There are only a handful of people from Sri Lanka who made their names legendary in the world. Barara Sansoni is such a person. Born in Kandy on 22nd April 1928., she was sent at the tender age of 6 to study in India at the Presentation Convent, Kodaikanal, where she studied until she returned to do her School leaving Certificate Exam in Ceylon at St. Bridget’s Convent Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1945.
Barbara Sansoni was 11 years old when she met Maria Montessori. Having fled to India after being exiled by Mussolini during WWII, Maria’s school in the Olcott Garden Bungalow already had a small complement of students. Now, here was this child in need of her guidance. Barbara, enrolled close by in a boarding school in Kodaikanal, was a poor student. A bad case of dyslexia had left her struggling to read and write and as she told Maria plaintively – “the worst one is sums. I can’t add or subtract.”
Over the course of their conversation, Maria discovered that Barbara loved to draw and her advice was that she draw as much as she could – history would be figures of people, maths little groups of pebbles that she could add to or subtract from. This made sense to Barbara, whose letters home were already filled with sketches of cartoon figures, each more expressive to her than any sentence she could have constructed. “Still, it wasn’t as easy as that, but she was a wonderful woman,” says Barbara, remembering.
She and her second husband, the architect and scholar Ronald Lewcock are just finishing their lunch when we arrive. Barbara, dressed in a skirt of many colours, with a shirt to match and an assortment of colourful, beaded chains around her neck looks like an ambassador for Barefoot. She is nestled among some of her most recognizable creations – there are the brilliantly coloured cushions at her back, the ‘wall furniture’ or hangings with many pockets on the wall beside her and dangling from a chair nearby are the bags that are so recognizably from the store she founded. She has a pair of bad hips and finds walking difficult, so it is Ronald who goes looking for a copy of ‘A Passion for Faces’ and who identifies the oldest dated picture in the set – a line drawing of Barbara’s sister Mary, from 1964, when Barbara was 35 and Mary 25.
Just launched, the book juxtaposes simple sketches, vividly coloured paintings and the odd, fantastical portrait that take for their theme the faces of people Barbara has encountered in the course of her long life. In each, she explores her fascination with our genetic heritage – in the line of the cheekbones, the flaring of a nostril, the curl of a hair, the fullness of a lip. In fact, if she’d had her way, the book would have been called ‘Races in the Face.’
She is regretful that she didn’t pay more attention to some when she was working on them; she never imagined they would be published. She blames her distraction on why she was in the vicinity of her subjects in the first place – the old houses she had come to sketch.
She would write in a poem titled Houses and Faces: ‘To me it isn’t important who lived in the house, history/doesn’t make ugly things beautiful – but age does/A face, after all, is a house, built centuries ago by genes.’ By the beginning of the 1960s, Barbara’s drawings of old buildings were already being published in the Ceylon Daily Mirror. She would go looking in villages and rural hamlets for architectural gems (and would often be asked by the villagers if she could sketch them too.) She did this,
She was taught Drawing practice under the guidence of Professor Amarasinghe and Painter Mr. J.D.A. Perera from 1946 when she left school until Regent Street Polytechnic Art School in London where she completed her Art education 1947 – 1952. In 1952 Barbara married Hildon Claude Sansoni (who died in 1979).
She said “I have always been drawing what caught my eyes. It was Dr. R.L. Spittel who advised me never to be without a sketch book in hand. … My entire source of inspiration has been this Island. Travelling all over I have been overwhelmed by its wonder, inspired by its colour. Design emerges from one’s daily life; it has for me…. Everything changes with light, between monsoons. Nothing is so magical as a tropical twilight, as natural light fades and artificial light comes on. The colours in the celestial hemisphere are unbelievable.”
Barbara launched Barefoot a wearable art company at 704, Galle road, Colombo as a venture to promote local handicraft and art works in 1964 and has contributed immensely to the Sri Lankan small industries and indigenous craftemen over the years. Barbara remarried in 1983 Dr. Ronald Lewcock (Architect, Conservater and Scholar).
The University of the Visual and Performing Arts of Sri Lanka awarded Honorary Doctor of Philosophy Degree to the Kalasuri Barbara Sansoni Lewcock in the 9th Convocation held at the BMICH on Dec. 08, 2016. Prof. Sarath Chandrajeewa Dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies, UVPA presenting the citation said: “I consider it a great privilege and an honour to present to you in this august Convocation Barbara Sansoni Lewcock, an internationally recognized icon in the cultural and wearable art field of Sri Lanka, for the conferment of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). She is versatile with diverse capacities. She has excelled as a Colourist, Illustrator, Painter, Fashion designer and a writer. Barbara Sansoni Lewcock is the founder of Barefoot, which was started in 1964 and the chief designer of the same. It is an organization which employs Sri Lankan women, teaching them hand skill to develop their cognitive powers in colourful weaving handlooms.
ඔහුගේ තෙළිතුඩින් නිර්මිත මියුරු වර්ණාවලිය ඕනෑම පුද්ගලයකුගේ මනෝභාව තුළ අසාමාන්ය රසයක් හෝ සෞන්දර්යාත්මක විග්රහයක් ධ්වනිත කැරැලීමට සමත් වේ. ලියනාඩෝ ඩාවින්සි, මයිකල් ඈන්ජලෝ, ජොයිස්, පිකෑසෝ, ජෝර්ජියෝ වසාජි, ගොසේන්, බාර්කේ, ටිෂියන්, සස්තියා ප්රින්ජියරස්, තෙරේස් මෝහන් පරපුරට නෑකම් කියන හේ නූතන චිත්ර කලා සම්ප්රදායේත් ආදිකාලීන ඥානයෙන් සජීවි සංකේතයකි.
