959, which contained Sinhala translations of the titles of the exhibits and of the notes on the artists. “I do not know whether this is a gesture to those critics who have been complaining in the past of the so-called antinational bias or whether it was a genuine attempt to help a non-English speaking person, if such an unlikely individual turns up”, he wrote. He would have been interested to see that the catalogue for the exhibition of The Hiroshima Panels organised by the ‘43 Group in July 1957 contained notes in Sinhala and Tamil.

It is hard to say from this distance how the attempts of the Group to encourage Kandyan dancing in its purest form have been maintained. However, I do recall with dismay that Guneya, the Guneya Yakdesa of Nittawela, who when being filmed in black and white on a visit to Europe was asked to wear a yellow dhoti because the white threw out too dazzling a glare into the camera, continued to use it decades later as his own, ostentatious mark. Or perhaps it was a privilege he had earned?

Note: In its catalogues and other similar publications, the ‘43 Group always listed names in alphabetical order. I have however, taken Harry Pieris out of sequence in acknowledgement of his very special place in the story of the Group.