26th November 2000
Editorial/Opinion| Business| Sports|
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The gallery will open with an exhibition of 150 original photographs of Lionel Wendt and the launch of a book, Lionel Wendt - A Centennial Tribute, comprising 250 photographs printed in four colours, thus retaining all the tonal nuances of the original photographs.
This book will probably be the final book on Wendt. Its text of 50 pages contains extracts from the original book in addition to articles by lan Goonetileke and Manel Fonseka. A limited edition of numbered copies will be sold at a pre-publication price of Rs. 2800/- until January 3, 2001 and a retail price of Rs. 3500/- thereafter.
The book will be available from the Lionel Wendt Art Centre at 18, Guildford Crescent, Colombo 07 and from Iris Colour Graphics Ltd., 95, Cotta Road, Colombo 08.
Musician, photographer, literature collector and aficionado of the arts, Lionel Wendt pioneered a new artistic vision for Ceylon. In her article, 'Redicovering Lionel Wendt' first published in 1994, extracts of which we reproduce today, Manel Fonseka traces Wendt's unique genius.
....the pianist, photographer, critic, and cinematographer Lionel Wendt was the central figure of a cultural life torn between the death rattles of the Empire and a human appraisal of the untapped values of Ceylon. — Pablo Neruda, Memoirs.
Who was Lionel Wendt? Do you know whom the Lionel Wendt Memorial Theatre is named after? Someone called Lionel, no? What do you know about Lionel Wendt? Wasn't he a foreigner, an American? I think I've read several of his books- wasn't he a dramatist? Oh, he was a patron of the arts, but he didn't do anything himself.. or didn't he paint? An actor? No idea — Extracts from interviews, 1994.
In Lionel Wendt's Ceylon, there is a photograph of a leaning signpost on a beach. And on the post is fixed a photograph—of a signpost on a beach. The book's compilers titled it 'Invaded—Desolate' (241). But when Wendt published the photograph ten years earlier he said: 'My own title for the shot is "The Point Beyond Which Everything Repeats Itself ."
To know when that point has been reached, when to stop and turn to explore fresh experiences and new ideas; to sense the moment when craftsmanship begins to submerge vision—this is something that lies at the core of Lionel Wendt's life and art.
Someone called LionelOn December 3, 1900, to parents of Burgher and Sinhalese ancestry, one of Sri Lanka's great modern creative spirits was born. His name, perpetuated in the popular Lionel Wendt Theatre and Gallery, is a byword in Colombo's cultural life, but his own work and identity are scarcely remembered today, except by an increasingly small number of people.
This is the man of whom it was said, when he died at the age of 44, that it would be difficult to write adequately about him and his 'profound, beneficent influence on the artistic life of Ceylon.' The tribute of well-known journalist Tori de Souza was only one of many that Wendt's untimely death provoked:
Was there any branch of art with which he was not familiar, in which he did not take a deep and diligent interest, in the pursuit of which he did not help a hundred others, sparing neither his time nor his energy, nor his money.
His amazing skill and unerring instinct for seizing beauty made him internationally famous as a photographer. As a pianist he was even better known in Ceylon. He had that rare capacity for taking infinite pains over everything he played, and his interpretations were ever models of integrity and rigidly disciplined skill. His knowledge of music was prodigious...he knew nearly everything there is to know about painting, and his enthusiasm fired all those artists, young and old, with whom he came in contact.
There, no doubt, lay his greatest, most significant trait: in the tremendous influence for good, unselfish, unspectacular work he had on so many in all branches of art.
One of the first steps in a rediscovery of Lionel Wendt was the exhibition of his photographs—the first after 35 years—at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery in August 1994.
Childhood interestsWendt's engagement with photography goes back to his childhood in Colombo. His father, Henry Lorenz Wendt, a Supreme Court judge and Legislative Councillor, was a founder of the Amateur Photographic Society of Ceylon in 1906; his grandfather, John Henricus de Saram, also a judge, one of its first presidents.
The Society maintained a reading room with books and periodicals and held annual exhibitions with the Ceylon Society of Arts. Lionel was regularly taken by his father to A.W. Andree's Hopetoun Studio, where he was 'particularly intrigued by a large camera on castors with a musical box attached to it for the amusement of children'. His only recreation, wrote Andree's son, 'was a small box camera which my father gave him. In my father's studio he "learned" the fundamentals of an art he was later to revolutionize.' Wendt's mother was an enthusiastic social worker, and organized frequent concerts in aid of charities, for which 'she would go around in search of the best musical talent of the time.
