MODERN ART IN SRI LANKA
One of the most important events in the contemporary art scene in Sri Lanka was the
formation of the 43 Group, the Sri Lankan equivalent of the Salon des Independents.
As its name implies the 43 Group was founded in Colombo in 1943 and was a reaction against
the officially supported Victorian naturalism and artistic sterility of the Ceylon Society
of Arts. The photographer Lionel Wendt (1900 - 1944) was the organiser-in-chief and
the painter Harry Pieris (1904 - 1988) was the Secretary. The first exhibition of
the group included works by Harry Pieris, J.F. Pieris Daraniyagala, George Keyt, Ivan
Peries W. J. G. Beling, Manjusri Thero (later L.T.P. Manjusri), A.C. Collette, R.D.
Gabriel, Walter Witharne, Y.J. Thuring, George and R.D. Claessen. Of course by 1943
the modern art movement in Sri Lanka was already well established; the 43 Group
united these independent artists who were committed to non-academic, free expression,
thereby ensuring a collective spirit, and the future growth of the movement. A major
contributory factor in the genesis of the modern art movement in Sri Lanka was the arrival
of C.F. Winzer in 1920. He lived and worked in Sri Lanka for eleven years.
Assessing Winzer's contribution, W.J.G. Beling says:
The Department of Education was privileged to employ as Inspector of Art in its schools
so distinguished an artist as Charles Freegrove Winzer. His aesthetic sensibility,
his familiarity with good art, (His youth was spent in Paris - the Paris of Picasso,
Matisse.) his wide and sympathetic understanding as well as his awareness of new
developments in art education enabled him to lay new foundations towards a more vital
development of art than the mechanical photographic and imitative work that had prevailed
Together with Lionel Wendt, Winzer stimulated and encouraged whatever genuine talent
existed both in and outside school art. This stimulation and encouragement finally
cristallised in the form of the 43 Group.
The Group was never doctrinaire in its objective but maintained high aesthetic
standards, limiting its membership - with the exception of Wendt - to creative painters.
Their efforts contributed to the formation of a creative pictorial tradition with a
Sri Lankan identity without compromising the individuality of the artist. Some of
the outstanding painters of genius who later brought international reputation to painting
in Sri Lanka belonged to 43 Group. William Graham wrote:
The most significant movement in Eastern Art today is to be found in Ceylon (Sri
Lanka). Its importance lies in the synthesis of traditional art forms and those
deriving from the West, which has produced painting truly Eastern in inspiration, yet of
universal validity. Its great vitality springs from a contemplative humanist vision,
which gives an imaginative and lyrical interpretation of the life of the Island; it is an
art at once profound and optimistic.
Harry Pieris (1904 - 1988) sustained the 43 Group after the death of Wendt.
Having studied art at the Royal College of Art in London and in Paris, Pieris left Paris
in 1935 to India where he spent two years at Tagore's school in Santiniketan before
returning to Sri Lanka in 1938.