Ivan Peries: The Predicament of the Bourgeois Artist in the Societies of the Third World

Ivan Peries: the predicament of the bourgeois artist in the societies of the Third World
Author bio


This article is an archival document, a museum piece, which I am somewhat embarrassed to have re-published. There is a long story behind it, too long to narrate except in outline, and as a kind of apologia. The core of the article belongs to a brief review I wrote in the mid-1960s when I organised an exhibition of Ivan Peries’s paintings at Oxford. The heady days of the political ferment of the late 1960s led me to try to locate this core text in a social context.

The result was the grafting onto the short review a social and historical interpretation using the rather simplistic political categories of that time. I was deeply dissatisfied with it and Ivan Peries, a close personal friend, was horrified. He woke me up one morning after reading it to say that he was giving up painting and would devote himself to doing posters. It was my turn to be horrified and I tore up the text and abandoned any intention of publishing it.

Nearly twenty years later, and again to my horror, the ghost of the article reappeared. Rasheed Araeen was organising the exhibition The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-War Britain at the Hayward Gallery in London and had developed a close friendship with Ivan Peries, who was eagerly looking forward to the show. But months before the exhibition, Ivan died. Araeen, in a reaction to this untimely death and unable to track me down to get permission, published the article, a copy of which had been given to him years earlier by a mutual friend. After my initial shock at seeing a long forgotten and abandoned text reappear, I came to accept that the article still had some insights that were relevant, although the simplicity and crudity of my theoretical constructs were not helpful in conveying what I really wanted to say.

Nearly a decade later I built on the original core of the text and together with my wife, Manel Fonseka, wrote a book (published 1996) on Ivan Peries illustrating and analysing a comprehensive cross-section of his work over fifty years of artistic activity. The book showed the range of Ivan’s work, highly charged with emotion, profoundly philosophical, musical—the painter's art at its "purest." It lay at the opposite end of the spectrum from the social and political agenda implicit in the 1960s article.

I had by that time come to the view that these categories of the 1960s were too simplistic. Art was much too complex a phenomenon to generalise about its social origins and contexts, except in an equally complex way that I was not able to find time to develop. It needed a wider framework and focus than my preoccupation with archaeological research would permit. I consider the article unfinished but approve its republication as an archival document.

Colombo, May 2009


Ivan Peries: the predicament of the bourgeois artist in the societies of the Third World


Each generation must . . . discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it . . . But the native intellectual who wishes to create an authentic work of art must realize that the truths of a nation are in the first place its realities.

—Frantz Fanon

There was no fine partition between art and propaganda. There was only a distinction between what was understandable in human experience and what was not.

—Edgar Snow


This is a short introduction to the work of Ivan Peries, one of the leading painters of the '43 Group, a school of contemporary painting in Ceylon,1 normally established as its name indicates in 1943. It is by no means an exhaustive or detailed study but merely opens up some perspectives towards a better understanding of his work and its implications.

Any attempt to analyse and to assess the achievement of Ivan Peries cannot be an isolated critical endeavour. It cannot be separated from the much wider implications that arise from the confrontation of that work with the society from which it issues and to which it is addressed. Although it is not possible here to deal with these considerations at length, this being primarily a survey of Ivan Peries' paintings, such an introduction would not present this work in its correct perspective if it did not make some attempt to place that achievement in a historical and social framework.

 Image: <i>Profile</i>, 1960, watercolour on paper, 36.5 x 25.4 cm.
Image: Profile, 1960, watercolour on paper, 36.5 x 25.4 cm.

If these paintings are to be understood at all in any significant way, they must be understood in terms of the contribution they make to the cultural experience and traditions of the society in which they exist. To do less than that, for instance, to see these pictures as self-contained and self-explanatory artworks to be cherished in private, their profound artistic experience to be shared at best between a few isolated and (culturally) privileged individuals, is an injustice to both art and community. What this implies, of course, is not merely a question of the mechanics of cultural propagation. It is not just a matter of mass audience, of education, explanation, exhibitions, publications, etc., as it is often made out to be, but rather a problem that is inherent in the nature of the art itself; in the orientation of the artist to both his2 work and to society. It hinges, in essence, on the understanding not only of his art and his personal experience but also of his understanding not only of his art and his personal experience but also of his historical predicament. While this applies equally to the position of the artist and the intellectual everywhere, it is of particular relevance to the artist in the societies of the Third World.

These societies are today [still] struggling to liberate themselves from their economic and cultural impoverishment; striving to determine their own history, rather than to have it determined for them; to act, rather than to be acted upon. The artist and the intellectual in these societies is called upon not only to make this historical predicament a part of his own experience, but also to transcend that predicament.