Soon she discovered that her son's genius lay in this direction,' and Lionel's 'concert mentality' seems to have been nurtured from an early age. Press reviews refer to his performances from at least 1911. Perhaps the first public recital that he organized himself was in August 1919, when at the age of 18 he presented a programme of Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Chopin, Creser, Grieg, Debussy and Liszt, in aid of his school building fund. This rare event (only one other Sri Lankan had given a recital of this nature in Colombo before) was described as an 'unforgettable performance' by 'a gifted Ceylonese player—certainly the best of the younger generation of pianoforte players.
Musical careerHis father died, very suddenly, before Lionel was eleven and his mother less than seven years later. Despite the early dedication to music, family traditions and prevailing attitudes would not permit a purely musical career. In 1919 he went to England to study law at the Inner Temple. His younger brother Harry followed a few years later to read the same subject at Cambridge. London gave Wendt the opportunity of advanced training at the Royal Academy of Music under Oscar Beringer, in the master classes of the famous pianist Mark Hambourg, and with Hambourg's pupil, Gerald Moore.
Had he been solely determined upon a career as a concert pianist, he might have remained in Europe after the completion of his legal studies. The decision to return in 1924 not only marked the commencement of his adult professional life but also suggests a commitment to his country and an eagerness to intervene in its society, art and culture. Scarcely practising as a lawyer, however, though enrolled as an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Ceylon, he soon began to give public recitals, both as soloist and accompanist. His interest in the modern movement is manifest in his earliest concerts, where he introduces works, which had rarely or never been performed here.
Art and modernismThe student years in Europe of the early twenties clearly stimulated Wendt's interest in the visual arts and especially in the modern movement in painting. Familiar, no doubt, with the innovative galleries, one of his early purchases was a still-life in tempera, Dunkirk: Barometer; Wool and Floats, by the English avant-garde painter Edward Wadsworth. His interest in the work of the Surrealists is evident in his photography and also in his collection of reproductions.
As far as painting was concerned, the Colombo Wendt left in 1919 was, in the words of L.C. Van Geyzel, 'if not quite a cultural desert...at best, a genteel wilderness.' The city did not even have an art gallery. The art world was dominated by the officially patronized Ceylon Society of Arts (CSA), whose most ardent promoter was the academic portraitist and art teacher, Mudaliyar A.C.G.S. Amarasekara. Its annual exhibition was a fashionable social event in August Race Week, and reflected little interest in local artistic traditions or international developments in modern art. By the time Wendt returned, its authority was being challenged by the activity of Charles Freegrove Winzer, the unorthodox Government Art Inspector who lived and worked in Sri Lanka from 1920 to 1931. Around 1922, he founded the Ceylon Art Club, providing it with rooms in a Colombo working-class district. In the face of the Ceylon Society of Arts' unyielding and sterile academicism and, as Winzer saw it, 'artistic standard of picture postcards and plagiarism of Royal Academy catalogues', the Art Club held its own annual exhibitions.
Wendt's own influence in the still small but artistically significant circle of emerging painters of the late twenties and thirties was considerable. From his travels he brought back new ideas and experience, as well as paintings, journals and high-quality reproductions. A close friend of the well-known painter George Keyt from boyhood, it is said that around 1927 he urged him to give up poetry and concentrate on painting. Despite this, Keyt was to dedicate two volumes of poetry to him, in 1936 and 1940. Wendt's friendship with the family of the painter W.W. Beling may have begun before Beling's son Geoffrey went to India in 1926 to study architecture and art. He was on the committee of the W.W. Beling Memorial Art Exhibition in 1928, at which Keyt, the younger Beling and a German post-impressionist Otto Scheinhammer also exhibited. Winzer, Geoffrey Beling, Keyt and Justin Pieris (Deraniyagala) showed work at the Art Club exhibition the next year. Wendt bought pictures from all these painters except Deraniyagala, who is reputed never to have sold his work, though he did give Wendt a number of paintings and drawings.
