Aesthetic citadel of Ceylonese art
Lionel Wendt celebrates a century:
In 1988 Richard de Soyza conducted a drama workshop in the Lionel
Wendt’s rehearsal space. This drama workshop was called wadumaduwa
(carpentry workshop). Most of the Sinhala speaking people interested in
drama were given the opportunity to mingle with the English speaking
Also, some of them were able to participate in most of the drama
workshops sponsored by the British Council, conducted by various English
dramatists at that time named such as Scott Richards, Rudi Corens, Chris
Connelly and others (while outside the walls of Lionel Wendt and British
Council, the political and economic tempests of the country swept with
cyclically programed chaos.)
This opportunity of theatre was offered to Sinhala middle class and
lower-middle class, as well as ordinary people through the upper middle
class cultural image Richard and a few other people in Sri Lanka had at
Richard and a few had mingling with a variety of cultural classes for
a deep use in art that was also carried out by Lionel Wendt himself in
1943 while he was starting and naming the ‘43 group’ with excellent
painters and other aesthetic personalities such as George Keyt, Harry
Pieris, George Claessen, Aubrey Collete, Ivan Peiris, Richard Gabriel,
Justin Peiris Daraniyagala, W J G Beiling, A C Collette, Ralph Claessen,
S R Kanakasabai and L T P Manjusri; a totally different move comparing
to then British academic paintings or Victorian Studio paintings carried
out mainly by the ‘Colombo Drawing Club’ or ‘Portfolio Sketch Club’ that
started their painting exhibitions from 1887 onwards in this island.
The 43 group was the first trend of painters conscientious with local
interest (though they have taken considerable amount of the
technicalities in painting from the modern Euro canvas) after the last
pre-colonial mural paintings, which used our own materials and skills,
from Mahanuwara era, may be seen at Dalava Temple on Aranayake Road.
These forms were totally dispersed in the cyclonic baton-charge of
colonial underdevelopment. Thus the Gurunnanses or teachers of our mural
paintings also disappeared in the mist of Europhilia until Solis Mendis’
and Somabandu Vidyapathi’s brushes came into the scene.
Lionel Wendt Art Centre was started as a direct or indirect affect of
the 43 Group’s artistic involvement and contribution, though most of the
people today recognize it as mainly as a theatre of drama.
In the beginning, Lionel Wendt Art Centre took in charge of
performing arts such as drama, ballet, music to painting, sculpture and
photography. Lionel Wendt Theatre was open in December, 1953, with the
production of Gorky’s ‘Lower Depths’ directed by Neuman Jubal.
A feature of Lionel Wendt building carried in Daily News as
written by Viranga
Yet this place didn’t restrict itself only to English plays due to
their view of admiring variety of cultural classes and their artistic
practices. It therefore allowed Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s
Maname (1956) and Chithrasena’s Karadiya (1961) to perform in this
theatre. And it allowed almost all the artistes to use this space for
their different kind of artistic practices.
‘Lionel Wendt Art Centre’ was started after Lionel Wendt’s death by
using the premises of his residence according to his last wish, with
Geoffrey Bawa’s architectural plan that concluded an extending
auditorium and dressing room, rehearsal room, clubroom, art gallery and
a passageway where the programs of autographs and photographs of artists
Yet most of the people say that if Lionel Wendt would have been there
when this art centre started, he would not allow naming the centre after
him for the reason that he was a very humble and silent being who never
went stingily behind publicity or popularity. Thus after the death of
Lionel Wendt his brother Harry Wendt and their friend Harold Pieris
decided to finish this art centre.
But the early death of Harry Wendt (just after a year of Lionel
Wendt’s death) gave this project a drawback. Yet Harold Pieris used up
his whole life and labour to build this valuable place of art and
performance by spending a huge sum of his own money and time and
accomplished this objective.
This gave a huge heave to the Sri Lankan aesthetic and artistic
culture by allowing its space to a cluster of artistic practices such as
Sinhala, English and Tamil dramas, paintings, photographs, musical
concerts, Bharatha Natayam Arangethrams and performance of classical
music both Western and Indian.
While celebrating the 100th year of this fort of art, we still from
the beginning hear a lot of grievances that ‘this valuable place cannot
be reached (due to its high rental costs) by the majority of artists in
the ordinary class who comes from the lower depths. This is not a
problem of the Lionel Wendt Art Centre or its organization.
We would not have the opportunity to get even this much of benefits,
if the Lionel Wendt art Centre hadn’t been created by Harry Wendt,
Harrold Pieris and a few others (who dedicated their lives for artistic
creativity) with the wish of Lionel Wendt (a local photographer and a
musician though he was biologically born to foreign parents) after a 500
years of colonialism in this island.
Government and private sector should therefore join hands to build
and maintain places similar to the Lionel Wendt art centre’s
architecture and facility, at least in every district. If we get a
similar place to Lionel Wendt in every district, the consequences in art
field will be totally different in future. Yet I am not sure whether am
dreaming or not.
Anyway happy birthday to Lionel Wendt Art Centre, you always
conquered my spirit as a friendly ghost of the theater!