Rohan de Soysa talking at the Colombo Art Biennale, 16 February 2012
Good afternoon and welcome, fellow art-lovers. Thank you Albert for introducing me and for your kind words. The art displayed here and the ideas of the 43 Group and Harry Pieris may seem a bit quaint and old fashioned compared to where the art scene is today. But I hope to show you that it and the values that formed it have their rightful place not only today but in the future too. Though I have been billed as the keynote speaker I am now the ‘only note’ speaker because the other two were not able to come.
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. ”
The 43 Group:
When Lionel Wendt, a talented photographer and pianist, returned from England, after studying law, his house became a meeting place for artists, to whom he became a patron. The walls of his house were covered with the paintings of his friends and proteges, not to mention his own photographs. His grand piano dominated the space.
In 1943 a germ of an idea seemingly first planted by Ivan Peries burst forth as a shoot when Lionel Wendt held the inaugural meeting of the 43 Group in his house at 18 Guildford Crescent on 29th August 1943 where the objectives of the Group were announced. To quote a couple of extracts from these Minutes, “Group exists for the furtherance in every way of art in all its branches” and again “It is the intention of the Group that contributing artists will select their own work before submission and the usual practice will be to exhibit all works submitted”. Just inside the entrance to the Sapumal Foundation building there is a drawing by Collette which shows the original core group. These were Lionel Wendt, Geoff Beling, Harry Pieris, Richard Gabriel, Ivan Peries, George Keyt, George Claessen, Aubrey Collette, Justin Daraniyagala and L T P Manjusri Thero. Of these ten only Richard Gabriel is alive today, living in Melbourne, Australia.
The first exhibition of the “43 Group” was held in an old corrugated iron warehouse at 525 Darley Road, Maradana in November 1943. There were no speeches and lighting of oil lamps as was traditional because as Lionel Wendt said “An exhibition opens like a flower…” Later 43 Group exhibitions did have speeches but never the ceremonial lightings of the oil lamp.
This first exhibition was greeted with derision and scorn by the staid and conservative art world of Ceylon, much as the Impressionists had been in Europe decades earlier. Some unkind comments were “Some people were more thrilled with the titles of the pictures than by the pictures themselves”; or “My strongest impression of this exhibition was that it was conceited”. A kinder observer wrote ” it was a stimulating relief from the usual pictures of old men with long beards, temple elephants and flamboyant trees. There are at least half a dozen works that would do honour to any exhibition anywhere in the world and more than three times that number of exhibits that would repay the closest attention.”
Sadly in 1944 Lionel Wendt died and his brother Harry Wendt inherited his house. When he, too, died shortly after, it was left with a request that it be made into a theater and place which would benefit both the performing and visual arts. In the foundation of this house was buried a scroll written by him which read “May all honest endeavor in the service of beauty flourish therein and win its reward of inward content and the peace that is only in ceaseless effort. ” It is today the Lionel Wendt Theater and Art Center Thousands flock there annually to view art and photographic exhibitions, plays and musical performances.
Harry Pieris then became the main focus of the “43 Group” and his living quarters, which were the rear section of this, his mother’s house, became the new meeting place for the artists of the group.
No doubt the 43 Group was influenced by both the style and subject matter of the Impressionists and Expressionists, reproductions of whose paintings they would have seen, especially from the ‘Cahiers d’Art,’ which Lionel Wendt used to subscribe to. However, the 43 Group paintings interpreted similar topics in a gentler and more lyrical way.
The prime mover in putting all these exhibitions together, designing the catalogues for the local exhibitions, supervising the hanging of the items etc., was the Groups first and only Secretary, Harry Pieris, who also designed the 43 Group logo. The first exhibitions were held at the Darley Road warehouse, later ones in the Art Gallery, then Lionel Wendt’s house in Guildford Crescent before it became the Lionel Wendt Centre and later at the Lionel Wendt Centre itself. In all the Group held 16 local exhibitions, the last one being in February 1967.
Additionally the Group also sponsored several non-43 Group events, in furtherance of their objectives e.g. performances of Kandyan dancing by the The Kandyan Dance Society among whose members were the renowned Suramba, Ukkuva, Guneya, Punchi Gura and Jayana. The first such performance was in 1945 followed by several others with these and other dancers; a documentary film on the work of Rodin; photographic reproductions from Ajanta; a photographic exhibition of Hindu and Buddhist sculpture from the ancient Khmer Empire of Indo-China; an exhibition of prints and originals of the French Impressionists in 1948; The Hiroshima Panels exhibition in 1957, which was the response of two artists, Iri Maruki and his wife Toshio Akamatsu, to the massacre of more than 400,000 of their fellow citizens by the atom bomb, the first weapon of mass destruction in history, and so on.