Painting in the 1930sIn January 1930, supported by Winzer, Wendt organized what can now be seen as a landmark exhibition of work by Keyt and Beling. It drew a lyrical review from Pablo Neruda—translated by Wendt from the Spanish—where he described the painters as being 'orientated directly toward the Future, which is the Polar Land, the inevitable country of exploration for all true artists.' Even establishment figure, physician and antiquarian, Andreas Nell, while admitting to a sense of 'unhappiness' and dissatisfaction, praised the young painters for 'forsaking the local godlings of imitation and reproduction, and seeking instead to interpret and create.'
Reflecting dominant opinion in the Society of Arts, however, Mudaliyar Amaraseka, virtually called the exhibits 'ridiculous and degrading,' and those who admired them, 'imposters' or 'degenerates'. Another writer mocked Wendt, calling him a 'modern Moses leading the elect out of the land of the Philistines' to the 'promised land of Cubist, post Impressionist and Futurist Art'—all of which provoked only amused rejoinders from Wendt himself. Winzer had anticipated such reactions, remarking in a foreword to the catalogue that any young artist who 'turned for advice and inspiration to the works of modern masters' was proclaimed as being "morbid" or "not original", an "imitator", a "cubist", a "modernist"—for to belong to our own time, to try and discover new modes of expression or execution is considered a departure from good taste.' In February, Wendt published a thoughtful appraisal of Otto Scheinhammer's farewell exhibition. This, too, provoked a skirmish in the press.
'The camera becomes a living thing'A cryptic dedication in Wendt's 1940 exhibition catalogue credits his brother Harry with being 'responsible for the relapse which turned a childhood hobby into a major preoccupation'. This seems to have been around the beginning of the 1930s—first with small Rolleiflex and later with the miniature Leica. By 1933 he was developing and printing his own work. 'It was not until (then)...that I realized how very much in the dark I had been in the days when I had the processing done professionally.' An example from this early period is Youth (148), a brom-etching.
Clearly he found in photography a fluent and ideal medium: 'In the hands of someone who reacts to his surroundings, who sees and feels, and longs to express his reactions, the camera becomes a living thing.' As one who had so much to say (particularly 'of the life of the people of this country' as Len van Geyzel comments), perhaps he found insufficient the interpretative role of concert pianist. It was a time when nationalist and democratic sentiments were increasingly coming to the fore, and the much more popularly accessible and democratic medium of photography may have provided greater channels of expression and communication than classical music in the concert hall, and in the colonial context.
Photographic SocietyIn July 1935, with B.G. Thornley and P.J.C. Durrant, Wendt started the Photographic Society of Ceylon, 'for the advancement of the art and practice of photography amongst the amateurs of the Island.' Among the twelve who participated in the first annual exhibition in the Art Gallery in December that year, were Eric Swan and wild-life photographer Aloy Perera. Wendt's work was immediately acknowledged to be in a class apart, many pictures revealing 'a forceful and daring imagination...handled with subtle delicacy'.
Exhibitions and salonsWendt participated in many exhibitions at home, not only in Colombo, but also Panadura, Galle, probably Jaffna and elsewhere. His pictures hung in all the Society's annual exhibitions between 1935-44, except 1943. Internationally, his work was shown in 'the principal cities of Europe and more important ones in America, South Africa and Asia' .
So highly was his work esteemed, and so marvellously had he demonstrated the possibilities of the miniature camera, that Messrs Leitz, manufacturers of the Leica, invited him to hold a one-man show—an honour they had paid only one other living photographer. The exhibition at the Camera Club in London in April 1938 contained 54 enlargements—Sri Lankan landscapes, people at work, ancient and modern sculpture, traditional architectural motifs, festivals, portraits, figure studies and creative composite pictures.
Range and innovationIt is not easy to classify the many strands in his photography. Its stylistic range and artistic content is immense and varied—extending from landscape, daily life and social comment, to architecture and archaeology; from the moment extracted from the passing scene, to the studio portrait and the darkroom fantasy; from the rapid recording of a boxing bout to the painstaking consideration of a still-life study; from the evocation of the plastic values of the nude body, to the detailed observation of grain in a calamander chest or the effect of damp on a rock-temple painting; from the statement made with precision and economy to a carefully constructed piece of geometrical draftsmanship; from 'straight photography' to pictorialism; from the simplicity of the shadowgraph to surrealist composites; from the individual photographic statement or picture to the photo-essay; from wit to deepest melancholy. Yet so imbued is it with his personality, vision, poetic imagination and technique, its authorship is almost immediately identifiable.