ජෝර්ජ් කීට් ගේ සිතුවම් තුළින් දිස්වනුයේ නූතන ලෝක චිත්ර කලාවේ වර්ණ සෞන්දර්ය හා එක්වීමට දරන ප්රයත්නයක් වුවද ඔහුගේ හැඩතල මහනුවර යුගයේ නැවතුණු තැන් සිට ඉදිරියට ඇදෙන්නාක් බඳු ය. පිරිනිවන් මංචකය, මාර පරාජය වැනි තේමාවන් වෙත නව අර්ථකථනයක් දීමට ඔහු ගත් තැත අති විශිෂ්ට ය. අතීත බිතු සිතුවම් චිත්ර කලා සම්ප්රදායේත් අද්යතන භාව සුවක චිත්ර කලාවේත් සුසංයෝගයෙන් බිහිවූ අසම්මත චිත්ර කලාවේ පුරෝගාමියකු වූ හේ කල්පිතය හා යථාර්ථය ඒකාබද්ධ කිරීමෙන් රසික මනස අමතන්නෙකි.
කලාකරුවාගේ නිර්මාණ බිහිවනුයේ ස්වකීය චින්තනය ඔස්සේ ය. ඇස ගැටෙන වස්තූන් මිනිස් චේෂ්ටාවන් එපරිද්දෙන්ම ප්රති නිර්මාණය කිරීම සැබෑ කලාකරුවාගේ නිර්මාණශීලීත්වය නොවන්නේ ය. ඔහු හාත්පස පරිසරය දෙනෙතින් මෙන්ම මනසින් ද විශ්ලේෂණය කරන්නෙකි. නෙත ගැටෙන සවන් වැකෙන අනුභූතීන් සිත තුළ ගොනු වී පරිකල්පන කාර්යයට බඳුන් වී කලාත්මක නිර්මාණයක් බිහි වන්නේය. එවන් සිත්තරකුගේ නිර්මාණ තුළ ස්වභාවික රූප දක්නට නොමැත. ජෝර්ජ් කීට්ගේ වාර්ණාවලිය අපට ප්රත්යක්ෂ කරවනුයේ මේ කල්පිත ලෝකය යි. එතුළ අප අත්දකිනුයේ වචනයෙන් විග්රහ කළ නොහැකි විවිද විචිත්ර මනෝභාවයන් රැසකි.
ගෝසේත් හා පිකැසෝ වැනි විශ්ව සම්භාවනාවට පත් ශ්රේෂ්ඨ චිත්ර ශිල්පීන් ගුරු කොට ගත් ජෝර්ජ් කීට් තමාටම ආවේණික සුවිශේෂ ශෛලියක් බිහි කර ගත්තේ ය. සැබවින් ම එය එක් රැයකින් ලත් මහානුභාවයක් නොවේ. පෙර සසරේ පාරමි දම් පුරා ලැබූ වාසනා ගුණයත් ව්යුත්පත්ති අභ්යාස තුළින් උරුමකැරැගත් පරිචයත් එහිලා මහ පවුරක් විය.
1917 දි චිත්රකරණයට පිවිසි මේ අද්විතීය කලාකරුවාණන් එතැන් පටන් පුරා සිය වසකට ආසන්න කාලයක් සුවහසක් සහෘද සිත් අමන්දනන්දයට පත් කළේ නිසර්ග සිද්ධ ප්රතිභා ශක්තියෙනි. රවීන්ද්රනාත් තාගොර් මහ කිවියාණන්ගේ ඇසුර ඔහුගේ කවි සිත අවදි කෙළේය. බෞද්ධ ජාතික කථා, හින්දු පුරාණ කතා තුළින් ලත් නිරාමිස වින්දනය දැහැන්ගත මුනිවරයකුට අවැසි සිත්තම් අසපුව ගොඩනැංවීය. වෛරයෙන් ක්රෝධයෙන් ගිනි ගන්නා ලෝකය අබියස හේ හුදෙකලා වීය. සත් සියක් දෙනෙත් ලැබ ලෝකය විනිවිද දුටුවේය.
1940 දී කොළඹ ගෝතමි විහාරයේ පිළිම ගෙයි නිමැවූ බිතු සිතුවම් කීට් ගේ නිර්මාණ වන්දනාවේ පරිපාකයට පත් අවස්ථාවක් ලෙස සැලකිය හැකිය. විශ්ව කලා නිර්මාණ ඉතා ගැඹුරින් අධ්යයනය නොකළ සිත්තරකුට මෙවන් මහා කාර්යයකට අත පෙවීමට උගහට ය. ඒ සෑම සිතුවමක ම ගැබ් ව පැවතියේ මහඟු කැපවීමෙන් ලත් දහදිය කඳුළු සුවඳය.
ඉතා අගනා කලා නිර්මාණ බිහි වන්නේ අනේකවිධ දුක් දොම්නස් හා විශිෂ්ට ප්රතිභාපූර්ණත්වය මතින් යැයි ලෝක ප්රකට ඉංග්රිසි විචාරකයකු හා කවියකු වූ ටී. ඇස් එලියට් පැවැසූ අදහස යළි යළිදු මා මනසේ නින්නාද දේ.
හෙළයෝ පමණක් නොව විදේශිකයෝ ද කීට් ගේ තන්ත්රියානික සෙවණැල්ලට ලොබ බැඳ ගනිති කැන්වසය මතින් එළි දුටු පාත්ර වර්ගයා මනසින් වැළැඳ ගත්හ. රුපියල් ලක්ෂ ගණනක් පිරිනමා ඒ ශ්රේෂ්ඨ කෘති මිලදී ගැන්මට තරම් ඔවුන් උත්සුක වූයේ මිල මුදලෙන් තක්සේරු කළ නොහැකි සනාතනික අගයක් ඒවායෙහි අන්තර්ගත නිසාවෙනි.
කිත් යසස් තමා පසුපස හඹා එද්දී ජෝර්ජ් කීට් නමැති නිමල ගුණ රැඳි අමිල කලාකරුවා කොන්ක්රීට් වනය අතික්රමණය කොට වඩ වඩාත් ගමට සමීප විය. මිල මුදලෙන් කීර්ති ප්රශංසාවෙන් නොලත් නොනිමි සුවයක් අව්යාජ ගැමි පරිසරයෙන් ඔහු ලද්දේය. උඩරට සිරිමල්වත්තේ කලා අසපුවට වැද පින්සල්, වර්ණ අතරේ තනිවිය.
