"After having travelled to Sri Lanka over 10 years admiring more and more the beauty of the country and its magnificent culture, it happened one day in 1981 that we discovered in a private house in Colombo several extraordinary impressive paintings. The paintings' signature (George Keyt) did at that time not mean anything to us, so we assumed that he might be a European painter. We learnt how wrong we were, as the house owner proudly explained, that George Keyt is an internationally renowned artist and probably the most talented living painter of Sri Lanka.
Our interest in his wonderful art grew, and we had to realize how difficult it was to find paintings of various periods.[...] After long unsuccessful searching we asked [Keyt] one day, whether he could introduce us to owners or collectors, who would be prepared to sell one of his paintings. He pointed out that his wife Kusum had 10 important paintings in her possession. We instantly bought 7 out of the 10 paintings, which we look at daily and highly appreciate. Later we had the chance to purchase more of his paintings from other collectors, including his long-term friend Martin Russell in England, who wrote in 1949 a unique book titled George Keyt."
Rene Margies and Matthias Servais
"The lyric painting of George Keyt is sensuous Indian poetry brought to canvas. Like earlier Indian painters of Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills, and M. F. Husain after him, Keyt takes as his primary theme woman as the focus of man's concern. He paints her in flat planes, with bounding lines and rich warmth of color. His idiom occasionally carries in it a hint of Picasso but is, once again, in direct line with the traditional styles of Central India, Mewar, and Basohli. But the originality of Keyt's inspiration is undoubted, and his work remains uniquely his own." (R. Bartholomew and S. S. Kapur, Husain, Abrams, New York, 1972, p. 27)
George Keyt didn't start painting until he was 26, but he quickly went on to become an international giant of Modern art and arguably Sri Lanka's most celebrated 20th Century artist. His unique visual idiom combined European Modernist innovations with the ancient South Asian fresco techniques found at Ajanta and Sigiriya. His earliest work was distinctly Gauginesque-sumptuous pastorals and figure studies free from overt perspectival abstraction, populated by luxuriant nudes and semi-nudes swaddled in robes, limbs graceful and provocatively intertwined. By the early 1930s, the cubism that would forever alter the character of his paintings began to emerge in his work. Still, Keyt perpetually re-invented his craft, adopting and discarding countless subtle variations in style across his seven decade career.
Despite his clear admiration for cubist and fauvist principles, his subject matter was almost always rooted in local tradition, depicting dancers, shepherdesses, and gods, often drawn from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Examples of this are seen in the masterpieces Bhima and Jarasandha, 1943 (lot 143) and Portrait of Pinnawela Dhirananda, 1932 (lot 144).
In Bhima and Jarasandha, painted in 1943, Keyt was inspired by anti-fascism and anti-imperialism. Here he captures the last scene of the great fourteen-day battle, where Bhima takes Jarasandha by the feet and tears him apart. In comparison to this robust and vicious battle scene, Keyt takes a softer approach in Portrait of Pinnawela Dhirananda. Here his delicate color palette heightens the gentleness and sensitivty of of his long-time friend and companion. Keyt was heavily influenced by the poet scholar Rev. Pinnawela Dhirananda Thero, who introduced him to Buddhist thought and Sinhala poetry.
Throughout his lifetime, Keyt's work was exhibited alongside leading European artists in galleries around the world. Most notably, in 1930, he exhibited alongside Picasso and Braque at the Zwemmer Gallery in London. Pablo Neruda wrote the introduction for the catalogue of this exhibition.
"Keyt I think is the living nucleus of a great painter. In all his works, there is the moderation of maturity. [His] figures take on a strange expressive grandeur, and radiate an aura of intensely profound feeling." (W. G. Archer, India and Modern Art, London, 1959, p. 124)