The work of the '43 Group as a whole—but particularly that of Justin Daraniyagala, George Keyt, and Ivan Peries—expecially in the 1940s and 1950s, represents perhaps the most considerable achievement of modern Asian art in its time. Its significance derives both from the quality and the nature of their attempt to absorb the impact of alien cultural formulations and to integrate them within the indigenous experience. This process, which in its widest sense involves the development and reformulation—or at its best, we might say, liberation—of that indigenous experience, is the crucial historical role of the intelligentsia in the Third World. That this requires more than mere cultural "nationalism"—which usually means a lifeless and superficial formalism drawn out from the (often distant) past and laid over imported ideas and experience—is clearly manifested in the achievement of the '43 Group. But the nature of that achievement, both its success and its failures, exposes problems that go much deeper than matters of form and technique. It reveals finally that the historical role of the Third World artist depends as much on the objective relationship between that artist and his society as it does on the quality of his subjective achievement.

The work of Ivan Peries, as we shall see, presents this problem in sharp focus. What he has achieved and failed to achieve is representative of the artistic and intellectual predicament in fields other than painting and in countries elsewhere in the Third World. By virtue of its size and other geographical and historical factors, Ceylon is a country which appears to have been more thoroughly susceptible to the effects of colonisation than many other such societies in Asia. For the same reasons, it seems to have been more tractable in making its own internal adjustments to this process. Thus, some of the classic features of colonialism and neo-colonialism are seen here, often with a greater clarity than elsewhere. The transition from a simple colonial mono-culture to a complex economic, technological, and cultural integration in the international hegemony of the West—which is what we understand by neo-colonialism—seems to be developing here with a smoothness and rapidity not often encountered in comparable societies in Asia, Africa, or Latin America. The sophistries of the formal political independence that it enjoys, the bright veneer of social and economic progress that it displays, the rapid growth and internal consolidation of a "national" bourgeoisie, are all manifestations of this transition. At the same time the extent to which this process is advanced makes it potentially more susceptible to the acute crisis (economic, social, cultural, and, of course, political) which lies at the heart of such neo-colonialist societies; its people acutely sensitive to the contradiction that lies at the root of the neo-colonialist logic.

All these characteristics, of development and consolidation, of crisis and debilitation, are reflected in the complex and varied composition of the bourgeois, or more strictly-speaking petty-bourgeois, intelligentsia.

This bourgeois or petty-bourgeois intelligentsia is both an agent and a by-product of historical change. It was originally drawn from various indigenous groups and trained by the colonialists, and later by local entrepreneurs, as a class or sub-class of clerks to service the economic and administrative (educational, military, etc.) relationship between the rulers and the ruled. In a situation where the nascent bourgeoisie itself remains a weak and impoverished class, remarkable as much for its intellectual bankruptcy as for its economic and technological debility and dependence, certain elements of this intelligentsia soon acquired a leading role to emerge as the so-called "elite" or "technocracy." When this "elite" is absorbed into the privileged ruling stratum or deeply embroiled in that machinery, it provides at best the ideology and the apologetics of the status quo. But that process does not encompass this intelligentsia as a whole. Due to its own shortcomings and that of the society itself, the tensions within this intelligentsia—the contradictions, for instance, between its aspirations to independence and originality and the essentially subservient role it plays both nationally and internationally—constitute one of the more unstable, and therefore volatile and often dynamic elements in the community. In recent times, with new crises in the Third World countries, this intelligentsia, or significant sections of it, have played and will continue to play an important part in the historical changes that are inevitable in these societies.

All this may seem a long way from art and the role of the artist, but it is not. The sense of such an apparent lack of relation between considerations such as those above and the arts is itself symptomatic of deeply ingrained cultural attitudes derived from a bourgeois tendency to isolate (and alienate) the individual and to compartmentalise intellectual and creative activity. The painter, the poet, the novelist, the dramatist, the film director, the musician, in short the creative artist is in no way absolved from his social functions. Fundamentally, he is in no way different from the economist, the agronomist, the engineer, the architect, the journalist, the doctor, the university lecturer, the schoolteacher. They all have a major role to play in the formation of ideas and aspirations, that is to say in the construction of their societies. The creative artist's influence over the media of communication, instruction, and entertainment is immense, whether these media themselves remain in the hands of the state or individual monopolists. The stand he takes may be either negative or positive. Negatively, he can stand aside as an exile or expatriate, or while remaining geographically within his own community he can pursue an esoteric or exotic art, finding as best he can the necessary economic means to sustain such private luxuries. Positively, he can either help to consolidate the hegemony of what we might call bourgeois internationalism; to spread (while of course pleading "artistic integrity") the values this represents to all levels of society; in effect, to participate, however gently and subtly, in the cultural and economic manipulation of the masses: or, he can clearly take this stand in the liberation (as much cultural as it is political, social, and economic) of his country and his people.

For many of them, the choice, as yet, remains a purely personal one, not because they stand outside history but at its crossroads. However, as we shall see in the art of Ivan Peries, this choice is not simple. It is extremely complex and requires that the artist addresses himself to questions more profound than those raised by a purely intellectual concern with artistic problems. This study merely attempts to pose, in a confrontation with the work of a major Asian painter, some of the urgent questions and decisions that face the creative intelligentsia in the societies of the Third World. It tries to do this by an examination of thirty years of work by a painter who, in a historico-political sense if not in a cultural one, represents an artist of an earlier generation. To begin with, we try to assess and to understand that achievement on its own terms; as it were, in the way that the painter himself, perhaps, would like us to respond to his work. Later, we try to see that achievement in a wider and more objective perspective, to place it, so to speak, in a framework of moral and historical, no less cultural, values.