ඔහුට උපහාර වස් පේරාදෙණිය විශ්වවිද්යාලය 1968 දි සාහිත්යසූරී උපාධිය පිරිනැමුවේය.
ජෝර්ජ් කීට් නමැති චිර ප්රසිද්ධ විශිෂ්ට චිත්ර ශිල්පියාගේ නිසල දේහය මා අබියස දිස්වේ. සුදුම සුදුපාට ඕවලාකාර හැඩයෙන් යුත් මුහුණත් දිගු නැහැය උඩ රැඳවූ උපැස් යුවළත් මැදින් බෙදා පැත්තට පීරු උරහිස තෙක් වැඩුණු කෙස් කලඹක් මා ඉදිරියේ පිළිබිඹු වේ. ඔහු ගේ නිසල දේහය දෙස බලා නේත්ර පූජාවෙහි යෙදුණෙමි.
පුදුමයකි! මට පෙනෙනුයේ සම්මත වියපත් රූපය නොවේ. ගරා වැටුණ සිරුරට යටින් අද්යශ්යමාන තාරුණ්යයක් මම දුටිමි. සැඟවී පෙනුණු ඒ අපූරු සෞන්දර්ය මම හදවතින් වැලඳ ගතිමි.
තරුමල් සුපිපි රැයක පොතක් සුරතට ගතහොත් මට පෙනෙනුයේ ඔබ මිස අන් කවරෙක්ද? ජයදේවගේ ගීත ගෝවින්දය, අදිසි පිළිබිඹුව, නිරුවත් වූ අඳුර පොත් ඉදිරිපිට මා සමඟ සිනාසෙනුයේ ඔබ මිස අන් කවරෙක්ද?
සිතේ කාන්සිය නිවා ගනු වස් කලා භවනට ගියවිට බිත්ති තුළින් ඔබ හිස ඔසවනවා. ගෝතමියේ බිතු සිතුවම් අතර හිඳ ඔභ මට කතා කරනවා.
A friend of Lionel Wendt, a founder member of the ’43 Group, William James Geoffrey Beling was born on 22 September 1907 at Gampola.
His father W W Beling was a painter. He went to India in 1926 to study architecture at Sir J J School of Art , Bombay; at the same school he found the opportunity to study art during his free time. He returned to Sri Lanka in 1928 and started a private school at Havelock Town devoting more of his time to painting.
Beling was fascinated by the pictorial innovation of Cubism developed by Braque and Picasso. Paintings of Beling done in the early 1930’s bear a striking similarity to those of Keyt in the use of pure colour, simplification of forms to their basic volumes, and the faceting of objects. He exhibited with Keyt in 1930 and 1932.
In 1931 C F Winzer wrote; “Beling’s landscapes are admirably constructed and his handling of the endless variety of greens seen in tropical nature is an achievement in itself. His figures are more angular than those of Keyt, and their movements less varied. Both, however, in their efforts are at one to express volume and construction in their canvasses – qualities in which modern art, in Asia, particularly India, is so deficient”. (The Studio 1931, P.62).
Beling was a constant associate of C F Winzer, inspector of of Art in Schools. After Winzer’s departure from the island Beling assumed duties as the Chief Inspector of Art and from about 1945 he stopped painting completely. At the expense of his own creative work Beling devoted a great deal of his time in the development of art education in schools based on spontaneous creative expression.
Written by Albert Dharmasiri
Sri Lankan artist and poet:
‘Every hue and nuance from a prism comes’
The Sri Lankan painter and poet George Claessen, who has died aged 89, was one of the nine artists who formed the ’43 Group which came together in Colombo in 1943 under the patronage of Lionel Wendt, photographer and pianist.
Claessen sought to give substance to a world in which form and colour became indistinguishable from one another. “Every hue and nuance,” he wrote “from a prism comes.”
“If ever there were paintings where light shines through contact with the inner light of a man at peace with himself,” wrote the critic GM Butcher, “these are they.”
Claessen began to draw and paint at the age of 29, after he joined the Colombo Port Commission as draughtsman. He was born in Colombo, and worked in various parts of the island.
In 1948, he had his first one-man show at the Velasquez Gallery, in Melbourne. He returned to Sri Lanka in 1949 and shortly after found his way to London, via Bombay. His work was exhibited in Colombo, London (the Imperial Institute, 1952) and at Paris’s Petit Palais, the Heffer Gallery, Cambridge, the Venice Biennale of 1956 and the Sao Paulo, Brazil, Biennale of 1959. He emerged as a mystic, moved by memories of his time in Sri Lanka, but now the universal man.
He continued exhibiting internationally into the 70s, but also worked as a draughtsman until his retirement. He published Poems of a Painter in 1967, Poems about Nothing in 1981 and his Collected Poems in 1995.
Claessen was quiet, devout in his beliefs, loyal; and, above all, gentle. His wife Inez predeceased him; he is survived by their son and daughter.
From abstract to impressionistic paintings and line drawings, a range of work of artist, sculptor, poet and founder member of the ’43 Group, George Claessen, will be exhibited at the Gallery Café in Colombo from July 21 to celebrate his birth centenary.
Born in Colombo in 1909, Claessen died in London in 1999 at the age of 89. The exhibition at the Gallery Café is part of a series of events, both in London and Sri Lanka, to celebrate the centenary of his birth.
Claessen left Sri Lanka first in 1947 to Australia. However, he came back and then left the country for England in 1949, never to return. Professor Senake Bandaranayake in the recently published book Sri Lankan Paintings in the 20th Century describes this as “similar to that of other major ’43 Group painters, who abandoned their Colombo beginnings: Ivan Peries to London and Southend; Justin Daraniyagala to his family manor in rural Pasyala; Geoffrey Beling to the abandonment of art for religious fundamentalism; George Keyt wandering between one rural-suburban Kandyan retreat and another, with brief periods in Galle and Colombo.
