A definitive look at Lionel Wendt


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George Keyt

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Lionel Wendt

By Neville Weereratne
Who was Lionel Wendt? The responses Manel Fonseka drew to that question are outrageous but they serve to justify this new book aimed at rediscovering him. ‘Lionel Wendt: a centennial tribute’ was published by the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund last year (December 2000).

It sets out, in Ms Fonseka’s meticulously researched essay, to present a portrait of an artist whose enthusiasms were matched by seemingly inexhaustible energy but above all by a firm, unswerving adherence to a set of principles which were to define our own appreciation of the Sri Lanka we had inherited but scarcely knew.

In a memoir by Ian Goonetileke he reveals exceptional details of the relationship between Wendt and George Keyt while confirming their mutual pursuit and delight in "the civilised underpinnings and deeper sophistication of a traditional culture and an Eastern way of life they grew to appreciate and depict".

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Ananda Coomaraswamy
Coomaraswamy’s aphorism: "Nations are made by artists and by poets, not by traders and politicians. Art contains in itself the deepest principles of life, the truest guide to the greatest art, the art of living."

This was not an idealism for its own sake, not cheap "art for art’s sake" but the discovery of a mature, well-experienced culture which our colonial educators had failed to see. In a critique of the Ceylon Society of Art, which reigned by default as the arbiter of the times, Wendt said it exactly represented the servile mentality of the people - "lack of originality among our people is clearly attributable to the indifference of the so-called educated Ceylonese to national culture."

Not a great deal has changed since Wendt’s untimely death in 1944 and that is all the greater reason why it is gratifying to see this new book. It somewhat crowns a growing library of such publications overcoming problems of finance, even rising above petty objections, to pay tribute to people whose singular contribution has been that they recognised the validity of their cultural inheritance and held and applied their judgements uncompromisingly. It becomes the first stop on our way to answering that rhetorical question: who was Lionel Wendt? (For the record: he was born on 3 December 1900 and died on 19 December 1944).

On our way to discovering the answer we must, perforce, meet another equally dynamic and articulate enthusiast: Ananda Coomaraswamy. We see, among other things, Wendt reaffirming Coomaraswamy’s complaints on the neglect suffered by the country’s temple paintings and ancient art, documenting them in the many photographs he took of them.

Wendt’s and the belief of many others including Keyt, Justin Daraniyagala, Manjusri and Harry Pieris in these matters is expressed trenchantly in Coomaraswamy’s aphorism: "Nations are made by artists and by poets, not by traders and politicians. Art contains in itself the deepest principles of life, the truest guide to the greatest art, the art of living."

If that takes on a political edge it is surely in the nature of things that we cannot separate life and art.

Flipping through the pages of this handsomely proportioned book, I could not resist a surge of nostalgia. It contains some 233 images, sights and scenes of Sri Lanka still very firmly retained in my memory. Although they belong to an era of more than half a century ago they immediately evoke thoughts and emotions both personal and universal because they tell us so much about ourselves that is perennially true.

It contains all of the material which first appeared

in ‘Lionel Wendt’s Ceylon’ (Lincolns-Prager, 1950), a collector’s item, now out of print. That included an Introduction by Len van Geyzel and a Technical Note by Bernard Thornley. The present volume is enhanced with the addition of 114 photographs not previously published. Manel Fonseka’s contribution, ‘Rediscovering Lionel Wendt’, forms the principal text with Ian Goonetileke’s memoir ‘Lionel Wendt and George Keyt - a close-up’ which recalls the extent of their influences upon one another; and ‘Remembering Lionel Wendt : Artist — Between Two Worlds’, a summing-up by Lyn Ludowyk. It makes up, as the publishers claim, a definitive work.

The first and inevitable observation is the quality of the reproductions. Using a four-colour process these ostensibly black and white prints take on a hue or a tint so that rarely are they monochromatic as they are in the 1950 photogravure edition. The publisher’s note says that "the process of reproduction has attempted to capture the subtle tones of the original prints to a satisfying degree". Having recently seen the remnants of a collection of some original prints, I am impressed that this has been achieved. I also found it a rewarding exercise to compare the varying qualities of the same print in the two editions, remembering vividly the prints I have seen on the walls of 18 Guildford Crescent before that house was demolished to make way for the Lionel Wendt Memorial Arts Centre.