When the 43 Group works were exhibited abroad they were much more kindly received. At the first such exhibition held from 25 November to 23 December 1952 at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington, London. John Berger art critic of the New Statesman commented that “Keyt would surely be recognised as an artist of important genius’ and that he would “unhesitatingly place Daraniyagala alongside any of the 20th Century masters of Expressionism with the possible exception of the Indonesian, Affandi. Another critic, Maurice Collis, commented that a picture by Daraniyagala “could hold its own in the best company. I know very few English artists who can paint as well and none who can paint better” And again of painting by Gabriel “a really choice piece of craftsmanship which shows how thoroughly the artist has studied the technique of painting”.
The interest thus aroused led to an exhibition in November 1953 at the Petit Palais in Paris. A comment from that exhibition was “What characterises this school and makes it a living thing, is the degree of accomplishment in forming a synthesis between an age-long tradition and the twentieth century ……… they form, very certainly, the foundations of a great art: they mark a beginning only, but a beginning of plenty and hope.” Another critic commented “Side by side with the oldest of the exhibitors, George Keyt, who in spite of the revolutions in European painting, was among the first to discover the Sinhalese tradition, and the youngest painter in the Group, Ranjit Fernando, whose talent is being developed without any concessions to the art of the West, there is the work of Richard Gabriel, interpreter of rural life; the portraits of Harry Pieris; compositions by George Claessen, Aubrey Collette, Ivan Peries, all of them varied, subtle, austere and powerful, bearing witness to superb craftsmanship. It is likely, however, that the French public will give their particular attention to the nineteen works of Justin Daraniyagala which are like fragments of a huge monumental composition, bursting with life and bearing a very special kind of formal lyricism…..This realist painter, this man of vision from Ceylon, with his extraordinary chromatic range of colour, this Daraniyagala, whose name we should all remember, will be known from now on as one of the important revelations of our time.” A work by Ivan Peries “Portrait of Iranganie” and one by Richard Gabriel “Fighting Bulls” were bought for the permanent collection of the Musee du Petit Palais.
This was followed by exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art which opened on 6th January 1954 of George Keyt; the Artists International Association Galleries which opened on 11th January of 7 mixed artists (Claessen, Collette, Fernando, Gabriel, Ivan Peries and Harry Pieris) and the Beaux Arts Gallery of Justin Daraniyagala which opened on 13th January in London. These were followed by a major exhibition at the Heffer Gallery in Cambridge. At the Biennales of Venice in 1956 and Sao Paulo in 1959, works by Justin Daraniyagala, Ivan Peries, Richard Gabriel and George Claessen won prizes as well as patronage, while the others won acclaim. In 1964 the Florentine Art Academy founded in 1564 to honour Michelangelo conferred on Gabriel the distinction of honorary membership.
All these overseas exhibitions were organised by Ranjit Fernando. He was living in London, following a crippling childhood illness. It is a tribute to his remarkable character that this did not prevent him from mounting these superb exhibitions, for which he designed the catalogues.
It is of interest to quote Neville Weereratne on Gabriel ” Gabriel understood the aspirations of the common man as a reaching out for the simple, idyllic life, where freedom meant freedom to dream, to be still, to be like the birds of the air, neither weaving nor spinning but arrayed in a certain grandeur. These basic freedoms are fast disappearing today.
Although the 43 Group artists were aware of the violent world around them, such as World War 2 and the racial upheavals and insurrections in Sri Lanka, this violence of the external world did not infiltrate its way into their art. They focused on topics which depicted Life, especially of the farmers and fishermen who produce our sustenance, and Love, as between mother and child, man and animal and as depicted in myths, rather than on topics which depicted the ill-mannered and boorish behaviour characteristic of wars, state repressions, and rebellions. They had no desire to paint pictures of killings and rapes and thus glorify such acts, as done by artists in more intrinsically violent and domineering cultures.
THE SAPUMAL FOUNDATION:
As mentioned earlier, Harry Pieris was extremely active in the 43 Group. He had also, over the years, built up a collection of paintings by the 43 Group as well as other artists, often acting as a benevolent patron to artists in need of encouragement or funds or both.
In 1974 he felt that he should establish something of a more permanent nature so that the public could view good art and be enriched thereby. To paraphrase Magaret Gooneratne ” ….Harry in his understated yet determined way was convinced that the advantages he had inherited, received and gained must be shared with a wider range of people. It was a responsibility that made him restless. In such thinking the Sapumal Foundation took firm and adventurous root.” So he formed the Sapumal Foundation, with two close friends, Dr Christopher Raffel and Dr Arthur Weerakoon as trustees. The main purpose of the Foundation is to preserve the collection for the benefit of posterity and to advance the cause of art by this and other means.
When he was young his siblings had nicknamed him ‘Sapumal”. Sapumal is a flower that is said not to open fully -implying that Harry was not quite mature: it may also have been because the Prince Sapumal of history was said to have been an unsmiling man, and Harry was not much given to smiling. With impish humour he has got his own back by naming his Foundation after his nickname.