But Claessen’s separation was also more intense, introverted, further removed from his Sri Lankan homeland than that of any of his fellow artists, just as his art was itself unrelated to any particular cultural landscape, unlike that of Keyt, Daraniyagala, Beling or Peries.
“In that sense, Claessen was the most intellectual of the original ’43 Group, the most concerned in his art with ideas. As Daraniyagala described it in an early review, written just a few years after the first ’43 Group show: detail does not interest him; he sees broadly with an innate profundity which characterises all his work; and above all is possessed of the ability to transmit effectively the reactions of an extremely sensitive mind to the objects and scenes of everyday life.”
Prof. Bandaranayake goes on to state: “This personal and reflective, rather than cultural or social, focus would at least in part explain the fact that he was the only painter of the original ’43 Group to become an abstractionist.”
Claessen was both an abstractionist and representational painter at the same time and the entire range of the work of this remarkable artist is presented in the monograph on him by Dr. Shamil Wanigaratne published in London in 2000.
George Claessen, artist, born May 5, 1909; died May 1, 1999
The Art of Justin Deraniyagala
By Ashley Halpé
Encounter with the art of Justin Deraniyagala ignites in the sensibility that undergoes that experience an especially powerful sense of making a discovery that Edmund Wilson called The Shock of Recognition – the intensity, depth and force of the experience validates the use of the metaphor of a shock.
It happens over and over again with the Deraniyagala oeuvre. There is no effect of repetition and certainly none of habituation, so that each encounter is indeed truly personal, which is what makes each unique. These paintings and the few drawings included in the book demand that the visitor to the exhibition spend time, even hours it may be, with each.
Possession of the book enables a surrogate experience of such a visit. The core of the book is, after all the splendid collection of expertly printed plates, each needing the same concentrated attention as a painting or drawing at an exhibition. This is made all the more necessary since, as Arjun and Siran explain in their Preface, the family were denied the opportunity of setting up their own gallery in which the art of Justin Deraniyagala could be permanently housed. Such a gallery would have given us the chance of having regular, extended encounters with the paintings and drawings.
The whole sad story
They reveal the whole sad story. The land for the gallery was originally available at Horton Place, and the family had the vision and the will to build the gallery. But the march of social history nullified the realization of the gallery project and the dream. Crippling death duties swept away a large part of the family income, even necessitating the sale of the land on which the gallery was to have been built.
Sadly, since Justin Deraniyagala himself died without issue and the vision of a gallery had to be abandoned, the collection had to be divided among the heirs.
The untimely death of Ranil Deraniyagala, whose very important study is included in this volume, removed from the scene another possible active participant in the project. It was left to Arjun and Siran with, as we find, the able assistance of the former’s daughter Yvani, to take the long view. This ample volume is the magnificent result.
Of course it is still not impossible for a foundation on the lines of the George Keyt Foundation to be set up to take over the running. But as things stand, the dream remains unrealized and the vision unfulfilled.
To turn to the volume itself, its core is of course the magnificent collection of expertly printed plates. The book gives us the first publication of Justin Deraniyagala’s essay, The Appreciation of Painting, discovered posthumously, a Preface by Arjun and Siran Deraniyagala, a very substantial biographical essay, Justin Deraniyagala – the artist and the man. 1903-1967 by the Indian critic and journalist Shernavaz Colah, written with the assistance of Arjun Deraniyagala, an appreciative Foreword by the art collector and philanthropist of art, Sir Christopher Ondaatje, Ranil Deraniyagala’s careful study of the paintings and, at the end, a carefully constructed Biographical Note and an Epilogue by the prime movers of the publication project.
Ranil Deraniyagala’s fine study offers a valuable model for proceeding beyond the first rich experience of the individual works plate by plate. He takes us, as it were, on a guided tour through the collection.
He categorises the paintings into nine groups with a preliminary prelude, “The 1940 Group,” in terms of his intuitive perceptions of the stylistic links between the paintings in each such group under the heading Relatedness of Style – A Suggested Methodology.
He then crosses his own lines in a series of challenging cross-references, carefully listed on P. 151. For instance, he tells us ‘Consider then…Fig. 31 first in relation to Fig.18, then to the 1940 Group’ Figs. 40 & 41 occupy Group VI and their relatedness is immediately noticeable. In another case, he cross-references Figs. 23 and 25, inviting us to compare them too to the pictures in Group II (which contains five pictures) and goes on to say ‘Also observe their relation to Fig. 9 and Fig. 42 as regards the weightiness of the figures.’
Thus his presentation is, one could say, dialogic, evolving an arrangement by imagining a friendly conversation with a serious browser who would actually bring to each plate the concentrated attention I spoke of as necessary.
The present writer has had all three important kinds of important encounter with the works. First, the immediate direct experience of the few paintings by the artist that can be viewed at the Sapumal Foundation galleries along with the same kind of experience of the plates in this volume. Secondly, he has undertaken the exploration by Group suggested by Ranil Deraniyagala. Thirdly, he has worked through the cross-referencing Ranil Deraniyagala suggests on page 151.
The result has been two-fold. I have gained a deep familiarity with these works, a vibrant inwardness with them and, indeed, the world of Justin Deraniyagala.
I have also gained an immensely rich education of my sensibility, of my sensitivity not only to art but to our immediate world, our Lanka in its multifarious forms and full palettes of colour. I have undergone an existential rebirth of my inner self.
While this was taking place, I stumbled on a very special quality of the art of Sri Lanka, one that it shares with the Lankan ambiance, its very air.
The paintings of the great Sri Lankan artists all have a certain radiance which appears in its intensest, most penetrating form in the incandescence that is a major characteristic of the great works of Justin Deraniyagala.
