GEORGE KEYT (1901-1993)
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GEORGE KEYT (1901-1993)

Kandyan Woman and Her Child

GEORGE KEYT (1901-1993)
Kandyan Woman and Her Child
dry pastel on paper
15½ x 10¾ in. (39.4 x 27.3 cm.)
Executed in 1927
George Keyt Foundation, George Keyt: A Centennial Anthology, Colombo, 2001, p. 60 (illustrated)
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Lot Essay

"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, 1971, 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 Gopika Vastra Paharana, 1952 (lot 91) and Mahesha Mardini, 1968 (lot 95).

In Gopika Vastra Paharana, Keyt draws on classical Indian painting and pichhwai depictions of the divine lila -- a moment of divine rapture where Krishna, on the banks of the Yamuna captures the hearts of the gopis, earning him the title "thief of hearts". In Mahesha Mardini, Keyt gives us his rendition of the story of Durga, armed with a trident from Shiva, Chakra from Vishnu, a lion from the Himalayas and a bow and arrow from Vayu, attacks Mahishasura, the half man - half buffalo demon, killing him after nine days of fierce battle.
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)

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