Part 3: Creating a place for Sri Lanka’s modern art


part3.jpg (13524 bytes)
Painting by David Paynter

This is a revised version of an article commissioned in 1998 by a publisher for a book to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Sri Lanka’s Independence. As it happened, the publication did not come off but that explains how this paper has grown through several re-workings over the past few years.

It may seem that its scope is too great, that nothing may come of it because of the magnitude of the matters raised. However, the recently appointed committee now working on improvements to the Colombo Museum vindicates it. It is a beginning.

The committee includes Prof Senake Bandaranayake, chairman; Yasantha Maputuna, assistant director, Department of Museums (secretary and convenor); Siran Deraniyagala, director of archaeology; B.D.Karunaratne, director, establishments, Ministry of Public Administration; G.P.Abeyakeerthi, director, management services; C. Angelendran, architect; and Dr R. K. de Silva, antiquary and author. The director of the British Council and the cultural counsellor of the French Embassy are invitees.

The performing arts and writing and publishing in Sinhala and Tamil in addition to English are other matters not dealt in detail but needing to be considered in the pursuit of the greater objective that is the topic of this paper.

In the Sunday Island last week, Neville Weeraratne suggested that there was inadequate appreciation of Sri Lanka’s works of art. What the Colombo Museum held, for instance, was poorly displayed and suffered from disregard. He called for the creation of an independent organization free of bureaucratic constraints to conserve what we have in a National Gallery.

The art of modern Sri Lanka derives from and is heavily influenced by that of Europe where easel painting first appeared. The measure of its success must therefore to a very large extent be based on the standards observed in Europe. The views of critics in London and Paris have been important in making objective assessments of their value as art.

So Justin Daraniyagala, for instance, was hailed as a new revelation when his work was seen in Paris in 1953. Georges Besson, writing in Les Lettres Francais, 19 November 1953, exclaimed: The French public will give their particular attention to the nineteen works of Justin Daraniyagala which are like fragments of a large, monumental composition, bursting with life and bearing a very special kind of formal Iyricism. . .This realist painter, this man of vision from Ceylon, with his extraordinary 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.

The work of George Keyt was already in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London when the ’43 Group held its first exhibition at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington in 1952. William Archer, curator of the Indian Section of the V&A, wrote the Introduction in the catalogue of the Keyt exhibition at the Institute of Daran Art in l954. He traced Keyt’s development from his early interest in the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka in the 1920s to the artist’s discovery of "a calligraphic line derived from Sinhalese art". Peter de Francia writing in Art News and Review, 23 January 1954, said that Keyt’s work was "full of a formal sensuality of a type that was hardly ever found in Western art and completely lacking in any type of painting in the XX century".

Besson described the work of George Claessen, Aubrey Collette, Richard Gabriel, Ivan Peries and Harry Pieris as "varied, subtle, austere and powerful".

Daraniyagala, Claessen, Gabriel and Ivan Peries went on to win prizes at the biennales of Venice and Sao Paulo in Brazil, with the Petit Palais in Paris buying a painting each by Gabriel and Ivan Peries for its permanent collection.

If one were to accept as part of the mystique of art that the value of a work is sometimes judged by the price an enthusiast will pay, it is interesting to note that Keyt and Ivan Peries have both enjoyed unprecedented success at Sotherbys Auctions in London in recent years. One might say that modern Sri Lankan art has arrived, thus adding a fresh strand to the glorious tapestry of the country’s ancient art.

This is something to be pleased about but there are a few important details that often go unnoticed and are soon forgotten. Too many paintings bought by collectors, no doubt to be treasured, leave the artists’ studios never to be seen nor heard of again. A strict catalogue needs to be maintained so that at any given time it will be possible to locate a painting wherever in the world it may happen to be.