Incandescence: Breaking free of all classifications, I pass from Maternity (Pl.1) to Fish, Mother and Child, Girl with Goldfish and on to Plates 5, 6, 7, 8-12, 14, 15-32. (I also comment on details of many of these paintings further in my presentation.)
They give a distinct impression of being lit from within by an indwelling spirit. Since we had the same feeling in the smallest conversation with the man, the spirit is the spirit of Justin Deraniyagala himself pulsing with a singeing energy in painting after painting. It is present too in the portrait by Aubrey Collette included in this volume.
In a very large number of the paintings the incandescence coexists with a deep humanity. This binds the mother and the baby together in the curve of the mother’s body in Maternity (Pl.1), in the embrace and the gaze of the mother enclosing the child who casually clasps a fish in Fish, Mother and Child (Pl.2), the subtle visual intimacies of the man, the woman and the child in (Pl.3) – Untitled – forming a whorl of links in the upper central area of the painting with an unexpected downward flow of muscular tension of the woman’s right arm as she reaches down – fondly, we feel – for the tiny tortoise crawling towards her; the indescribably tender closeness of the Blind Mother and Daughter (Pl.5), the beautifully unexpected caressing of the body of the sitter by the placing of the impastos in the study of a seated nude on page 35, the direct openness of the gaze of the subject at the viewer in Girl With Goldfish (Pl.7), the solicitude with which the attendant female figure (is it the mother?) regards the Bride in the painting by that name (Pl.8), the interacting gazes of the human figures behind the goat in Notes on a New Mythology – the Goat (Pl.9). This humanity is to be felt not only in the relationships between figures but also in a certain quality of absorption in the subject perceptible in the eye of the beholder of a series of studies of heads (Plates 45-51), of paintings on the Mother and Child theme (Plates 1-4), and three of Lovers (Plates 22-24). It is present, too in the painting of a standing nude (Pl.55) which richly evokes the earthy fleshliness of an indigenous female body. This is all the clearer when we note the artist’s perception of the almost anaemic quality of the flesh in Blue Nude (Pl.54). We see that we have to ignore the anecdotal implications of the identification of it being a portrayal of the celebrated contemporary of Justin Deraniyagala, Anais Nin.
The adventurous creativity of all these paintings compels one to try to place the art of Justin Daraniyagala in the international modern movement, since venturesomeness and passionate creativity are hallmarks of the avant-garde.
Authenticity of utterance
The art of modern Sri Lanka has been defined by diversity and animated by a restless, experimental search for authenticity of utterance. We had the radical developments that led to the formation of the ’43 Group and the parallel courses struck out by others such as David Paynter, Nalini Jayasuriya and George Bevan. At the same time there was the major reorganisation of the teaching of art in the schools by C. F. Winzer and W. J. G. Beling. After 30 years of such activity the important artist and art educator, Jagath Weerasinghe was impelled to say “…the post- colonial historical condition is such that it has made us inhabit, quite cheerfully, and a historical social space. Contemporary Sri Lankan art is an expression of this social, political and cultural condition.” The present writer has developed this subject at length in his The Contemporary Art of Sri Lanka for The Art of India ed. Frederick M. Asher, Encyclopaedia Britannica Publications. (0-85229-813-7)
The contemporary artists of Sri Lanka have responded to a riven reality and fractured consciousness in a variety of ways making their art distinctly modern.
Here, one needs to heed the important remarks by Georges Besson who called this art, especially the art of Justin Daraniyagala “… one of the important revelations of our time.” Donald McClelland reviewing the Daraniyagala Exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute, wrote that it was “… one of the most significant movements in Eastern art today…Its importance lies in the synthesis of traditional art form and those deriving from the West which has produced painting truly Eastern in inspiration yet of universal validity…” G. S. Whittet went so far as to say that paintings like Maternity of 1947 “…contain an abrupt shock of contact with the facts of life which reduced the new Picasso at the Tate Gallery, Femme Nue to a voluptuous but withdrawn boudoir decoration…” Shernavaz Colah stresses that the paintings in this book show that Justin Deraniyagala’s art is an important revelation in twentieth century art. We add to this the lines defined by Justin Deraniyagala himself in his essay The Appreciation of Painting.
At the end of the volume the Epilogue by Arjun and Siran Deraniyagala tells us, among other things, the sad story of the gallery project’s decline from lively hopefulness to a seeming abandonment.
Neville Weereratne has written a substantial study of this book which includes a careful reference to our predecessor in critical appreciation, Ellen Dissanayake. Albert Dharmasiri has also expressed his admiration of this volume. I am happy to join them in hoping that as Neville Weereratne puts it, a gallery will be built some day to enable the reassembling of the whole great collection “… to ensure the safety of this great inheritance of the people of Sri Lanka for the rest of imaginable time.”
Harry Pieris was born on 10th August 1904, the eighth of eleven children, one of whom died at an early age. The remaining ten, six boys and four girls, were a rather motley crowd, in that they had widely differing tastes and attitudes to life. Harry was the only one who liked art enough to actively pursue it throughout his life. But they all shared a love of animals and fresh tasty food! He ate with feeling and said that was how food should be eaten. Not for him mass produced fast food or food guzzled in a hurry. He was reluctant to visit restaurants but I did persuade him once. “This food is not absolutely fresh nor is it cooked with love so it will not properly nourish you” said he.
He enrolled at Mudaliyar A C G S Amerasekere’s Atelier School of Art as a youngster. Justin Daraniyagala was another student there. The good Mudaliyar was a skillful artist but had a rigid and academic approach to art. Eventually realising that Harry would benefit from more tutoring, he suggested to his parents that he be sent abroad for further studies. So it was that in 1923 at the age of 19 he joined the Royal Academy in London, whose Principal at the time was Sir William Rothenstein. Apparently he preferred the Royal Academy to the Slade School of Art because he liked their attractive cerise pink gown. Sir William was the first to recognise Harry’s talent for portraiture and encouraged him in that direction. In 1926 he won the prize for the best portrait, one of his uncle, Sir James Pieris. In 1927 he obtained the diploma of the College. The many portraits he did during his life which are on view here will bear witness to his great ability to capture not only the likeness but the character, not always flattering, of his sitters.