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Ivan Peries lives abroad in self-imposed (or, as he himself would see it, inevitable) exile. This predicament, in its own way, resembles that of both Daraniyagala and Keyt with whom Peries takes his place in the forefront of the modern movement in Ceylonese painting. Both Daraniyagala and Keyt, like Peries, withdrew at an early stage in their working life, from the urban Ceylonese milieu in whose sub-culture their sensibilities had been formed and to which, implicitly, if not explicitly, they addressed their work. Daraniyagala left for his family estate; Keyt went to a village, an environment with which he had long-lasting and childhood links; where he became, at least in local terms a landlord of some substance. Peries, true to the urban atmosphere of Colombo in which he was brought up, went to London. Each, no doubt, had purely personal reasons for their actions but at the same time, this withdrawal is indicative of their hostility towards the particular bourgeois atmosphere in which they had been formed. Coming from or closely linked to the indigenous ruling class, they are representatives of the most sophisticated of the colonial assimilados. Deeply moved by their situation, and often unconscious, they set about rediscovering their national experience. This they did, not by covering themselves or their work with a superficial veneer of local motifs, but by trying with great subtlety and intelligence to extract or invent forms which would express their experience of the local environment. In this respect, their exile represents a necessary act of rejection; a rejection primarily of the intellectual impoverishment of their own bourgeois milieu. However, we can see more clearly today that the exile they chose was not the only alternative open to them: but rather it is indicative of their failure to come to terms with their societies. The point of making this observation is not to indict these painters (whose achievement we must try to understand and whose private struggles and personal anguish we cannot ignore) but rather to underline the fact that the artist or intellectual must not fail to grasp the true nature of the choice that confronts him today.

A founder member of the '43 Group, Peries has lived in England since 1946 except for four years in Ceylon from 1949 to 1953 and a brief visit there in 1967. Yet there is nothing in his work which is outside the Ceylonese experience, nothing which displays a distance in subject, mood or attitude from Ceylonese life. Peries' work has largely grown out of his preoccupation with a particular vision of the Ceylonese landscape. The development of his art has been carried on the momentum generated in his early years in Ceylon; it is the product of a purely painterly meditation (at a distance in both space and time) on the artist's indigenous experience.

Among the earliest paintings are a sequence of pictures, painted in 1939–1940, the most finished of which is a small painting which the artist himself designated Homage to El Greco, 1940. The Homage was painted when Peries was nineteen and yet it is a complete and apparently mature work displaying that fine control over feeling and technique that is evident in all his later work. The subject, white-washed houses, trees, a coconut garden, is a common Ceylonese suburban scene, familiar to illustrators and, significantly one that recurs in the early work of many Ceylonese painters of the modern schools. But this familiarity only serves to emphasise Peries' treatment and transformation of this subject. As its title indicates the picture does show something of the frenetic energy of the Spanish painter. But it owes even more to the French school, especially to Cezanne, that great modern painter of landscape whose visual dialectic lies beneath so much of modern art of the modern bourgeoisie—a teacher Peries so readily and ably acknowledges in a rare series of large oil-on-paper sketches painted at Haloluva, Kandy, in 1952, and only occasionally and much less explicitly elsewhere. But these influences have already been completely absorbed and digested; they are operative in so far as the entire convention of landscape within which the picture exists is one that has been formulated in the West. This convention is only the point at which Peries' art begins. If Peries took anything from this tradition, it is only an alphabet; the vocabulary, the grammar, the style, the experience, the meaning, the vision are his own, at once original and indigenous. The Homage is a genuine tribute to his European masters because it does not merely imitate or translate them—it is a direct confrontation between a painterly imagination (in whose education the work of those masters has played an important part) and the Ceylonese scene.

The Homage stands as a seminal work at the very beginning of Peries' career. A comparable, in fact more finely-executed picture of similar date is House and Trees, 1939. The importance of the Homage and of its related pictures, lies not only in their statement of the essential focus of Peries' art, but also in the fact that they present the two major elements of style and mood that are to be found in the later work. The Homage presents, a high-pitched tension between the calm, flat, uncluttered areas of picture space in the middle area of the painting (depicting its subject with the simplest of forms and a minimum of detail, complicated only by the most delicate gradations of tone) and the surging, spirited movement of sky, clouds, earth and trees that occupies the upper and lower areas of the picture.

Image: <i>The Return</i>, 1956, oil on canvas, 86 x 56 cm.
Image: The Return, 1956, oil on canvas, 86 x 56 cm.