There are several large private collections today from which paintings could be obtained to form the basis of a national collection. As I recall them, they include:

1. The Sapumal Foundation, set up by Harry Pieris some years before his death in 1983, contained several hundred items, paintings in oil and other media, drawings and prints. These are already poorly hung around the walls of what was his home, largely because there are too many of them for the limited wall space available and therefore, no method could be applied to their display. The foundation, however, continues to sponsor excellent exhibitions and provides opportunities for lesser-known artists. (It also had a programme of publishing which, alas, has ceased surely for want of funds?);

2. The Anton Wickremasinghe Collection was built on the nucleus brought together by Ranjit Fernando who was responsible for introducing the work of the ’43 Group to Europe in the early 1950s. The late Mr. Wickremasinghe had, I have been told, offered his entire collection to Harry Pieris to be cared for by him and the Sapumal Foundation. Harry Pieris did not accept the offer for two reasons: he did not have sufficient space to accommodate such a vast number of paintings together with his own at his Barnes Place residence; and he could not retain them as a contiguous and self-contained body of work to be described, as required by the donor, as the Anton Wickremasinghe Collection within the Sapumal Foundation. The Wickremasinghe collection was in grave danger of being dismantled following its owner’s death but for the timely intervention of R. Rajamahendran who bought it in toto and upon which he has built the Heritage Collection housed in Colombo;

3. There is also a small but illustrative collection of paintings put together by Geoffrey Bawa at Lunuganga near Bentota, which is to serve visitors as an exhibition of Sri Lankan art:

4. G. S. N. Peiris of Kandy, has been making an extensive collection of paintings. It was his intention to create a gallery accessible to the public there. This is precisely the sort of attitude for which I have sustained applause. It contains the basis of what I am talking about.

However, there are conditions restricting the accessibility of these collections to the public. The Sapumal Foundation is open on certain days of the week only. I was there one morning when two students from a provincial town arrived to seek admission. They were turned away because the gallery was officially closed on that day. My attempts to see the Heritage Collection failed: it is a private collection and it is entirely up to its owner to admit or turn away visitors. The Lunuganga Collection is likewise restricted, I believe, to invitees, and, as far as I know, Mr. Peiris’s programme for Kandy has yet to be implemented.

But if these collections have already exhibited a sense of responsibility and the paintings in their possession are being looked after there are a great many more items that need to be gathered and conserved. Among them:

1. Justin Daraniyagala paintings, drawings, projects and a few ceramic pieces now dispersed among members of his family. Some excellent paintings (by Daraniyagala and others, notably Ivan Peries and Richard Gabriel) are to be found in the Christopher Ondaatje Collection in England, some of which at least he may be interested in returning to Sri Lanka if they will be suitably housed and acknowledged;

2. The Ivan Peries collection of paintings lying in a small room in his widow’s home at Southernd-on-Sea in England and including what he considered to be his magnum opus, The Arrival. Two other very large paintings which had been loaned to the Sri Lanka High Commission in London by Martin Russell were the subject of controversy some while ago and I believe, are now back with their owner;

3. The George Keyt Foundation set a fine precedent when it sponsored a retrospective exhibition of the work of Justin Daraniyagala in 1992. The foundation is, of course, dedicated to the interests of the work of Keyt himself but I do not know of any programme in place to gather Keyt’s work into a chronological or representative collection, or of the compilation of an archieve or a comprehensive catalogue which would annotate his life’s work. I believe, however, that it is engaged in putting together an exhibition of Keyt’s work to mark the one hundredth anniversary of his birth this year, 2001, at the new Harold Peiris Gallery at the Lionel Wendt Memorial Arts Centre. As far as I am aware, the single largest collection was that of Martin Russell in England who was required to return some of the paintings to Sri Lanka upon Keyt’s death in 1993. I believe these were to be sold to meet testamentary disbursements. The other important collections were with the late Harold and Peggy Peiris, some of which were inherited by their son the Rev. Lionel Peiris; in the Percy and Moira Colin-Thome Collection in Colombo, and with the Keyt Foundation itself. A large collection of drawings dedicated by Keyt to Ian and Roslin Goonetileke has been offered to the University Library in Peradeniya. A single, comprehensive collection has yet to be made;