Many sitters who commissioned him, paid for the portraits and gave them back to him because they weren’t made pretty enough! Our gain – their loss as I hope you’ll agree during our Gallery Walk later on.
He returned to Ceylon and was here from 1927 to 1929 before going to Paris, following Rothenstein’s advice. He spent six years there under the tutelage of Robert Falk, who encouraged him to copy the old masters in the numerous Parisian galleries to further his skill. One such copy, a nude after Rembrandt, is on display here. Also to be seen is a painting of the young Harry by Robert Falk, in a somewhat early- Picasso-like style. Another of Falk’s students, a Rumanian lady Luiba Popesco, described as a woman of great intelligence, integrity and charm, became a close friend of his. Some of her paintings too are here on display.
Paris at the time was a hub of artistic activity. Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Roualt, Leger were some of the artists there while Ravel and Stravinsky were writing music. It was a very stimulating place for one of artistic bent. Harry was particularly close to Matisse and his family, whose hospitality he enjoyed. Harry worked at the Atelier de la Chaumiere and two small galleries during his time in Paris. Justin Daraniyagala, too, studied art in Europe and the two met frequently in Paris and London. He attended meetings of the Friends of Tagore Institute in Paris and decided to offer his services to Tagore’s Abode of Peace in Shanthiniketan in India. He was recommended for this post by Sir William Rothenstein and he worked there for two and a half years, before returning to Ceylon in 1935 at the age of 34.
He then looked after his family’s agricultural and other properties, developing an abiding interest in agriculture and gardening. The beautiful gardens of the Sapumal Foundation bear witness to this, though it must be said that during his lifetime the gardens were even more beautiful. He read widely and was interested in philosophy, theosophy, literature, poetry, temple paintings and rather anti-colonial and left leaning politics. He was a person of simple elegance with an eye for beauty, who mixed happily and learnt from people of all creeds, races, classes and backgrounds. He lived by the ideal propounded by Ananda Coomaraswamy, “Nations are made by artists and poets, not by traders and politicians. Art contains in itself the deepest principles of life, the truest guide to the greatest art, the art of living”. He believed like Coomaraswamy, that the artist was not a special kind of man but every man or woman was a special kind of artist. Good work, whether painting, making pottery or food was a love affair between the artist and his production, done with feeling.
He was a man who was content with what he has – a rich man in the eastern sense, which holds that a rich man is not one who has a vast fortune but a man who is happy with what he has.
Art which is truly great has endured over the centuries even though unsigned by the artists who did them. Will the art of these days prove to have the same qualities? Time will tell.
His understanding of art was further enhanced by a visit to the USA in 1953 and a visit to China in 1957.
He was also a teacher of art, who always encouraged young people to follow their inclinations. As Ian Goonetilleke wrote, “He provided the stimulus for others to forage more audaciously than he was inclined to do. He also had the intelligence and percipience to realise that other artists were unable to remain indifferent to the new manifestations of social and cultural change set in motion by the forces of independence, nationalism and socialism. Within his chosen limitations he strove to appreciate the new aesthetic urges, even if he may not have understood the reasons for their emergence in a larger society. He tried to identify and encourage these tendencies when he discerned that the creative talent was present. ”
Harry Pieris lived, studied, and worked in Europe for almost a decade in his formative years, and his inspiration owes a great deal to this influence. But his later stay in India, and his long familiarity and studious knowledge of the best elements and styles in the Indian and Sri Lankan traditions of painting and sculpture, both classical and folk made their congenial impress on his aesthetic sensibilities.
He was an early admirer and publicist of the better forms of religious art, and would speak with undiluted enthusiasm of certain little-known, Buddhist fresco paintings in Southern temples. But it is time to look a little more closely at his progress at the easel before concluding this brief evaluation of his art and times.
As with nearly all Ceylonese painters, of that time and later, he first studied at the Atelier School of Art conducted by the formidable A. C. G. S. Amarasekera, but the true and enduring foundations of his art were laid at the Royal College of Art, London, where he won his spurs and a diploma under William Rothenstein in 1927.
Harry was inspired by Ananda Coomaraswamy’s ideal that, “Nations are made by artists and poets, not by traders and politicians. Art contains in itself the deepest principles of life, the truest guide to the greatest art, the art of living” and his life laid testament to this. Harry Pieris studied at the Atelier School of Art in Colombo and then went on to the Royal College of Art where his portrait of his uncle, Sir James Pieris won the best portrait award for that year.
After a brief stint back in Colombo, he worked and studied in Paris for six years and then worked in Shanthi Niketan, India for two years.Matisse and Henri Cartier-Bresson were among the many friends he made during his time abroad and his years in Paris and India
greatly influenced his art. Believing that good art was a love affair between the artist and his work, he worked towards the promotion of the arts and was committed to being a teacher. Upon his death, the house was discovered to be teeming with a profusion of artwork – from pencil sketches stuffed in drawers and crevices to canvases rolled and stored in corners.
After the death of Lionel Wendt in 1944, it was Harry Pieris who became the driving force behind the ’43 Group. His mother’s house became the new meeting place for the Group and he functioned as the Group’s first and last secretary. The founder members of the ’43 Group were Lionel Wendt, Geoffry Beling, Harry Pieris, Richard Gabriel, Ivan Peries, George Keyt, George Claessen, Aubrey Collette, Justin Daraniyagala and Ven. Manjusri Thera and a considerable part of the work on display at the Sapumal gallery consists of these original members who were crucial in sculpting the face of contemporary Sri Lankan art. Other familiar names include Stanley Kirinde, Marie Alles Fernando, Chandramani Thenuwara and Swanee Jayawardene. Most of the works on display consist of Harry’s own personal collection (some he personally acquired and some, gifts) while there are a few private collections which are on loan to the foundation.
