ART AND CULTURE IN SRI LANKAN MODERN ART
In conversation with Rohan De Soysa
Cultural heritage and natural history of a nation is of high value and unique. It is an identity that can be introduced to the world. The tangible nuances of culture are those that are physical and palpable yet still retains its visually inherent nature of influencing subsequent generations and eras of art. The aspects of tangible culture carries an identity in its purpose to retain the characteristics of that particular period and present it into modernity. We conversed with Chairman of the Sapumal Foundation, Rohan de Soysa to understand the workings of Sri Lanka’s most eminent modern art collective, the ’43 Group.
Rohan de Soysa received his education in photography in the early 1960’s at the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts. He lectured part time at St. Martin School of Art in London, where he also photographed the paintings, sculptures and fashion work of the students. He has contributed photos to many publications including ‘The Masks and Mask System of Sri Lanka’ by Dr.M.H.Goonetilleka, ‘Briefly’ by Bevis Bawa, ’David Paynter’ by Eve Darling and Albert Dharmasiri and most recently ‘The Sapumal Foundation Collection – a Select Catalogue’ by Neville Weeraratne and himself. In February 2019, he published ‘Slow Cooked Thoughts’ with 68 colored photographs. Rohan was invited by the late Harry Pieirs, his grand uncle to be a Trustee of the Sapumal Foundation in the late 1970’s and was elected Chairman in 2010.
Q | In your opinion, what is the significance of the ‘43 Group and their modernist approach in celebrating Sri Lankan culture and heritage?
A | In my opinion the `43 Group did not consciously set out to celebrate Sri Lankan culture and heritage. C. F. Winzer, the Governemnt Art Inspector from 1920 to 1932, perceptively observed that modern art had much in common with our ancient sculptures and paintings, much more so than the rigid, prettified, academic art then being practiced. He not only mentored but also, with Lionel Wendt, sponsored a joint exhibition of art by Beling and Keyt in 1930. The `43 Group artists simply depicted, each in his way, what they felt worthwhile recording.
Nevertheless, they did so with sincerity, integrity, care and love. In this respect they followed the spirit of our ancient culture and heritage. However, in this more egalitarian era, Ivan Peries and Richard Gabriel depicted the lives of our rural folk, especially farmers and fishermen, who have always been the backbone of our country, rather than Buddhist themes. To that extent they celebrated Sri Lankan culture and heritage.
One should note that in ancient times artists apprenticed under a “guru” and almost all the art was of a religious; nor did they sign their works. With the rise of individualism in modern times artists paint all sorts of topics and are free of constraints, sometimes making all manner of rather extraordinary works. The one instance where the `43 Group did actively encourage traditional Sri Lankan culture and heritage was in supporting and promoting Kandyan Dancing.
Q | If you were to pick 5 works of the 43 Group that elaborate greatly nuanced details about Sri Lankan heritage, executed authentically, what would they be and why?
A | Taking due note of the above considerations I will choose a few works consonant with those ideas.
“Woman and Bull” by Justin Daraniyagala
“Indrani” by Harry Pieris
“Buddhist Monks” by George Keyt
“Can’t We Have a Down-to-earth account of the Present” by Aubrey Collette
“Nayika” by George Keyt
“Women Bathing” by Richard Gabriel
Q | What is the significance of the ’43 Group and how did the journey begin?
A | The `43 Group was the first modern art movement in Sri Lanka. Many contemporary artists visit the Sapumal Foundation to see examples of their work and have, no doubt, been influenced by it. Subsequently when they had their first exhibition, it was not received well by the art-loving public because they were used to having pretty pictures of trees and landscapes – very naturalistically drawn with the correct perspectives and all that. There were a lot of rather uncomplimentary comments. But a few years later, when they had their exhibition abroad, the critics there received it very well and that changed the opinion of the people locally. Internationally, there has been a growing commercial interest in Sri Lankan art.
The interest thus aroused led to an exhibition in November 1953 at the Petit Palais in Paris. A comment from that exhibition was “What characterizes this school and makes it a living thing, is the degrees of accomplishment in forming a synthesis between an age old tradition and the twentieth century … they form, very certainly, the foundation 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 exhibitions, George Keyt, who in spite of the revolutions in Europe painting, was among the first to discover the Sinhala tradition, and the youngest painter of the group, Ranjit Fernando whose talent is being developed without any concession to the art of the West, there is the work of Richard Gabriel, interpreter of rural life; The portraits of Harry Pieris, compositions by Georger Classen, 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 Deraniyagala which are like fragments of huge monumental composition, bursting with life and bearing a very special kind of formal lyricism. Third realist painter, this man of vision from Ceylon, with his extraordinary chromatic range of colour, will be known from now on as one of the important revelations of our time.”
Q | Sapumal Foundation has been a pillar in preserving culture and heritage in Sri Lanka through modern and contemporary art. Can you elaborate about its collection, library, exhibitions and their role in preserving culture and heritage?
A | Sapumal Foundation is not a conventional museum. Nor should it become one. It is the expression of the elegant and straightforward vision of its founder, Harry Pieris, where anyone feels at home. It is a refreshing counterbalance to the expensively sophisticated museums of today. As, so far, the only place open to the public, where examples of work by all the core artists of the `43 Group can be viewed, it is an invaluable aid to students and researchers, who can view authentic works. The reference library is also of use to them. In the past few years we have held three exhibitions of works directly inspired by art at the Sapumal Foundation as well as five others.
Q | In your opinion, what is the sum of experiences that make the ‘43 Group and Sapumal Foundation what it is today, in the present cultural context?
A | The Sapumal Foundation, like the `43 Group, believe, as Ananda Coomaraswamy has written, that art contains within itself the principles of life; the truest guide to the greatest art, the art of living. That is to say, in an artwork (of the `43 Group) creative use line, form, colour, texture, tone and composition make a harmonious work. Although the ‘43 Group artists were aware of the violent world around them, such as World War 2 and the radical 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 characteristics 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. We, too, should try and balance the various elements in our life to make it harmonious.