4. David Paynter’s work in the Trinity College chapel in Kandy suffered considerably over the years. The murals there have now been conserved reasonably well. However, his easel paintings have been languishing in the home founded by his parents in Nuwara Eliya and in a house the family owned at Mahagastota. These paintings risk loss and irretrievable damage with no known curator to look after them among the successors of the Paynter family at the Nuwara Eliya Homes;

Manjusri spent a greater part of his life copying temple murals with meticulous care. His copies are invaluable because many of the originals from which he copied them no longer exist. Much of his work was collected by a Mrs. Mitchell in London and by the New York Public Library. They form an essential link between early and contemporary painting in Sri Lanka and should be gathered under one roof. Some of his work still remains with members of his family. Some were purchased many years ago by the Colombo Museum. It would be interesting to know whether these are on display;

6. Whatever happened to that large collection of paintings, mainly portraits, which J. D. A. Perera showed us stacked in an upstairs room of his home in Gampaha? We were told none of them could be traced hardly a week after his death;

7. The work of Maisie de Silva, we know, has been curated under the dutiful and enthusiastic eye of her son, Dr. Rajpal de Silva and his sisters and, but for their interest, who knows what their fate might have been;

8. Barbara Sansoni’s Vihares & Verandahs, published in 1979, was followed by its natural extension, the monumental The Architecture of an Island: the living legacy of Sri Lanka in 1998. This remarkable work is the result of collaboration with Ronald Lewcock and Laki Senanayake and others. It records the architectural achievement of over a thousand years of building in Sri Lanka and is an essential part of even a passing interest in the heritage of the island. Superb perspective drawings are complemented by measured drawings made by expert draughtsmen - of temples, devales, churches houses and others. It considers the practical use of materials and methods better suited for the greater comfort of the users of these buildings in a tropical country. It also pays tribute to the beauty inherent in them and suggest a moral in the approach to building today. I think a selection of drawings by Barbara Sansoni and Laki Senanayake with suitable texts from Prof. Lewcock should be acquired and exhibited in the National Gallery. These are vital studies into an art that is so easily and so frequently abused;

9. In this regard too, the drawings representing the work of Geoffrey Bawa and donated by him to the National Archives would more suitably be exhibited at the National Gallery where they will better serve the purposes of education. Within the National Archives they would, no doubt, be well looked after but would languish unseen and eventually forgotten;

10. A comprehensive collection needs to be made of the work of Tissa Ranasinghe, the country’s first and only sculptor of originality since the time of a great stone carvers of Polonnaruwa. A gallery should be set apart for this work;

11. Then there are the photographers whose work should be collected. These photographs provide rare documentary evidence of the state of our country at least in the 20th century. The names of Lionel Wendt, George Koch, Pat Decker, Nihal Fernando, Dominic Sansoni come to mind. There are others too, whose work should be sought and collected: B. P. Weerawardene’s, for instance; or Kevin Clogstoun’s. Newspaper archives should also yield valuable material;

12. Perhaps most important of all should be those ubiquitous items of everyday use which we take all too much for granted and are generally swept under the rug as Folk Art. The variety is staggering. It includes ritual painting, clay effigies for use in exorcist ceremonies, masks, puppets, dance costumes, embroidered cloths, batik flags, terra cotta pottery and toys, wood-carving, silverware, bronze and iron work, brassware, stone work, gok-kola decor, lace-work, handloom fabrics, and much more. These are crafts being overtaken even as I write by mass-production on the one hand or scorned and abandoned as primitive and/or as superstitious on the other. Fortunately, there are a few practitioners of these arts still left though poorly patronized. The plight of the Kandyan Arts & Crafts Association, for example, is pathetic and the single-mindedness of its office bearers is to be commended for what I hope is not a vain attempt to keep these crafts alive. (I have had the unhappy experience of seeing an excellent potter in Kelaniya abandon his craft for a job in the Colombo Harbour as an unskilled labourer. I have also seen those lovely, colourful animal figures in clay that emerged every year during the Vel festival in Colombo replaced by Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck! (I was appalled to see, at the hallowed Kandy Perahera, shabbily dressed boys carry sticks with paper pom-poms attached to them much like those displayed by "go-go-girls" at football games in the U.S., and others in no more distinguished a costume than baseball caps worn back to front. How long will it be before advertising floats join in?);