Of course one talks here of movement in a special sense. In keeping with their reflective (as opposed to expressive) nature, Peries' pictures are quite static. Whatever movement there is, is entirely internal, underneath, the gestures of a kind of inner spirit of place. This spirit, sometimes highly charged, dramatic, even violent, sometimes quiet, gentle, delicate, almost musical, often (in the best pictures) both things at once, is the most profound experience that these paintings have to offer us. Their duality, this amalgam, as it were, of two opposite states of being obtains right through the 30 years of painting represented here. It is found in its highest pitch in such pictures as The Wave, 1955, perhaps Peries' most successful painting, and the more recent painting Sudu Muhuda, 1968. In the former picture the elements of storm and calm have been pushed as far as possible on either side of a point of balance which is the focus of interest. The nature and extent of this achievement is seen more clearly if we compare pictures such as these with a painting like Rathu Ira III, 1961. There these tensions have somehow eluded the painter. The painting, is interestingly composed, finely painted, quite beautiful in fact, and yet, through the elegance, the formal tension the picture might have had, has escaped. Some of Peries' best work was done in the years 1955–1956, soon after his visit home in the early 1950s. Now, in his full maturity, refreshed by his return to Ceylon and yet sufficiently removed in time from it to have absorbed and digested the experience, with the paintings of this period such as The Wave, Peries has completely mastered his vision and his material. These are amongst his most achieved work, a completely original contribution to landscape painting.

However, to call these pictures landscapes or seascapes—the beach, the sea, and less frequently, the river are an important element in Peries' landscape compositions, water by its very qualities providing the restlessness and the tranquility that are the central experiences of his work—is not entirely correct. Peries is not a painter of fact but of, feeling, and even in his most detailed representational scenes the subject of the picture becomes a means by which the artist explores and expresses his own inner feelings as much as those generated by the visual image itself. He reconstructs the elements of a familiar visual experience, usually by a process of simplification, and reassembles them in an entirely personalised way which invests these pictures with their most remarkable artistic qualities; and in this rests what one might call the modernity of these paintings. In them Peries has, so to speak, invented a modern Ceylonese "landscape" art.

The scope of Ivan Peries' work, however, does not stop at these landscapes. From the beginning he displays a wide range of interests and a variety of mood and manner. Yet this variety is always characterised by his distinctive style, developed through the years, but containing in its latest phases elements present in its genesis. We have, for instance, several portraits done at various times in the course of these thirty years. Not a naturalistic painter, Peries has been as disinterested in the actual structure of the human figure as in that of a landscape. The figures in these portraits, at first quite carefully delineated and representational, are not much more than objects for particular arrangements of form and colour, so much so that in the later pictures the figures are often faceless, robed silhouettes rather than really identifiable people. In an early picture, The Beloved, 1949, a delicate and sensitive portrait of three girls, the finesse of the artist' perception has captured much more than the merely formal qualities of the subject. And yet, even this picture is more a painting about a painting than a painting about people, a response to the subject generated by an interest in particular aspects of form and colour.

Again, there are other pictures in which the human figure is quite clearly depicted but impersonalised and employed in a way quite different from that in the portraits. We might, for the lack of a more suitable term, call these pictures mythological. They are mythological, not because they depict any known or recognisable mythological framework or draw upon a stock of traditional images (that iconography of revivalism which often provided an easy escape route for nationalist art), but because they deal in a kind of visual symbolism that generates its own meanings and allusions. These paintings present a world neither ancient nor modern, clearly recognisable, strangely and hauntingly meaningful and yet ultimately outside the natural experience. This is not to say that they are esoteric, or unreal, rather that their reality has been pitched at a point of mystery or fantasy, understandable only in its own, purely pictorial terms. If the landscapes are musical, these paintings are pre-eminently literary, poetic, but in an entirely painterly way. The soft colour of the landscapes often gives way here to a sharp and brilliant colouration and a greater precision of form, a crisper line, imparting a hard surface to the mysteries.

The culmination of this tendency in Peries' work is in six very large pictures executed between 1949 and 1960. They are the most ambitious paintings attempted by the artist and they must be numbered among his major works. In this series of pictures of river or beach scenes with a group or several different groups of figures, set in a elaborately constructed landscapes, Peries presents us with a vision of rural life in an undefined and suspended moment between work and leisure, a time of quiet, relaxed, though not restful, community. It is not surprising that most of these scenes are connected with water and bathing, a familiar aspect of life in Ceylon. They are a kind of fantastic panorama of village life as it has been observed by an artist who has seen rather than known this life. And yet, these tableaux are totally convincing because in them the artist has sensed and recreated a real though much idealised experience of the complex harmonies that prevail between man and nature. If they have something of a dreamlike quality, these dreams also have a persuasive reality.

Image: <i>The Arrival</i>, 1959–1960, oil on canvas, 137 x 93 cm.
Image: The Arrival, 1959–1960, oil on canvas, 137 x 93 cm.