The complex itself, well known to patrons of the theatre and the gallery, and the rooms of the Photographic Society which largely make up the memorial, has little to identify Lionel Wendt apart from a portrait of him seated at his piano in a flaming dressing gown by Geoff Beling hanging in the foyer, sorely needing to be identified in Sinhala and Tamil in addition to English.

In answer to the question: who was Lionel Wendt? Ms Fonseka finds him described in all manner of ways which could have been amusing had they not been singularly asinine — from being vaguely "someone called Lionel, no?" to "he was a patron of the arts but he didn’t do anything himself... or didn’t he paint?" "Wasn’t he a foreigner, an American?" to a final, honest but desperate "An actor? No idea"!

In the face of such appalling ignorance, this book becomes an essential means of rediscovering and re-presenting Wendt. We then acknowledge him as the catalyst of a number of developments which have enriched us, but if any value is to be derived from his work it is important to be constantly aware of that contribution and to measure our own efforts in the light of Wendt’s achievements.

I want to suggest in the first place, therefore, that it is made mandatory for all users of the arts centre to publish a brief on Lionel Wendt in their catalogues, programmes and other literature to ensure the name remains in perspective and to retain some idea of what he stood for in the minds of those who use these facilities now and the generations that must follow us.

Manel Fonseka’s essay in this publication is a splendid document, a revised version of an earlier essay which was published in the 1994 catalogue for an exhibition that year of Wendt’s photographs. It does as much credit to the researcher as it does its subject. It focuses on the life and mind of an individual deeply involved in his country and its people. Through his work this past century has seen the growth of a new consciousness in matters of art and life even if, seemingly, that impact has been limited to an intellectual elite. If that be, indeed, true, then it is an even better reason for Wendt’s perceptions to be more widely known, understood and propagated.

He exercised enormous influence in his time as a critic but when the circumstances of his sharp wit and vigorous pen have been forgotten we have his own creative work to contemplate. Wendt emerges then as an artist of the highest calibre. He did this with the camera exploiting a multiplicity of techniques and devices to craft images of lasting integrity. He did this superbly, with ingenuity, seeing beneath the surface of an ordinary image subtleties of light and shade, of line and mass; in fact, demonstrating a notion held by Picasso that in every photographer there was a painter eager to be released.

It was possibly this painter in Wendt which led him to his enjoyment of modern art as he had experienced it in Europe which he felt called upon to encourage in George Keyt.

We are indebted to Ian Goonetileke, as thorough a chronicler of his times as are these protagonists, for a particularly poignant account of an enduring friendship through which they were to realise and create a milieu of splendid proportions. They were two minds equally enthralled in the life they each encountered in the Sri Lanka of their time. No one can gainsay Wendt’s mastery of the camera as a means of a profoundly poetic expression; no one can deny the place of George Keyt, the "spiritual voluptuary" he liked to call himself, among the hierarchy of painters whose task has been to reveal the beauty of his people couched in the metaphors of Hindu mythology.

The insight Goonetileke provides makes visionaries of them both and the happier are we of the outcome. For instance, he tells us it was Wendt who persuaded Keyt to undertake the painting of the murals of the life of the Buddha in the Gotami Vihare in Borella in Colombo, at the invitation of Harold Peiris, his brother-in-law. Goonetileke tells us too, it was Wendt who rushed a telegram to Keyt as he was on the verge of entering the Sangha to dissuade him from that course.

There is a regrettable footnote to this chapter: Goonetileke uses as a cornerstone to his memoir an early picture by Wendt of a youthful George Keyt lying on a chaise lounge in a silk sarong. The print, in sepia, was made in 1988 by Nihal Fernando. This was possible only because the negative was extant. We all know that the entirety of Wendt’s negatives were destroyed by an over-zealous busybody. I think that an act of vandalism and totally inexcusable though Ms Fonseka graciously attempts his defence.

Keyt’s membership of the ’43 Group is acknowledged to have been of Wendt’s doing while credit is given to Harry Pieris, after Wendt’s death the Group’s secretary and mentor, for bringing Justin Daraniyagala into the fold. Geoff Beling was very much part of that hierarchy.

