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Birth anniversary of Harry Pieris :

A life in art

by H. A. I. Goonetileke


Harry Pieris 

As I stood listening to the simple and moving Christian ceremony at Kanatte in the early morning sunshine on March 16 as Harry Peiris was cremated, the film of memory rolled back forty-five years to the time I came of age in 1943 - a heady configuration in many personal respects.

It was a climatic year in the somnolent local world of art when a small band of twelve painters, comprising the '43 Group, launched itself on an unsuspecting public accustomed to the simpering sentimentalities and stale repetitions of a rose coloured vision of reality.

Inadequately tutored to perceive the living shapes and vibrant colours surrounding them, and not quite able to discern the significant forms of life in their midst, the make believe artists of the time went through the bland motions of depicting nature in a rather insipid precision in conformity with prevalent and congealed reflections of boudoir Edwardian taste overlaid by a prim Victorian academicism.

This complacent environment was soon to be laid low by the primary and inspirational exertions of the two Ws - C. F. Winzer, the English painter and Chief Inspector of Art, and Lionel Wendt, musician, critic, photographer, collector, patron and aesthete extraordinary.

The Ceylon Art Club, founded by Winzer in the late twenties, was in a sense the progenitor of the '43 Group.

It provided a platform for informed discussion and ushered in a new vehicle of aesthetic life based on a significant and intelligent response to a fresh understanding of what painting was all about. It was, in brief, the manifesto to the new movement.

Wendt provided the fertilising impetus and ideological space for its leading lights - George Keyt (his special protege), Justin Deraniyagala, Geoffrey Beling and Harry Pieris - to realise their true potential.

The thirties became a fructifying phase in the modern development of art in Sri Lanka, and, when the time was ripe, these artists, all born along with Wendt in the first seven years of this century, came together with eight others and exhibited at the drab, but commodious, showrooms of the Photographic Society in Colombo in November 1943.

'43 Group

Harry Pieris, born on August 10th, 1904 was the first and last Secretary of the '43 Group up to its final 16th exhibition in 1967. With his death on 14th March this year only George Keyt, soon to be 87 on April 17th, and Beling now 81, remain of the Big Four.

The latter unfortunately abandoned his brush after 1945. Lionel Wendt (born in 1900) died six days before Christmas 1944, worn out by his unflagging dedication to increasingly exacting goals of photographic perfection. Justin Deraniyagala died in 1967 and L. T. P. Manjusri, Ralph Claessen, and Ivan Peries died more recently.

Only George Claessen (born in 1909), Aubrey Collette in 1920 and Richard Gabriel in 1924 of the younger artists in the famous dozen, remain active as ever. Of Walter Witharana (who had 16 pictures in that inaugural show, the most number in fact) and Y. J. Thuring (who had only two) I do not know.

On Harry's shoulders fell the main burden of keeping the Group together, becoming its guiding force and leading organiser for nearly a quarter of a century, while recognising new talent and unearthing young artists all the time with his discriminating eye and unerring gift for separating true from false and the genuine from the spurious.

Almost two generations of artists in this country are beholden to his consistent support and his sagacious counsel, given with a characteristic and generous spontaneity in word and deed. He was their unfailing friend and mentor to the last.

A mere roll-call of some of them is a tribute to his influence - Reggie Candappa, Ivan M. Fernando, Terry Jonklass, Shelton Thabrew, Gamini Warnasuriya, Sita Kulasekera, Neville Weeraratne, Susila Fernando, Stanley Kirinde, Ranjith Fernando, Swanee Jayawardena and Noel Abeysinghe.

Not content from the beginning with assisting and consorting with his active confreres of the brush, he brought into the '43 Group a few purely passive and life-long students of art who benefited by discussion and were spurred into personal voyages of artistic discovery through his stimulating guidance.

The price of annual membership of this circle remained five rupees, and to this small company of questing spirits I belonged from the inception almost.

Memorable Sundays

I can recall with an abiding nostalgia long memorable Sundays in the forties spent in the spacious case of the original Barnes Place residence, along with George Claessen, Ivan Peries, and Richard Gabriel, who first introduced me to the discipline, logic and nuances of artistic theory and practice.

Harry was the presiding genius of all those who wished to see with a new insight into the nature of all things as revealed in art and the books he often lent and advised one to read and digest, became the tools of his tutelary trade and our informed taste. He remained the magister magistrorum.