The latest and the most impressive of these paintings is The Arrival, 1959–1960. With its marriage of myth and reality, the frank sensuality of its bulky nymphs, its blue horseman and turquoise frogs, its lotuses, its sails like great sheets of sculpted metal and the bare white trunks of coconut palms, The Arrival is a visual allegory that takes its place very naturally in the Ceylonese tradition. If the picture carries some echoes of Western painting (say, Gauguin, the Douanier Rousseau, the Surrealists or the American Primitives) this is both accidental and superficial. Painted though it was in a grimy London suburb, its true milieu, if any, is the work of the popular Ceylonese painters of the nineteenth and twentieth century, the indigenous craftsman-artists or sittaras, whose talent and work has been consistently ignored by the bourgeois "art-lovers" who patronise the work of Ivan Peries and the '43 Group. Of course, though Peries himself would be the first to acknowledge the influence of popular painting on his own work, the relationship is only collateral—The Arrival is, in fact, the product of twenty years or so of Peries' painting that preceded it. The landscapes, the portraits, the mythological paintings and the early river and beach scenes have all been fused in one great leap of craft and imagination.

Image: <i>The Wave</i>, 1955, oil on canvas, 129 x 101.5 cm.
Image: The Wave, 1955, oil on canvas, 129 x 101.5 cm.

With The Arrival Peries' work has reached a climax. It is as if the nervous energy of the Homage and The Wave, the strange mood of the mythological pictures, and the bold vision of the river and beach scenes have reached their final expression in the symbolism of colour and image. The paintings of the '60s have a new quietness; the experience of twenty years of painting is distilled in the rich browns of sunset and warm grays and whites of a dawn. What we have now is an idealised landscape. His interest now is almost entirely in working the textures of light and sky and water,painting in thin paint over a carefully prepared gesso ground (sometimes purposely cracked like old ceramic), whose grain provides a counterpoint to the painted surface. In the latest of these pictures, a most recent example of which is Sudu Muhuda, 1968, there is an almost total absence of colour and a most precisely balanced simplicity of form. Having achieved total mastery over his material, the painter has now extracted what he perceived as the essential harmonies of the landscape, which have always been the primary concern of his paintings.

Accompanying these delicate and profound pictures are an entirely different range of paintings in which the old nervous energy has now transmuted into a largely aesthetic preoccupation with the pigment of the heavily painted, rough textures of the picture surface. The forms here are built up with distinct brush-strokes or impasto paint applied with the palette knife, creating a considerable movement on the surface of the picture, sometimes rendered in hard, static forms, often in dissolving and intermingling shapes. The subjects of these pictures vary from landscapes and still-lifes to nude and figure compositions. The colours are usually very bright and bold except for a series of paintings done in 1965–1966 where black and tones of grey and white are employed with a brilliance that has the effect of bright colour. The paintings are the exact opposite of the thinly and tightly painted landscapes. The duality which we noticed earlier has now separated into two distinct types of pictures.

The bulk of Peries' most recent work consists of several watercolours (some executed in synthetic, water-based paint, others in actual water colour) depicting human figures in landscape. At first glance very different from the other pictures, they are immediately recognisable as Peries' work. The pre-dominance of the human figure in these water colours, or rather the way in which it is treated, brings into focus a new dimension in Peries' painting—the presence of human emotion and human relationships as the main subject of the picture. While this element is present in earlier works such as The Lovers, of the 1950s, and even The Arrival, 1959–1960, it is rarely handled with the concentration and intensity that maintains here. Moreover, the emotional content of these pictures is scarcely seen elsewhere. What that content is, is difficult to define; one can only describe it as a kind of inner life or relationship that flows as much between shapes and colours as between the figures depicted there. In principle this might be little different from the feeling of the landscapes, but for the fact that in recognising these vague, abstracted figures as human we are able to particularise the experience they have to offer. Given that and the difference in medium, scale, in the formal qualities and the composition, we are, in fact, confronted here with a new type of picture.

Thus, time and time again, Peries surprises us by developing and extending his now familiar artistic methods to new purposes and to fresh experience. Looking at the representative selection from thirty years of painting, we see the extraordinary range and complexity of Ivan Peries' achievement. It is without doubt the work of a singular and original talent nurtured throughout these last thirty years by the lasting experience of a distant homeland. Whatever hint of nostalgia or melancholy we might find in these pictures—invested no doubt by the artist's sense of isolation and exile, often reflected in the recurrent image of solitary, shadowy figures on a beach—is always held in check by the discipline of a consummate craftsmanship and a critical mind.

The purification and idealisation of experience that is a persistent quality of Peries' art, the prevailing moods, the often gentle and controlled handling of feeling and emotion, the almost melodic use of colour continually enhanced by a genuine sensuousness, are all qualities which echo some major aspect of the Sinhalese artistic tradition. His work, we could say, would eminently satisfy that central requirement of classic Indian and Ceylonese aesthetic theory embodied in the concept of rasa, a state of mind provoked by aesthetic experience and denoting profound pleasure, joy, and exaltation.