Bevis Bawa’s pithy caricatures of figures such as Martin Wickremasinghe (the writer is depicted holding a large quill and sports a glum expression and spectacularly large forehead), Sir John Kotelawala, Sir Razik Fareed, Col. C.P. Jayawardena and Badurdeen Mohamed are worth perusing closely. The variations in Keyt’s style are discernible through his work spanning seven decades. With their trademark enlarged eyes, bold lines and distinct aquiline noses, while browsing his work you’ll notice that Keyt’s figures contain what Pablo Neruda described as, “a strange expressive grandeur, and radiate an aura of intensely profound feeling”. Lionel Wendt’s black
and white photographs catch your eye and Ven. Manjusri Thera’s faded copies of temple murals contain kings, courts, conch blowers, musicians and demons distilled from jathaka katha.
Rohan de Soysa, Chairman of the Sapumal Foundation, is a veritable wellspring of art anecdotes and the stories embedded inside the Sapumal Foundation. Not only of its founder but of the artists displayed within and of the love affairs, histories and feuds of those immortalized in paint, pencil, turpentine and canvas. Seevali Ilangasinghe, a self-taught painter from Kekirawa, trekked to Colombo and earned a living by selling his drawings on scraps of paper (while browsing, do keep a look out for Seevali’s paintings on the doors of one of the rooms – an interesting example of taking a pragmatic object and infusing it with a touch of visual poetry). Beginning his career as an Art Master at Royal College, Aubrey Collette’s caricatures were roguishly accurate and a cursory browsing of his political cartoons reveals relevance even today. Once, having offended the Bandaranaikes with one of his cartoons, he promptly responded by irreverently doing another. Harry Pieris, a master portraitist, tried to capture the character and essence of his subjects instead of merely flattering them and often portraits commissioned were indignantly returned to him.
Upon his death, Harry’s house and garden, vast art collection, artefacts, furniture and library were bequeathed to the Foundation. Sapumal was incidentally a nickname bestowed on Harry – the flower of the Sapu tree never blooms in full and the implication was that Harry like the flower, never quite completely matured.
The house (formerly three workmen’s cottages, now converted to a bungalow) and gardens have been described by Harry’s friends, as an extension of Harry, himself. While it would be too simplistic to draw direct parallels, the high ceilings, garden filled with bougainvillaea and anthuriums, modest furniture, carefully selected curios and ample lighting in the house are subtle indicators to the artist’s simplicity and love for beauty. “Harry was a very simple man. He had a car to get from place to place but he didn’t want the latest model. He liked music but didn’t get the highest priced or highest quality music sets. Those things didn’t matter much to him. But having around him what was beautiful or what he considered beautiful – that was important,” Rohan muses.
Keeping a box of Harry’s paints and assorted clutter as well as a tin of brushes with dusty bristles in the studio, is an interesting touch and augments the aura of suspended time that is an integral part of the Foundation’s charm. It takes very little coaxing of the imagination to envisage the Sunday tea-time salons that Harry hosted, with topics ranging from philosophy, sociology, art and politics being spiritedly discussed over tea and sandwiches. “Somebody threw off an idea and others picked it up,” reminisces Rohan who had attended a few of the Sunday salons before he was a trustee of the foundation.
The Foundation celebrates its 40th year this year and its location consists of the house which contains the main gallery and permanent collection, a space available for exhibitions, a reference library and an archive of newspaper cuttings and catalogues on the ’43 Group and twentieth century artists of Sri Lanka. An auxiliary gallery which displays the work of Varuni Hunt and a studio apartment which is rented out to visiting artists are also on the premises. Children’s art classes are conducted by Noeline Fernando while the adults’ classes are conducted by Professor Sarath Chandrajeewa at the art studio.
With squirrels scuttling away with scraps of Keyt’s, Daraniyagala’s and Ivan Peris’ works for their nests, maintaining a building more than a century old, battling the decay that time wreaks on art as well as storing, preserving and restoring over 700 works of art (part on display and others in storage) ensures that the work of the Sapumal Foundation is a continuous process. “Time takes its toll. We restore things and keep the place as best as we can. We don’t go overboard – within our means, we do the best we can,” explains Rohan adding that the Foundation also provides sponsorship or financial support for artistic endeavours whenever possible.
As Rohan points out, its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is a collection of artists by an artist and that the work displayed is an integral part of our art history but why else should people visit the Sapumal Foundation? “It’s a tranquil place to visit. There’s a lot of beauty in the place and in the paintings that are on display as well as other artefacts. And I think people who come here will hopefully be refreshed by the experience,” smiles Rohan, “It’s not just about the paintings it’s a certain way of life and of what life could be like.”
Cartoonist and art teacher, Aubrey Collete was born in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He worked as an art teacher at the Royal College, then as a political cartoonist on the Ceylon Times and Observer for fifteen years before coming to Australia in 1961. He drew illustrations for the Victorian Education Department for three years, then became a political cartoonist on the Australian , including cartoons about Aboriginal rights in 1965 (ill. King, 176-8, 186, 214 et al.); original Collette cartoon c.1966 is in ML PXD764. In 1970 he won the Walkley Award for best cartoonist of the year.
He joined the Melbourne Herald in 1971, e.g. ‘Working Wives’ 15 July 1974 (included by Christine Dixon, original NLA?). His cartoons also appeared in the New York Times , the Saturday Evening Times and the Sydney Bulletin , e.g. painter standing on canvas spilling paint to viewer inspecting photo of Spoerri-type painting on wall: “Yes, it’s not bad, considering that at that time they were still using brushes” 1964 (ill. Rolfe, 307). Honorary member of the Cartoonists’ Society of America. His son is now general manager of Opera Australia .
Collette passed away in .1983 in Melbourne.