As for the younger painters, George Claessen once told me that on an occasion Wendt bought all his pictures at an exhibition to show his appreciation of them. Ivan Peries and Aubrey Collette were likewise spurred by Wendt’s patronage as was Richard Gabriel, all of whose work came into Wendt’s very extensive collection. This was acknowledged as being of the best and was suggested as a possible nucleus of a national collection. Alas, it was dismantled and sold in 1967 to help finance the arts centre and also because the pictures were beginning to suffer extensive damage in the pit under the stage where they were being stored. It seemed to me to be a contradiction in terms that the paintings should have been sold to create a place for them when they were no longer to exist as a collection!

The Group and many of its individual members, before it came together as a formal entity, were interested in a number of activities; in painting, of course, and also in the Kandyan dance for which both Wendt and Keyt had developed a particular affection and from which they derived much enjoyment. Suramba, Ukkuwa and Guneya Yakdessa of Nittawela were particular subjects of Wendt’s camera and they were to participate in a lovely sequence devoted to the training of apprentices in the dance in ‘Song of Ceylon’.

This documentary film by Basil Wright was to become one of the most beautiful of its kind, symphonic in character, musical in the creation of the four movements of which it is made. In response to a question about the extent of Wendt’s contribution to the film, Ms Fonseka quotes Wright saying : "Enormous. Without him I don’t think ‘Song of Ceylon’ could have been what it is." It is acknowledged to be as much Wendt’s achievement.

I don’t suppose there are many alive today who have heard and remember Wendt, the pianist. Music was an early enthusiasm which he cultivated assiduously and perfected with some of the best exponents of the time: Oscar Beringer at the Royal Academy of Music, Mark Hambourg in Berlin and later, with Gerald Moore. A review by A. C. H. Boyd of the 1931 recital quoted by Ms Fonseka refers to "Mr. Wendt’s extreme command and musical understanding" who had "a musician’s grasp of the compositions as music and not a virtuoso exploitation of them." There can be no greater acclamation of a musician at a time when the world was being treated to "the latest Pole transmit the Preludes through his hair and fingertips"!

Wendt’s career in music, however, could not prosper because, as Ms Fonseka remarks, "he found insufficient the interpretative role of the concert pianist."

However, he created opportunities for young musicians. Among them was Hilda Naidu who could be heard practising as you passed her home on Lauries Road, Bambalapitiya, all hours of the day, seven days a week. Small groups continued to gather at 18 Guildford Crescent even after Wendt’s death to listen to two-piano recitals by Mrs. Naidu and Janet Keuneman, among others.

Of his enthusiasm for these things, Lyn Ludowyk records Wendt’s generosity: he sacrificed time "which meant much to him" to keep alive the "spark of artistic ability struggling to keep itself alive" among "the young whose talents called out for fostering". Among the musicians and the painters were photographers, poets and playwrights whom he would defend placing his own reputation on the line.

While applauding this publication and its purpose, it remains that I should address a fundamental fault: there is yet no permanent collection of Lionel Wendt’s photographs or prints made by him, a point averred to by Ms Fonseka. The final, indisputable tribute would be that such a collection be made before what’s left of them is scattered further abroad and beyond recall.

The Lionel Wendt Memorial Arts Centre is a handsome building based on original designs by Geoff Beling but even this does not contain any of the size and nature befitting the artist we are commemorating. Is the portrait of Harold Peiris, one of the art centre’s greatest benefactors, in the foyer of the theatre - which, too, needs to be identified — by Wendt? (It is gratifying to know that Harold Peiris is now remembered in a gallery named for him as part of the arts complex).

The stated purpose of the arts centre, according to its manifesto, was "to perpetuate the memory of Lionel Wendt’s lifelong devotion and valuable services to music and other arts in Ceylon and the high place he occupied in the esteem of all who knew him, particularly students and lovers of art."

These excellent intentions are realised and endorsed in this centennial tribute. The book is an essential acquisition for the household that may only have a passing interest in itself because, even if it is an old-fashioned notion, it is in paying homage to a great man that we bring honour upon ourselves.