*   *   *

Of course, Peries does not really belong to this tradition but in a special sense he has added to or reinterpreted it. We spoke earlier, in the context of his major achievement in landscape, of his modernity, of the predominant element of personalisation in his work. The presence of personal experience in art is the dominant characteristic of the humanist and bourgeois tradition since the Renaissance. But in the heyday of this art that quality of personalisation is usually determined and controlled by a common frame of reference and experience at least amongst the bourgeoisie. It is only in the 19th century and after, beginning roughly with what is usually called the Romantic movement, that the purely private world of the artist begins to play an increasingly important role*—a development which, we might say, largely coincides with the onset of the crisis within the bourgeoisie and the questioning of bourgeois hegemony in all spheres of life. Our assessment of Peries' work has inevitably been expressed in the purely formalist terms of the artistic and critical values of this bourgeois framework.** To say this, of course, is to recognise that despite its essentially Ceylonese mood and content Peries' contribution to the modern Ceylonese tradition finds its true allegiance with the bourgeois or petty-bourgeois elitist art of the West. This paradox is one that is continually faced, not only in the economic and political but also in the cultural sphere, by the "national" bourgeoisie in the societies of the colonial and neo-colonial world.3 This impoverished and often embryonic bourgeoisie is constantly struggling to reconcile its attempts to control its own resources (and possess its own experience) with its inborn dependence on the West, from which it continually draws its material and ideological support. For the national artist this contradiction expresses itself in his creative efforts to transpose his bourgeois artistic cosmopolitanism into a confrontation with his native experience.

This process, at its most imaginative and sophisticated level, is what we find in the art of Ivan Peries. Our assessment of this work ultimately compels us to ask the question of what we mean by tradition, what constitutes a "national" art; what are the implications of "modernity" in a colonial or neo-colonial society. A simple definition of cultural nationalism (to be clearly distinguished from cultural pseudonationalism and cultural chauvinism) is that it is an attempt not merely to re-discover a national history and a national tradition by dredging out the motifs of a dead or dying past, but rather to recreate or invent the forms, concepts and institutions that can express and define the realities of the present national experience, with both its national and international implications. (To say, blandly and simplistically, that art is universal is the apologetics of the bourgeois ideologist who cannot or will not see the implications of his selective response to the realities around him.) At least on the surface, the art of Ivan Peries exists within the Ceylonese experience. Thus, rooted in the natural forms of the Ceylonese countryside and expressing the moods and methods of the Ceylonese tradition, Peries' landscapes presents, prima facie, no problems of communication. Peries has remained true, though in a profoundly modified way, to the essentially illustrative conventions of the Ceylonese tradition. But in doing this he has transferred, as other modern painters in Ceylon have done to a greater or lesser degree, the focus from the iconic, narrative or decorative functions of the traditional picture to the inner feelings and relationships that operate beneath the visual image—moved, that it to say, from the external and public to the internal and private plane. And it is precisely at this point—what we call the privatisation or personalisation of the work of art—that he has encountered, unwittingly, the contradiction that faces the bourgeois artist in a society whose traditions and sensibility diverges from that of his society at large. Despite the recognisable familiarity of his subject matter and the pervasive presence of moods and aesthetic qualities that are rooted in the local traditions, despite the fact that his pictures are not basically unintelligible to the public at large, they remain outside the modes in which that public comprehends and formulates its experience. In short, these paintings call for a response that the society is not only unwilling to give but one that is outside its particular needs and requirements. In so far as the artist has a functional responsibility to exercise his talent in such a way that he responds to these needs—to give form and meaning to the experience of his community, to become as it were the point at which society articulates itself—the extent to which he relates or does not relate to that responsibility is the index to his success or failure as a painter, the final assessment of his success or failure to fulfill his historical role.

Thus, Ivan Peries has produced a remarkable body of work and made a valuable contribution, in formal artistic terms, to the restoration or reconstruction of a national tradition but that contribution exists in a social and therefore cultural vacuum. The very significance of his extraordinary talent and his profound reinterperetation of the perspectives of modern Ceylonese art are in sharp contrast to its lack of recognition4 in any real sense both in the context of the artist's own society and culture as well as internationally. It forces us to confront and to make some attempt to explain the relevance or irrelevance of this singular achievement.

The lack of any significant international recognition is easy enough to understand. The work of the '43 Group, or any other modern school of Third World paintings, is the victim of that very same cultural imperialism which played an important part in the development of such art movements and of which these movements are, in one way or another, a by-product. The Western art centres of Paris, London, and New York have no more than a passing, exotic interest in what they consider distant provincial offshoots of their own eclectic modernism, however original and distinctive these new developments might be. That disinterest is of little consequence in itself. It becomes significant when it begins to act, often so subtlely, on the conditioned aspirations of the colonised. The process of development or modernisation in the Third World is so dominated by the cosmopolitanism of these metropolitan centres, so thoroughly conditioned by bourgeois internationalism, that the lack of recognition (often interlaced with strategic concessions and sufficient interest to keep the relationship alive) merely produces a redoubling of effort to assimilate, interpret, emulate, imitate, in general to match the achievement and the changing styles and fashions of the West. This is a process familiar enough in the economics and technics of neo-colonialism but much less obvious in the arts. The schools of modern painting that exist in Asia and Africa frequently exhibit a similar process of development to what we have in the work of Ivan Peries and the '43 Group. It is the result of a historical perspective that still maintains the vertical relationship between coloniser and colonised rather than a horizontal one between neighbours and fellow human beings.