13. In the context of the folk arts of Sri Lanka, an important facet lies somewhat obscured today in the hills of Aluwihare. There, Ena de Silva helps the people of her village work at a number of crafts, chief among which is batik dyeing for which she is renowned as pioneer and designer par excellence. Apart from which these studios have established a fine reputation for embroidered cloths, woodwork and bronze and brass casting. Here too, Mrs. de Silva has gathered a remarkable collection of batik and appliqued flags from mediaeval times now displayed against the ceiling of her home. She also treasures a collection of swords and daggers of the same vintage. It will be good to know that eventually these items would be preserved for posterity in the kind of establishment I am talking about.

But it will not do only to collect and conserve these things. A National Gallery will display a permanent collection while it will be constantly creating new exhibitions with materials drawn from its own collections and new works obtained at source.

These exhibitions could be specialist in nature. The subject matter, if it is pottery could range from everyday utensils with their uses demonstrated and their making shown in a series of photographs. A somewhat more adventurous approach could well be to have these utensils put to use in the preparation of food of an evening. A cookery demonstration, in fact, could take place followed by the consumption of the results - a highly entertaining and satisfying way to learn, I would think.

If it is painting, exhibitions could be devoted to particular subjects; for instance, portraiture or still life or landscapes. It could be devoted to temple murals or decorative old-leaf manuscript covers. The permutations and combinations possible are innumerable, but each such exhibition must be marketed to attract visitors to the gallery and be produced in such a way as to inform and stimulate fresh interest and discussion.

Every item in the possession of the gallery would be treasured but some would require more attention than others depending on the degree of maintenance they require.

Paintings in the possession of the gallery must be maintained with the greatest care. They need to be cleaned, re-stretched, varnished and re-framed by trained staff when necessary. This means that the gallery will maintain a stock room where these are stored in controlled conditions while awaiting exhibition.

The gallery must also be prepared to host exhibitions of paintings, sculpture, photography or other objets d’art by invitation or on a commercial basis. The gallery should seek and host exhibitions from other countries, and individual pieces should be obtained for display on loan from national collections elsewhere, perhaps on an exchange basis.

To accommodate these activities a gallery of the nature, scope and size required would ideally be built on a site of, say, 50 hectares. This should be landscaped to provide a tranquil ambiance in which to set the gallery itself. A sculpture garden must surely be part of the design and so should an amphitheatre for the production of folk plays, classical dance recitals, productions of ballets, symphony concerts and open air performances of classical plays as well as original plays of merit.

The building will need to be diligently designed to cater to the many demands that will be made for its space and accommodation, bearing in mind the possible need to extend the premises at some future time. The gallery will need to be designed to provide a maximum degree of natural light; it will also need to be air-conditioned because of our tropical, humid conditions.

Much care must be taken to ensure the highest degree of security for everything within the gallery complex.

Architecturally, the building itself must eschew pretentiousness of any kind, neither paying mock reverence to the styles of Kandy and the past, nor borrowing from classical European styles. Ideally, I would like to see Sri Lankan architects vie with one another to create a design that is individual and unique, the design being selected by an independent authority - indeed, such an authority as the gallery itself is intended to become as the nation’s arbiter of style and good taste.