Harry Pieris lived, studied, and worked in Europe for almost a decade in his formative years, and his inspiration owes a great deal to this influence. But his later stay in India, and his long familiarity and studious knowledge of the best elements and styles in the Indian and Sri Lankan traditions of painting and sculpture, both classical and folk made their congenial impress on his aesthetic sensibilities.

He was an early admirer and publicist of the better forms of religious art, and would speak with undiluted enthusiasm of certain little-known, Buddhist fresco paintings in Southern temples. But it is time to look a little more closely at his progress at the easel before concluding this brief evaluation of his art and times.

As with nearly all Ceylonese painters, of that time and later, he first studied at the Atelier School of Art conducted by the formidable A. C. G. S. Amarasekera, but the true and enduring foundations of his art were laid at the Royal College of Art, London, where he won his spurs and a diploma under William Rothenstein in 1927.

Invigorating years

It was Amerasekera, in fact, who persuaded Harry's mother to send him to London, where he proceeded to forget most of what he had learned in Colombo.

After a year back home, he moved to Paris where his English training was subjected to severe strain under the radically different approaches in style and technique.

His teacher was Robert Falk under whom he worked for six invigorating years. But it was Rothenstein again who influenced his decision to go to India and Santiniketan where Rabindranath Tagore and his ideas became a powerful intellectual influence.

He returned finally to his home in Colombo in 1938, where his family wealth and social power (though always lightly worn) enabled him to devote his time to his consuming passions in arts.

After almost twelve years abroad three of them in India, the joint impact of Europe and India was to influence his palette, mood, and the impeccable quality of his technique.

His business concerns and his congenial leaning towards teaching inhibited the full manifestations of his painterly skills - but on the occasions he was able to use his brush, without hindrance and to good purpose, his work took on a magisterial and unrivalled effect, especially in portraits of an acutely observed dignity and meticulous design.

His use of soft and glowing colour was remarkable, shot through when necessary by darkish hues of an ineffable richness.

Pre-eminently a portrait painter, he will be remembered too for his many landscapes of a brooding and evocative charm.

Whether done in France, India or Sri Lanka they display the strength of a restraint inspired by Europe and a pleasant radiance derived from the East. All the work of his mature years is also distinguished for superb draughtsmanship.

He did not leave behind a substantial body of work, but some of his portraits and a few landscapes bear the distinctive impress of a true master of his craft working at the top of his bent, and are likely never to be excelled.

Harry showed with the Ceylon Society of Arts before 1943, but thereafter exclusively with the group he shepherded in Colombo, and also with his fellow-artists in London and Paris.

Too busy advancing the causes of his brother-artists, it is no surprise to learn that his first and only one-man exhibition was held to celebrate his 80th birthday, an occasion on which his outstanding talent and immense gifts were all too clearly on view.

The attractively illustrated brochure published to mark the event contained some affectionate tributes by friends and colleagues. The private collection of art he assembled at 32/1, Barnes Place is the cultivated key to his eclectic personal taste, and almost an anthology of contemporary painting in Sri Lanka.

The painters of the '43 Group were subjected to a great deal of public ridicule and opposition, but Wendt was there to disarm the pseudo-critics with his devastating pen at the beginning.

Throughout the twenty-five years in which it functioned as a kind of 'new wave' however, official apathy was conspicuous, a philistine elite turned up its pretty - pretty nose, and a largely pretentious and ill-informed press ignored its importance.

That is survived so long was, in great measure, due to Harry's tenacity and his unsparing belief in the significance of what it had to offer to the national inheritance.

In an inhumane political climate, where intellectual sophistry flourishes and cultural artifice abounds, from where will the fresh air and creative artistic impulse come as it did in 1943?

Dedication

When all is said and done, Harry Pieris will best be remembered for his dedication to the contemporary renascence of art forms in Sri Lanka, and his commitment to the task of keeping alive the energising vitality, and an essentially vivacious synthesis between East and West, which the '43 Group represented at its quintessential best.

One hopes the Sapumal Foundation he authored in 1974 for so worthy a cause will help to keep his memory green, and the spirit of his work alive in the ways he would have wished it to move.

The writer was a bibliographer, librarian of the University of Peradeniya and a prominent member of the academic community.

He was a close friend of the '43 Group of Painters. The article was originally written in 1988.

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