While his most imaginative contribution is his composites and montages, whimsical, disturbing or deeply moving, as for instance, 'The eyes are not here', perhaps he will best be remembered for his inspired photography of the human body. The undeniable eroticism of many of his male and female nudes often diverts attention from the sensitivity with which he treats the female face and form, the delicacy of lighting, or the focus on sinew and muscle.
The '43 GroupA climax in Wendt's artistic life came with the formation of the '43 Group, that loose association of independent painters which is now considered to be one of the most important mid-century expressions of modernism in Asian art. The initiative to form the group appears to have been taken by the young and energetic Ivan Peries, but it required the personality and stature of Lionel Wendt to be the central figure, presiding over the varied and conflicting temperaments of the artists involved, several of whom were his close personal friends.
Exhibitions and memorialsLionel Wendt's sudden and untimely death in December 1944 came as a heavy blow to many, but most of all to his brother Harry, whose own death followed a year later. Before Harry died, however, the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund for the promotion of the arts, was established. Its contributors desired to perpetuate 'the memory of Lionel Wendt's lifelong devotion and valuable services to music and the other arts in Ceylon, and the high place he occupied in the esteem of all who knew him, particularly students and lovers of the arts.' Except for some personal bequests, the entire property and assets of the two brothers seem to have passed directly or indirectly to this fund—after Harry Wendt's death, through the intervention of their friend and chief trustee of the Lionel Wendt Memorial Trust, Harold Peiris. Before Harry Wendt's death, a decision had been made to bring out three volumes of Lionel Wendt's photographs. One volume of 120 plates was finally published in 1950. It is a beautiful book, idyllic, celebratory, and almost all there is to tell us of his work, of the sensitive eye and the creative imagination. But one misses certain elements—the photographic series (like Metamorphosis or Northern Journey published by Wendt in the Ceylon Observer Pictorial), Wendt's own titling of certain pictures, some chronological data and, above all, the famous self-portrait (frontispiece)—which appeared only on the flap of the dustjacket.
'Alborada', the house he built and lived in from the late twenties, was demolished in 1950 to make way for the first stage of the Memorial complex. The Memorial Theatre was opened in 1953, and the Lionel Wendt Memorial Art Gallery in May 1959, both based on designs by Geoffrey Beling. The Photographic Society held an exhibition of its work to coincide with the gallery's opening. A display and sale of Wendt's photographs were included but they were not listed in the catalogue. This seems to have been the last public exhibition of his work until 1994.
In 1967, the Lionel Wendt Art Collection was put up for auction. About 20 pictures were bought by the Trust's Chairman Anton Wickremasinghe, who said that he intended 'to make them the nucleus of a collection to be later made available to the public'. On his death in 1993, however, they found their way into new private ownership.
The photographic heritageIn 1927, when the great documentarist of Paris, Eugene Atget, died in obscurity and poverty, an American photographer, Berenice Abbott raised money to purchase his remaining 10,000 negatives and photographs. She made prints from the negatives, marking them with a special stamp so that they would not be confused with those Atget himself had made, and published two books on him, in 1931 and 1964. In 1968, the Museum of Modern Art in New York bought her collection and began systematic research into his work, publishing four volumes on it up to 1989.
Lionel Wendt was famous at his death, and frequently referred to as Sri Lanka's foremost camera-artist. It is regrettable that a fellow-photographer destroyed all his negatives after Wendt died, on the basis that this was an accepted practice in photographic circles.
If it were not for the single volume of 120 plates, published 46 years ago and long since out of print, Wendt's photographic reputation and contribution would have receded into the obscurity from which Eugene Atget's emerged.
The rediscovery of Lionel Wendt is dependent on the preservation and publication of his extant photographs. It implies not only a consideration of his contribution to Sri Lankan art and culture in the twentieth century, but also an estimation of his place in international photographic history. How much weight would we give today to the assessment made five years after Wendt's death by the director of Song of Ceylon, Basil Wright:I think he was one of the greatest still photographers that ever lived. I should place him among the six best I've come across.
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