"George Keyt - the Man and His Art"

H. A. I. Goonetileke
Born a year after the turn of the present century, George Keyt, Sri Lanka’s most distinguished and renowned modern painter, stemming from Indo-Dutch origins gave much time from an early age to drawing and the study of art, and developed a consuming passion for books and reading.

The spell of the ancient hill capital and its Buddhist aura soon came to exercise a powerful and lasting influence and was to provide both the literary and artistic stimulus living so close to the Malwatte Vihare. He became greatly drawn towards Buddhism and while yet a very young man, championed the cause of the Buddhist revival. He wrote profusely in both prose and verse to Buddhist publications, contributing decorative drawings on religious subjects as well.

The young painter also began to turn his back on the stifling values of the Westernised millieu of the class into which he was born. Gentle folkways of life in rural society the forms and colours of the Kandyan country side, unhurried rhythms of life in its villages, and the lush beauty of its environment were transmuted into paintings. He was able to renew and replenish his artistic palette from this unjaded source.

A variety of art forms, compounded of ill-digested notions of Western naturalism an insular revivalism, and a sham Orientalism, was opposed by a group of young painters whose early work was largely inspired, invigorated, and supported by Lionel Wendt, musician, photographer, critic, literature, collector and true aficionado of the arts aided and abetted by the English artist Charles Frederick Winzer, the Chief Government Inspector of Art at the time this group of painters, of whom Justin Pieris Deraniyagala, George Keyt, Geoffrey Beling and Harry Pieris were the chief figures at the start, had begun to communicate in their art a vigour, sincerity, and intelligence. Along with eight other, of whom the best known were George Claessen, Ivan Peries, Richard Gabriel, Aubrey Collette, and Manjusri Thero they set out to from the 43 Group.

The manifesto so to speak of this Group was based on a fresh, though fundamental, recognition of certain essentials in art, forgotten for fifty years, realistic appreciation of the true values and flavour of the native landscape, its people, and its regional artistic traditions. Wendt was a tower of strength to this new wave.

A congenial preoccupation

A congenial preoccupation with depicting episodes from the Buddhist Jataka or Birth stories culminated in the magnificent and innovative representation of the life and times of the Great Teacher on the inner walls of the circumambulatory shrine-room of Gotami Vihare in Borella between 1939 and 1940.

About this time his explorations in Hindu mythology and Indian literature led him to close links with the cultural life of India, where he has lived for long and short periods from 1939 right up to the late seventies. To the Sri Lanka Buddhist sources were now added the compelling imagery of Hindu myth and legend as vital influences.

A meeting with Rabindranath Tagore in the 30’s lasting impression.

Many exhibitions of his work have also been held in India, London and other European and American centres. His pictures are to be found in various museums and galleries abroad, as well as in private collections in Sri Lanka and throughout the world. He has had pictures in the Venice and Sao Paulo Bienales, and has been representated in every exhibition of the work of contemporary Sri Lankan painters abroad.

His work has been introduced and eulogised by eminent critics like Herbert Read, William Archer, Andre Chamson, George Besson, Mulk Raj Anand, E. M. Forster, John Berger and William Graham, while discerning critics in his own country have been quick to laud his imperious progress.

His fame as a painter has obscured his significance as a poet; not so well known, therefore, is the fact that he is one of the few poets of any stature in contemporary Sri Lanka. The three volumes of poems privately printed in Kandy in 1936 and 1937 titled Poems, The Darkness Disrobed, and Image in Absence respectively are long out of print and virtually unknown territory to Keyt admirers today. His incursions into Sinhalese folk-lore and Sinhala literature, and his friendship with scholar priests, led to the publication of poetry from the Sinhalese text put into English published in Colombo in 1939, also never reprinted. Folk stories from Sri Lanka published in Colombo in 1974 has been reprinted twice in 1979 and 1982. His English rendering of the famous 13th century Sanskrit poem Gita Govinda by Jayadeva, illustrated by his own sensitive line drawings, and often reprinted is justly reputed. He has also proclaimed his precepts and practice as a painter in a few notable essays on the vision of the painter, and art in relation to the beholder and pervading reality.

Immense contribution

In 1968 the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya recognized his immense contribution to the cultural history of his times by conferring on him an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. Awards for artistic excellence have also been bestowed on him by other official institutions.

As we stand back and survey the astounding fertility and majestic output of over seventy years of unceasing and untiring artistic vision of Sri Lanka’s most illustrious painter what strikes us most is the splendid demonstration of unwaning vigour and undiluted radiance. His art continues to span the universe of sacred and profane love in all its piquant, pensive and pulsating moods. His hand had not lost its cunning and his mind remained a fertile and lively instrument. We are brought face to face with the magical language of the artist’s supremely animated hand and seeing eye, and are compelled to partake in the living relationship between the painter and his inner experience.

Keyt had been blessedly long enough with us for the special meanings of his personal mythology to be understood.