He had by then inherited his mother’s house and hung a good part of his art collection throughout it. This is the house you see behind you. The other day someone wanted to know who the architect was as it had been built so imaginatively. In fact this was not a house built by an architect. When Harry’s father died his mother felt that the large mansion they were living in, at the beginning of Barnes Place, was too big for her, with its huge dining room, ballroom, many bedrooms etc. So she decided to move into three small cottages, occupied by minor staff such as washerwomen, cooks etc., after converting them into one house by demolishing the dividing walls and making a few modifications. As you walk around it later I hope you too will enjoy the result.
Initially, Wendt’s superb collection of 43 Group and other paintings were housed at the Lionel Wendt. Due to bad storage many of them had deteriorated and it was decided to auction them, partly also to raise funds to complete the Theatre. Harry was fortunately able to buy some paintings from the auction to supplement his own collection. With his discerning eye he purchased some of the best ones which are now part of the Sapumal Collection.
I can do no better than quote from Professor S B and Ellen Dissanayake’s descriptions of their impressions of the house. Professor S B Dissanayake says ” The house and garden, both extensions of Harry’s personality, became over the years part of a permanent interior decor for me which included the people and objects I cared for most. Every (new) face in my life entered into this decor at some time or another. I went to Harry’s house to see afresh, to learn of beauty and find it confirmed. My first memories of the mingled scents of flowers and painted canvases in his studio, the trees in his garden, lemons, jasmines, atteriyas, brunfelsias, with their scented shadows are still fresh….To pause and look at what Harry has surrounded himself with is in itself a creative act requiring an effort….His garden, house, the paintings in his house, register his whole experience of life. He has, as it were, formulated that experience in entirely visual terms for everyone to see.
Ellen Dissanayake embellished these thoughts on Harry’s home in her tribute “There is nothing of the museum (in his house) nor is there anything that could be described as ‘interior decoration’ – rather it is a delightful and comfortable clutter of odd pieces of furniture, books and vases and carvings and ceramics and photographs and other memories collected over a lifetime….What I feel in his house and in his presence is an atmosphere of timeless gentility and fineness that miraculously still clings though I know that just as it has disappeared in America and elsewhere in the West, here, too, it is rare and evanescent.”
In the running of the house and care of the paintings he was ably assisted by his chauffeur and man Friday, Robert, and in the upkeep of the garden and making beautiful flower arrangements by Piyadasa and his team. It was Piyadasa’s wife who lovingly prepared his meals. This little touch of feudalism worked very well.
He also used to host a tea-time Salon, to which interested people came and talked animatedly and often provocatively about the topics of the day. He provided tea and sandwiches to fuel them. He invariably sat in a particular chair, which you will see, with a splendid flower arrangement of bougainvilleas in a copper vase by his side. This was a stimulating and enjoyable event, much looked forward to.
Harry Pieris was the founder chairman from 1974 until he passed on in 1988. He bequeathed his house and contents to the Sapumal Foundation. He was succeeded by Mr L S D Pieris who was the chairman until 2010. It was he who transformed the Sapumal and made it much more organised than it was, by labeling paintings, taking inventories etc. He made the Sapumal much more user-friendly without losing any of its charm. I succeeded him in 2010 though he remains a much appreciated and valued trustee. During his time as Chairman he was able to oversee the publication of “The Sapumal Foundation Collection – A Select Catalogue” which has examples of the work of each of the 37 artists whose work hangs here and also had photographic records made of the entire collection, more than half of which is in storage . Those interested may purchase a copy of the said book afterwards.
The Sapumal Foundation has over the years sponsored exhibitions of works by various artists both in our own and other premises. We have also published a few books, including one in Sinhalese. We have given space to Ms Noeline Fernando to teach art to children, and to Professor Sarath Chandrajeewa, one of our foremost sculptors, to teach adults. We have given space to the Executor of Ms Varuni Hunt to build a Gallery to house her works and he in turn has given us an apartment above it to help us to earn a little income by renting it to visiting artists.
We hope to continue in this same vein, in the same tradition of simple elegance followed by Harry Pieris so that people can come, wander around and leave refreshed in spirit.
I hope that, in keeping with the theme of this year’s Biennale, I have shown how a young boy interested in art ‘became’ a mature painter and art teacher, how he then ‘became’ the main mover in a group of painters and finally how he ‘became’ the generous giver of his Collection and its setting to posterity so that they could enjoy what he himself had enjoyed building up over the years. Whatever we in Sri Lanka “become” in the future we would “become” better if we are guided by a long-term vision based on simplicity and sincerity which seeks beauty and harmony while protecting the lives and environmental rights and entitlements of all our denizens, animal, bird, fish, reptile, spirit and human equally.
In conclusion I would like to thank the Colombo Art Biennale for giving me this opportunity to talk to you and to all those whose writings I have borrowed from, in particular Neville Weereratne. Also to Albert Dharmasiri for so readily agreeing to act as the Moderator. And last but not least to the staff of the Sapumal for coming in after hours as it were to help. Let me now illustrate my talk by taking you around the Sapumal Foundation.
Rohan de Soysa, Chairman – Sapumal Foundation