Among that collection of amazing and individual talent that made up the ’43 Group, still regarded with something akin to awe, was one whose skills were different. True he was a painter, like the rest but it was for his incisive satirical cartoons that Aubrey Collette was famous. There were few political figures who escaped Collette’s pen and Prime Ministers and ordinary people all, they valued his wit and humour, scathing though it may have been.
Collette left Ceylon as the country was then known in 1961, never to return, moving to England, and then settling permanently in Australia. His daughter Cresside left to Australia, a year later, a child of 11, yet old enough to retain many impressions of the land of her birth. She visited briefly in between, but it was all of 30 years before she returned last year at the invitation of the Lanka Decorative Arts Society for a three-day workshop with other foreign and local experts, sharing her knowledge in her own chosen field…..tapestry weaving.
It is an uncommon calling, both here and in Australia. Tapestry, she describes as a woven work of art and whether she is creating large classical figures or intricate landscapes, the singular skill this art form demands is formidable. She has held numerous exhibitions, solo and group shows in Melbourne, Adelaide and Nottingham, UK and been commissioned to create works for the city of Stonnington in Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) Gallery among others. This time she is on a more relaxed visit, having come to deliver the Art, Artist and Artisans inaugural lecture of the Lanka Decorative Arts Society at the American Center on September 20.
Visits here can never be mere holiday experiences, given that the past comes flooding back at every turn. “I didn’t realize till I came back that my father was still a household name. But then again he spoke to people every single day of their lives through his work, so why wouldn’t he be -he had a way into people’s lives and homes that most artists don’t have,” she reflects. Everywhere she goes, she meets people who have memories of him and his work.
A chance visit to the home of a friend of her old schoolmate Druki Martenstyn turns up an even earlier connection. Introduced as Aubrey Collette’s daughter, her hostess promptly points her to a portrait hanging behind them signed by A. J. Collette- her grandfather Jocelyn in 1902. He was an artist and photographer and died quite young, she recalls, and it was her grandmother who brought up the four boys, Aubrey being the youngest.
Aubrey taught art initially but it was as a cartoonist that he excelled, achieving fame during those pre- and post Independence days, his Citizen Perera cartoons and biting political sketches appearing in the Times of Ceylon and Lake House newspapers and frequently drawing the ire of officialdom. Yet his daughter’s memories are of a gentle, easy-going father; albeit a very perceptive man who had this wry, incisive take on people.
He could see the humour in everyday situations. Even though Aubrey and his wife Joan were estranged when Cresside was just five, her childhood is full of happy remembrances; of her father taking herself and Druki to the sea; one instance where they were crossing the railway line at Wellawatte and marooned for a brief moment as two trains thundered past in opposite directions, her father holding the two children tightly by the hand; carefree holidays at Druki’s family bungalow, Hill Cottage in Nuwara Eliya; of him visiting on Saturdays and bearing them off to museums and art galleries.
But as the political climate changed, her father was forced to leave “under duress” in 1961, says Cresside. Cresside’s mother Joan, a journalist at Lake House, where she was editor of the women’s pages at the Ceylon Daily News, had branched out into a successful career in advertising, her talents picked up by legendary ad man Reggie Candappa at Grants. She stayed in this field and was soon able to support the family after they moved to Australia – her mother, Cresside and her brother Adrian, the latter now the CEO of Opera Australia.
Aubrey Collette achieved recognition as a cartoonist in Australia working for The Australian and then for The Herald Sun, even winning a coveted Walkley award for excellence in journalism in Australia in 1970. Cresside recalls that even after retirement he had a stint in Singapore with the Straits Times though the lack of political activity in the well-ordered city state soon had him so bored he returned to Australia, though continuing to send them his cartoons until he was in his late 60’s.
At 61, he had been diagnosed with Adult Onset Diabetes and though always mentally very agile, the illness debilitated him physically. Aubrey Collette died in 1992 at the age of 71.
Harking back Cresside can see the picture, the artistic setting of their Layards Road home where her father had a studio at the back, and she herself was always drawing and painting. But her mother ever practical, cautioned her about the practical difficulties of making a living from art and so she went in for a graphic design course, a choice that she has no regrets about. “I’m very glad that I did do it..it gave me a lot of skills that I wouldn’t have had. I think because I grew up with my grandmother and grand aunt, who sewed, knitted and crocheted (even though I never did), I was also really fascinated with textiles.”
All through her teenage years she had been making big wall hangings with appliqué and embroidery and when she was offered an exhibition at a prestigious Melbourne art gallery, it seemed an inkling of how the path would unfold. She worked in advertising as an illustrator but an opportunity with the new Victorian Tapestry Workshop beckoned, a place where Australian painters could have their work translated into tapestry. 150 applied, 12 were selected. After training, five were offered jobs at the Tapestry Workshop. Cresside was among the chosen and coming under the guidance of Scotsman Archie Brennan, who advised that they be artists in their own right and have a dialogue with the artist whose work they were interpreting, Cresside knew she had found her calling.
She spent 15 years there, while also furthering her studies in tapestry at the Edinburgh College of Art and completing her Master’s at Monash University. Some years later she was offered a residency at Bundanon, the home of famous Australian painter Arthur Boyd, and inspired by the rolling landscapes of this great outdoors created tapestries én plein air’, a greater challenge than faced by artists who choose this form, trying to capture the light and shade directly onto the warp even as it changed subtly throughout the day. The exhibition she held of her work, stunning pastels and charcoals and woven tapestries was called ‘A Month at Bundanon’.
She has already begun gathering the threads, speaking to her Uncle Lyn, her father’s elder brother now in his mid-90’s, his second wife Pauline who has a couple of his paintings, also Richard Gabriel, the only surviving member of ’43 Group.But her work is still ongoing and within her, there is a deep feeling that she needs to document her father’s work before it is lost.
Her hope is that here, in the land where her father made his name, there will be those who remember Aubrey Collette and his work and would be willing to share them with her so that there is a record for posterity of one of the country’s cartoon greats.