That this still continues long after the formal rituals of decolonisation have been performed can be best understood if we examine the role played by these schools of Third World painting within the social and cultural framework of their own countries, if we can see that their isolation from each other is a logical consequence of their isolation from their own people.

The establishment of the '43 Group was designed to bring together a group of talented painters whose common meeting ground was that their work stood in sharp contradiction to the existing colonial conventions of the time, exemplified in the imported and orientalised academism of the Ceylon Society of Arts. It was a youthful and rebellious movement reacting against the establishment and the established values of a fairly small section of the Westernised elite and intelligentsia that took an interest in the visual arts. Ivan Peries, as one of the youngest members of the group, was, we might say, the organising spirit behind the new movement. Two of its three most senior members (one of them Justin Daraniyagala) had lived and studied in Europe in the 1920s and the third (George Keyt) had been a practising painter for over a decade. The central figure in the group was the photographer and musician Lionel Wendt who after his studies in Europe brought back with him to Ceylon both an articulate modernism and an acute awareness of the alienation of the westernised Asian intellectual in a colonised country. It was this mixture of a progressive and contemporary internationalism of these painters which stood in the same relation to the art of the time as political nationalism stood to the colonialist collaborators. Although Ivan Peries was closely associated with a group of Marxists in the Colombo University College and had done the stage design for the play, The Star Turns Red, and in spite of the fact that the forerunner of the 1943 founding exhibition was held in the premises of the Friends of the Soviet Union, the '43 Group had no political character or orientation, other than a sophisticated artistic position aligned to the national struggle. Essentially "elitist" in its nature, not unlike political nationalism and radicalism, the '43 Group remained true to its middle-class origins and they maintained both explicitly and implicity in their work a separation between the artistic and the social predicament. They failed to see that though art may be at variance with society, it must be in a way that it is at least relevant to the society in which it exists. The crucial relationship was that which existed between the artist and the work of art, everything else was incidental to the protection of that relationship. Just as political nationalism was, and with an increasingly nationalistic flavour still is, designed to protect and develop the essentially individualistic interest of the middle-classes, the art of the '43 Group was trapped within its own class predicament. In its own artistic terms it was a progressive and radical movement that was unable to go beyond itself.

It is for this reason above all that the '43 Group has laid itself open to the accusation that it is the bastardised product of a Western-educated, Western-oriented elite of little relevance to Ceylon today. In fact, the art of the '43 Group is no more bastardised than technology, politics, economics, or any other branch of modern Ceylonese activity: it is no more foreign or eclectic in its character than the popular arts of the mass media.

The reasons for this failure of communication (for it must be seen as a failure rather than as an inability to communicate) can be understood, at least in the first instance, as a result of the medium itself and the uses to which it has been (or has not been) put rather than the actual "language," the modern idiom of the pictures themselves, if it is at all possible to make this kind of distinction. The visual images that painters like Ivan Peries and George Keyt deal in are no more unfamiliar or unreadable than the stylistic conventions of the Bengali school that had such wide influence on popular painters and designers in Ceylon in the earlier part of this century. What is unfamiliar is the context of experience in which they operate.

The art of painting was until quite recently one of the most widespread means of mass communication in Ceylon, particularly in the great mural tradition of the temples. Vestiges of this still remain in many regions of popular life, as for instance in the art of the religious or political calendar. That this art was descriptive and decorative in a way that modern art at its best is not, is an evaluation which the bourgeois painters of the Third World inherited as an essential characteristic of their elitist position. There was for them no compulsion, not even a challenge to produce an art for the majority. The contradiction between the mass audience and minority culture was readily accepted as inevitable in a divided society. Unlike the economics of the cinema, and to a lesser extent the theatre which, to a certain extent, compel the bourgeois film director or playwright to recognise the mass audience, if only to manipulate or at best to divert that audience, the economics of middle-class painting depend entirely on small scale private patronage. It was at this point that their choice of medium, of non-illustrative, non-iconic easel-paintings confirmed and hardened that isolation to which their class position inevitably drove them. Preoccupied with their introverted creative problems, the artists of the '43 Group could not see that their radical attempts to create a modern Ceylonese idiom had reduced a body of work of exceptional quality and significance to being mere symbols of cultured well-being to a very small group of people, whose eyes, minds and social prestige were flattered by the acquisition of private and exclusive art-works. This was not merely a failure to see beyond certain technical possibilities but a refusal or a lack of vision to serve the art needs of the people, to conceive of an art that reached out to a wider audience: in short an inability to transcend their historical predicament. And if this did not impoverish their achievement it certainly isolated it and perhaps rendered it historically meaningless. The impoverishment, in fact the debasement of the Ceylonese pictorial tradition in general, in the popular arts, in design, in illustration, even in the traditional crafts may well have been mitigated if painters like Ivan Peries had seen their work not only in its own terms but also in the context of its social function—an attitude of commitment which even today the bourgeois artist in Ceylon and elsewhere often treats with facile contempt. The consequence of such a refusal can be seen in the distance there is today between Ivan Peries' achievement and the Ceylonese people. But if such a position was easier to take in the 1940s, it is less excusable today when the societies of the Third World are beginning to confront the distortions and divisions that were created within themselves in the colonial period.

