George Keyt 1901-1993


George Percival Sproule Keyt, whose life spans the whole of the last century (1901 to 1992) was the son of Henry Keyt and Constance Evelyn Sproule. Born on April 17, 1901 he grew up in a house situated close to the Malwatta Vihara, and was educated at Trinity College, Kandy. As a young man under the influence of the poet scholar Rev. Pinnawela Dhirananda Thero, who introduced him to Buddhist thought and Sinhala poetry, George Keyt turned his back on the stifling values of the Westernised class into which he was born. Dressed in a dhoti, with his hair which fell in ringlets round the ears parted in the middle, through gray blue eyes he looked at the lush beauty of the countryside around Kandy, observed the peasants and captured the serenity and calm of village life on to his paintings.


The life-size paintings on the walls of the outer shrine of Gothami Vihara, in Borella, featuring the Life and Times of the Buddha made Nobel Prize winning poet, Pablo Neruda say Keyt’s paintings express grandeur ‘and radiate an aura of intensely profound feelings.”

Paintings at Gothami Vihara

George Keyt didn’t start painting until he was 26, but he quickly went on to become an international giant of Modern art and arguably Sri Lanka’s most celebrated 20th Century artist. His unique visual idiom combines European Modernist innovations with the ancient South Asian fresco techniques found at Ajanta and Sigiriya. Desipite his clear admiration for cubist and fauvist principles, his subject matter was almost always rooted in local tradition, depicting dancers, shepherdesses and gods, often drawn from Hindu and Buddhist mythology.George Keyt’s earliest drawings appeared in the school magazines of Trinity College, and Ceylon newspapers. He started work as a professional painter in about 1927 encouraged by Lionel Wendt. In the 1930s he was influenced by Hindu mythology and art and Buddhism. He was an original member of the 43 Group of Artists which earned an identity for Sri Lanka in international art.


In 1954 his work was exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London by Sir Herbert Read and Sir Roland Penrose, and afterwards this exhibition traveled to the Art Institute in Rotterdam.

He laughed when certain art critics said he paints as well as the French artist Paul Gauguin and called him the Gauguin of Ceylon. He used Mediterranean blues and juicy tomato reds tinged with yellow and orange to instill meaning into the hard and mechanical principles of cubism(a 20th century style in art). His subjects were the Kandyan landscape, the people and their culture.

His paintings have been displayed in art galleries in India, and in many leading capitals of the world, and are to be found in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, The British Museum, London as well as various public collections in India and Sri Lanka and private collections worldwide.

Not only an artist of international fame, Keyt was also a poet, a translator and a prolific writer to magazines and newspapers in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. He also wrote on Sinhalese folk lore and read avidly on Hindu mythology and Indian literature.

To this day, his paintings which convey words and sounds and moods through curves and lines prove him to be a genius whose work belongs to all times as well as to our own period. George Keyt’s words written in the Times of Ceylon in 1958 about art, best describes his own work. “How could anyone say anything outmoded about things that cannot grow old? Good art is always new.”

His subjects’ enlarged, almond-shaped eyes are, perhaps, his most consistent stylistic signature, along with an emphasis on bold, crisp lines and a prolonged romance with cubist perspective (his work has been exhibited alongside Picasso and Braque in galleries around the world). His earliest work was distinctly Gauginesque—sumptuous pastorals and figure studies free from overt perspectival abstraction, populated by luxuriant nudes and semi-nudes swaddled in robes, limbs graceful and provocatively intertwined. By the early 1930s, the cubism that would forever alter the character of his paintings began to emerge in his work.

Still, Keyt perpetually re-invented his craft, adopting and discarding countless subtle variations in style across seven decades. His famous black-and-white line drawings depicting Sri Krishna and his lover have been reprinted millions of times since he made them in 1947. Keyt was Sinhalese-Dutch by birth and lived in his native Sri Lanka almost his entire life. He wrote poetry in English and converted to Buddhism as a young man. In 1978, he lived in London for six weeks where, according to his obituary in The Independent, he “visited many museums and art galleries, went to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Shakespeare, called at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and made a pilgrimage to Gadds Hill to see Charles Dickens’s house.” He married three times and died in Colombo at the age of 92.

Keyt Commemorated
by Jayanthi Liyanage

“There is an end to things which evolve. When the things which need explanation are explained they not only end in themselves but also end our interest in them. In real painting there is no evolution beyond the point which serves as an avenue to a further variation.”

Friends” (1982)

This aphorism on art written by George Keyt towards the end of 1946, when he was living in Bombay, made a perfect epigram for the richly sensuous russet and brown facsimile reproduction of his “Friends” (1982), unveiled at the Indian Cultural Centre last week, to commemorate his 102nd Birth Anniversary. The facsimile was unveiled by the local Dance Legends Kalashoori Dr. Chitrasena and Vajira.

“Friends” vividly brings to life Benjamin Rowland’s description of Keyt’s ‘woman:’ “Woman is treated not as an individual but as a principle. In all her gaiety, her charm, her insouciance, she never loses her dignity and nowhere is she belittled or besmirched. Everywhere in his garden of flowers, we behold the full-blown rose in its pride and perfume; nowhere the trampled lily.”

“Aikido” is an old Japanese term denoting love and harmony between two people in the widest sense of friendship, not excluding sexual bonds, writes S.B. Dissanayake in his narrative to this extremely beautiful painting, “Friends”.

“AI means love, KI means vital spirit, DO means the way or ways,” is the spirit of sensitivity which serenely radiates from the two souls the painting depicts in harmony with each other.

Dissanayake says that in the 1980s Keyt painted a whole series of small-scale paintings of women called “Friends” not unlike the Nayikas. “His works of the 1940s were about the instinctual ‘woman’ who recognizes no other authority than that of her obsessions. This became one of the central ideas of Keyt’s 1980s paintings. It is the notion of ‘woman’ as autonomous, beautiful and driven by passions.” This idea, also recurrent in his paintings of early 1930, resurged from decade to decade to the very end of his career, manifesting itself in his Nayikas, Radhas, Girls with Mirrors, Virahinis and Sringaras.