It would, indeed, be appropriate in this exercise to recognize and establish an approach to architecture based on the simple principles of order and harmony and space and proportion while also acknowledging certain essential Sri Lankan features of ornament and decoration applied with restraint. In this regard, a display of designs by Geoffrey Bawa would be an invaluable addition to the collection of the National Gallery. Here, once more, is an opportunity to educate and how more significantly than in the practical application of the best standards?

I would see the National Gallery engaged in manifold activities. I would see the gallery containing a conference room and a lecture theatre. It would also provide for a cafeteria for visitors. A film society would be organized, using the lecture theatre for the screening of classic films to revive interest and sharpen the critical appreciation of that much-abused art.

Space will need to be allocated for a library devoted to books and other publications on art and related subjects. It would include a collection of recordings of music and of copies of films.

The National Gallery should attempt to obtain the extensive archives of H. A. I. Goonetileke which deals largely with the period of Sri Lanka history that should interest the gallery; The Goonetileke Archives have, however, been donated to the University Library in Peradeniya, else what better place for it than the National Gallery? If the gallery is not to have these archives, then work must be undertaken to create and maintain one with the exhaustiveness of Mr. Goonetileke’s.

Storage space is essential, as well as space for a workshop where the restoration and framing of paintings may be undertaken.

The gallery should run a bookshop at which reproductions of paintings in the collection as well as books on art and other original works of interest are made available for sale.

The gallery should take on the role of publisher and prepare materials for the use of schools and students. A programme of translation and the publication of original work in Sinhala and Tamil must be undertaken to make up for the unbelievable void that now exists.

I expect the gallery to provide at least l0,000 linear feet of wall space consisting of rooms of varying sizes. Each such room could bear the name of the donor collections ("Sapumal", "Ondaatje", "Heritage" and so on), or the name of a donor subscribing to the construction of the exhibition space.

All signage should, of course, be produced in the three languages of the country. Every picture and exhibit must be identified and described in Sinhala, Tamil and English.

In addition to the means suggested earlier, the gallery should be able to generate some revenue through:

1. Entry fees. (It should be noted that until recently in London neither the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate nor any of the other institutions dedicated to art or antiquities charges entrance fees but now do. Fees are charged too, by institutions of a similar kind in Europe. The National Museum in New Delhi also charges an entrance fee. Ideally, of course, establishments of this kind should be freely open to visitors);

2. Tax concessions. As a non-profit organization, arrangements will need to be made to obtain tax exemptions on donations. This should encourage legacies and bequests;

3. The sale of publications;

4. Commissions from the sale of work at exhibitions arranged on a commercial basis

5. The cafeteria;

6. Rentals from the hire of the conference room and lecture theatre; and,

7. Rental from the hire of the amphitheatre.

But clearly, this will by no means cover the costs involved in an exercise of this magnitude. Essentially, the gallery would need, apart from state allocations, generous endowments from people to generate adequate funds to pay staff, to maintain the collections, buildings and gardens and to engage in a dynamic programme of development which much also include adequate training of staff.

All this may seem like an impossible pipe dream but I think the subject is too important not to raise it. Perhaps something will come of it eventually, even if our experience is that not much has been achieved in the nearly one hundred years since Coomaraswamy addressed his Open Letter to the Kandyan Chiefs in 1905. If this paper stimulates some discussion it could lead to a greater awareness of the problems that face us now and will face us in the time to come.

What I am canvassing is the exercise of greater diligence in protecting the artistic heritage of Sri Lanka. The great monuments that stand within the so-called ‘Cultural Triangle’ and elsewhere in the island need to be properly conserved and protected from arbitrary reconstruction or from some other similar fate. Other works of value, whether ancient or contemporary, should be brought under one umbrella where they can be seen, studied, enjoyed and preserved for posterity. There is then the exciting prospect that the National Gallery would inspire the development of new works in a host of disciplines.

When this has been done we will have, at last, a source of enduring pleasure, a showcase for the country’s finest human achievements and a centre of justifiable national pride.
Neville Weereratne