Global notice COVID-19 Important notice
GEORGE KEYT (1901-1993)
"Its [The '43 Group's] work, especially at the peak of its development in 1940s and 1950s, represented one of the most outstanding achievements of modern Asian art in its time." (S. Bandaranayake and M. Fonseka ed., Ivan Peries Paintings 1938-88, Melbourne, 1996, p. 9) The legacy of the '43 Group was fundamental, not only in its impact on the visual culture of Sri Lanka but in terms of developing an international platform for a modern South Asian art. Parallels are inevitably drawn with the Bombay Progressive Artists' Group. Both were groups of a new generation of likeminded artists seeking to break with colonial orientalist idioms in favor of "A mode of indigenized modernization, of great originality and authenticity." (S. Bandaranayake and M. Fonseka ed., Ivan Peries Paintings 1938-88, Melbourne, 1996, p. 9) This group of visionary Sri Lankan artists, of which founding members included George Keyt, George Claessen and Ivan Peries, all shared this sentiment and so the '43 Group was conceived, having its first exhibition in Colombo in 1943. The influence of western painting was maintained by the Ceylon Society of Arts which advocated a traditional nineteenth century art education. "John Berger, the art critic of the New Statesman, in an introductory note in the catalogue of the first '43 Group exhibition in London in 1952, said it was 'an imported if not imposed art: an art deriving from the nineteenth century English tradition with an exotically 'oriental' overtone added'." (N. Weereratne, 43 Group: A Chronicle of Fifty Years of Art in Sri Lanka, Melbourne, 1993, p. 13) The Ceylon Society of Arts rejected the numerous applications of artists that did not conform to their standards, leaving many disenchanted artists without a platform to exhibit or forum to exchange ideas. It was from under the prohibitive shadow of the status quo of the Ceylon Society of Arts that the '43 Group of ambitious and modernizing artists emerged. Whilst exact accounts of the first meeting of the group differ, seven or eight artists met on 29 August 1943 in Colombo to form the '43 Group. They were hosted by Lionel Wendt, a photographer and critically influential anchor for the artists. The meeting included Ivan Peries, Lester James Peries, Aubrey Collette, George Claessen, Richard Gabriel, Harry Pieris. Though absent from this first meeting, the group decided to include George Keyt, Justin Daraniyagala and Manjusri Theo. Keyt's Bhima and Jarasandha (lot 141) featured in the inaugural exhibition in November 1943 as catalogue no. 59. "The most remarkable thing about the Group [...] was that it was made up of artists who were so diverse in style and temperament [...] Each member had his own individual style and outlook, and yet we held together as a cohesive whole." (A. Collette quoted in, 43 Group: A Chronicle of Fifty Years of Art in Sri Lanka, p. 19) There was no official manifesto, however they readily devoured influences from European and American modernism first introduced to them by Charles Freegrove Winzer, the Ceylon Governments' Inspector of Art. For Keyt "Winzer provided a window into a fresh and unfamiliar world of painting. He introduced them to the work of the Impressionists; to Pissarro, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh; and Picasso and Matisse." (43 Group: A Chronicle of Fifty Years of Art in Sri Lanka, p. 16) The group according to Keyt were prejudicial with what they assimilated, "Happily for us the '43 Group is no narrow fanatical body in its reception of modern art and the welcome it has always extended to Western trends in Europe and what it could gather from such vital trends in America. In fact its main cause of origin was the rejection of the obsolete and the dead in the art of Ceylon and all that has resulted from the obsolete and dead deriving from the art of Europe." (G. Keyt quoted in, N. Weereratne, 43 Group: A Chronicle of Fifty Years of Art in Sri Lanka, Melbourne, 1993, p. 16) However it was in moving abroad to England that those masters of '43 Group really gained recognition. Following a similar trajectory to the Bombay Progressive Artists' group emigrated to Europe where they further assimilated and incorporated external influences into their art. The first exhibition was at the Imperial Institute in London in November 1952 at the invitation of the Royal India, Pakistan and Ceylon Society - George Claessen was present at the opening. A similar exhibition followed in Paris at Petit Palais in November 1953 with the museum acquiring works by Ivan Peries. In London further exhibitions and acclaim ensued at the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Beaux Arts Gallery and Artists International Association Gallery culminating in the landmark exhibition at the Heffer gallery in Cambridge where Martin Russell, the art critic and collector of Keyt, was a guest speaker. Keyt remained on the subcontinent but Claessen and Peries both spent the majority of their lives working and exhibiting in London. These key members of the group continued to exhibit in their native Sri Lanka, however they gained increased international acclaim participating in biennales in Venice and Sao Paulo. Despite the diasporic nature of the group, each artist maintained distinct vocabularies that incorporated the western modernist idiom whilst retaining their Sri Lankan heritage and vernacular. PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF RENE MARGIES AND MATTHIAS SERVAIS
GEORGE KEYT (1901-1993)

Bhima and Jarasandha

GEORGE KEYT (1901-1993)
Bhima and Jarasandha
signed and dated 'G Keyt 43' (upper right)
oil on canvas
31 5/8 x 31½ in. (80.3 x 80 cm.)
Painted in 1943
Formerly from the collection of Martin Russell, London
M. Russell, George Keyt, Bombay, 1950, pl. 66 (illustrated, unpaginated)
P.R.R. Rao, Modern Indian Painting, Hyderabad, 1953, p. xxi,
pl. 99 (illustrated)
A. Halpe (ed.), George Keyt, Colombo, 1977, p. 14 (illustrated)
S. Goonasekera, George Keyt: Interpretations, Kandy, 1991, p. 73 (illustrated)
This work was included in the inaugural '43 Group exhibition in Colombo, November 1943, as no. 59 (see catalogue listing on previous page).
Sale room notice
Please note this painting was exhibited in a solo show Bombay, 1947 and was featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue.

Lot Essay

"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 Gauguinesque-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 sensitivity 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)


More from South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art

View All
View All