BABEL TO ABSTRACTION: SEVENTY YEARS OF ART AND POETRY
George Claessen: Babel to Abstraction marked the ﬁrst presentation in the UK for 18 years of the renowned late artist George Claessen’s multifaceted work. This major retrospective exhibition was presented by the London gallery Three Highgate, which is near where Claessen lived and worked. The exhibition began today, the 20th of October, and will continue until 31st January 2024. The works on show span over 70 years and reflect his extraordinary career as an artist and his commitment to abstraction, stating, “Every hue and nuance from a prism comes.”
Born in Sri Lanka and later moving to London in 1949 where he lived for the rest of his life, George Claessen (1909-99) was a self-taught artist and poet whose art was characterised by his mystical outlook and beliefs. With the fall of the British Empire, Claessen’s work began paralleling the destruction of nationalism and colonialism echoed in the landscape around him. ‘Home at last – it must be heaven,’ he wrote as he saw Britain for the first time in 1949, glimpsing the rooftops of Gravesend from the ship that had brought him from Bombay. Settling in North London for the rest of his life, those spires seen at the end of a long voyage stayed with him, creating in his art a sense of aspiration and of belonging.
Claessen was a founding member of the '43 Group, a Modern Art movement established in August 1943 in Colombo, consisting of Sri Lanka’s greatest artists of all time including, Aubrey Collette, Lionel Wendt, Geoff Beling, Harry Pieris, Richard Gabriel, Ivan Pieris, George Keyt, Justin Deraniyagala, and L.T. P. Manjusri. The 43’ Group embraced modern European artistic forms over traditional Sri Lankan forms while also using some of their own cultural origins as the building blocks for a new art. Poetry was also at the centre of all the '43 Group’s art and almost all of its members were practitioners of more than one art, allowing for a wider vision. In the 1960s Claessen joined the New Vision Group in London, which consisted of artists committed to abstract and avant-garde art in its many iterations.
George Claessen, Notation in Yellow and Black, 1975. © The Estate of George Claessen. Courtesy Three Highgate.
George Claessen, Nieuwe Kerk Delft, 1978. © The Estate of George Claessen. Courtesy Three Highgate.
Throughout his career, Claessen expressed in his art and poetry a unique lyrical language based on his emotional and mystical outlook. It is for this calm poetic abstract expressionist style that Claessen is most celebrated. As the exhibition curator, Alistair Hicks, viewed it, Claessen ‘treats paint like he treats the words in his poems. He is shifting them around like a child with putty.’
He started to draw and paint at age 29 after joining the Colombo Port Commission as a draughtsman, an occupation he continued until his retirement. It was not until he was settled in London that Claessen made the leap into abstraction - a city where abstraction had become the currency of the avant-garde. Yet his abstraction is a world entirely of its own - he made a home in his art.
Claessen found a regenerative spirit in abstract art - his paintings illustrate its healing qualities. ‘I did try to make another dimension,’ he said, ‘another dimension which I thought had been overlooked and not known in a mathematical sense.’ In some of his later abstracts, there exists a sense of combining geometry and the spirit he was looking for, but he was still wary of trying to pin things down. In every painting, he compels the viewer to expand into the picture, to break out of the frame of their mathematical minds.
George Claessen exhibited his work internationally until the 70s while working as a draughtsman until his retirement. His works appeared at the Venice Biennale in 1956 and Saõ Paulo, Brazil, Biennale of 1959, where he won an award. His solo shows included Velasquez Gallery, Melbourne, 1947; Archer Gallery, London, 1950; New Vision Centre Gallery, London, 1962; Stanhope Gallery, London, 1975; Gallery 706, Colombo, 1993; Frank T Sabin Gallery, London, 2000; The Gallery Cafe, Colombo, 1999 and 2018: and Paradise Road Gallery, Colombo, 2021.
In addition to the retrospective perspective of Claessen’s work, Three Highgate Editions, the publishing arm of the gallery, released a new collection of his poetry to coincide with the exhibition. Entitled Collected Poems of a Painter, it features 86 of George Claessen’s poems and a foreword by Alistair Hicks. It is available to purchase from Shearsman, priced £12.95. (ttps:/ www.shearsman.com/store/George-Claessen-Collected-Poems-of-a-Painter-p58640 7841)
Three Highgate and George Claessen’s Estate have also partnered with Emmy and Sundance award-winning documentary ﬁlm director, Rob Lemkin, to produce a documentary ﬁlm delving into his life and artistry. The ﬁlm is scheduled to premiere in November 2023 to tie in with the exhibition run at Three Highgate. More information can be found at www.threehighgate.com.
‘George Claessen: Babel to Abstraction’ was curated by Alistair Hicks, an independent curator and writer and former Senior Curator at Deutsche Bank, in collaboration with the founder and director of Three Highgate, Irina Johnstone. Alistair Hicks recently curated Paula Rego shows at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hannover and the Pera Museum in Istanbul. He is the author of Global Art Compass; Urban Mirrors; New British Art in the Saatchi Gallery; and The School of London.
To learn more about George Claessen, check out ARTRA's Edition 63 on the 43' Group.