Ivan Peries has dedicated a life of great poverty and hardship to his work, throughout his life he has been in violent conflict, often at the risk of his health and sanity, with the values of that class, that elite which ironically presented him with an exclusive audience.

Image: <i>Dehiwala</i>, 1978, oil on canvas, 100 x 75 cm.
Image: Dehiwala, 1978, oil on canvas, 100 x 75 cm.

What then, we might well ask, is the point in trying to understand and assess the work of Ivan Peries? Is there anything we might salvage from that achievement? Thepurpose of this article is to pose that question in a wider context than that which is already familiar with his work. It is a question that can only be answered in the shape of society to come. If we are able to appreciate his work within its historical framework, to assess his pioneering effort as a modern Ceylonese painter, it would have served its most valuable purpose. The nature of his success and of his failure is one that is most relevant to us today. The contribution he has made to the Ceylonese tradition is, in the final analysis, not one that is limited to his treatment of the Ceylonese landscape or his development of an original style but to his qualitative solution to the artistic problems that faced him at a point when Ceylonese society and culture were beginning to renew themselves. This process of renewal has scarcely begun but Ivan Peries was amongst the first to grasp, in his own field, some of the problems that this process involves.


1. Now Sri Lanka. At the time the article was written, the country was still called Ceylon. 
2. The persistent use of male gender poses a problem throughout the text. Problematics of gender, see editorial.
3. Its resolution, we might add, can only be achieved by a revolutionary transformation which will liberate these societies not only from the political and economic grip of the West but also from its pervasive cultural dominance. Until such time, the bourgeois or petty bourgeois intellectual can only side-step this paradox by integrating himself wholly in the processes which lead up to that transformation.
4. By recognition, of course, one does not mean some isolated critical acclaim but a consistent critical appraisal and a general public response.
*Thus art in the twentieth century becomes more or less an esoteric, elitist cult, developing within its own formalist framework but incomprehensible to the society at large and even to the bourgeoisie itself and only exploited by it either as a luxurious and exotic commodity or as a marketing device in industrial design and advertising. Although interesting in itself, often its real cultural significance is no more than that it provides a cult of sophisticated, private mysteries in which a very small group of petit-bourgeois intellectuals find some refuge from metropolitan alienation and the other horrors of the industrial society.
** To the revolutionary mind such a procedure is not necessarily contradictory. In the absence of an art that has wholly and substantially replaced and transcended the art of the bourgeois epoch, there is a historical necessity to come to terms with the experience, the artistic values and the critical terminology of the bourgeoisie. Moreover, to speak of bourgeois art is not to make a qualitative distinction but a sociological one, not to reject it out of hand but to place it within a distinct scheme of historical values. Just as much as socialism does not reject bourgeois science or bourgeois technology but rather rejects its inherent ideology and social application—while retaining its techniques and scientific concepts—in order to transcend it, bourgeois art has to be recognised as a necessary—if soon historically defunct—ancestor of the art of a socialist society. In the period of revolutionary struggle and transformation, the revolutionary intellectual is required to make the most imaginative use of the bourgeois methods and discoveries. A ready analogy is provided by the conflicting methods of warfare practiced in Vietnam. The Vietnamese popular forces have proved beyond doubt the superiority of people's war and guerilla tactics against the computerised technological super-terror of the US war machine. The guerilla employs whatever weapons he has at hand, including those of the most advanced types (often captured from the enemy), interpreting and deploying them in his own tactical terms. His tactics and strategy however are firmly based on his own correct understanding of the realities of his own natural and human environment. Although he may use what are apparently simpler and cruder methods and techniques, objectively the tactics he employs are superior, subtler and more powerful than those of his technologically superior adversary. The revolutionary artist and the revolutionary intellectual must learn to identify the analogy.


Senake Bandaranayake is emeritus professor of archeology at the University of Kelaniya. He has published over one hundred research papers and authored and has edited a number of books including Sri Lanka: Island Civilisation (1977); Sigiriya: Excavations and Research (1984); Ivan Peries Paintings: 1938–88 (1986; co-authored with Manel Fonseka); The Rock and Wall Paintings of Sri Lanka (1996); and most recently The University of the Future and the Culture of Learning (2007). Bandaranayake was Archaeological Director of the Sigiriya and Dambulla Cultural Triangle Projects, founding Director of the PGIAR, Vice Chancellor of his university, and Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France and High Commissioner in India.


All images courtesy of Senake Bandaranayake, with thanks to Third Text Asia.




Sun, 1 Apr 2012
Innovation Through Tradition Art Writing Field Notes Issue 1

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Field Notes 01 | Locating the contemporary in art history?

Field Notes 01 | Locating the contemporary in art history?

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