15th February 1998


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Melville Assauw: reviving a flagging genre of painting

By Ravin Guneratne

In November last year, Mel Assauw held his first exhibition of oil paintings titled MANY MOODS at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery. Caught up as we are in a cusp between crumbling tradition and an information superhighway, it showcased for us a Lanka, for which we are all only too nostalgic.

What I remember of the landscapes of childhood reverie, remain only as precious vignettes of an unsullied Eden, in my memory. Fortuitous circumstance - perhaps an ethereal vista seen from a car window or a densely wooded tract amidst a still unspoilt countryside - would make these scattered images luminous; and coalesce into those idyllic scenes from the past..... memorabilia of another time, another era, effervescing in my mind. Melville Assauw's paintings had this effect on me.

Assauw is an artist and entrepreneur - a difficult balance to achieve. The purist in him treads the fine line that separates art from its more usurious variant with an innocence and fraicheur that is alien to commerce. Mel lives in Sri Lanka but gazes upon Ceylon. Having scoured the jagged and discordant tableaus vivants of our times with mounting horror, he has retrogressed with relief - to the tranquil and more congenial milieu, beloved of Spittel and Senior.

His work belongs to a genre in which figures may be best appreciated when implicit. The spirit of the grand landscape tradition informs his style. This fact has made him an uncompromising worshipper of the sun. The solar orb tints his paintings in a multitude of moods: muted through mountain mists, soft and cool gently vivifying at dawn, blazing and relentless at noon and iridescent like a shower of grace at the crepuscular hour.

In my opinion his best works are those which have been rendered rapidly in oils, with paint applied fast and thick. As a result, they have a spontaneity which is free of the rather weighty contemplations that characterize his more thought out works. This technique which he employs with quick slashes of the palette knife, has infused these paintings with an air of proximity and vitality that is almost as uplifting as the natural setting which inspired them. The scenes are recorded initially in charcoal on paper or photographed, to be developed subsequently into fully fledged oeuvres on canvass.

Some of these have subtle yet clearly demarcated volumes which lend a certain architectonic wholesomeness to the scene. The result is a palpable atmosphere of distinctive "place," which they exude. "Beginning with the dawn," "English Cottage," and "Portree Estate" are noteworthy in this regard. In fact, English Cottage has a certain Wordsworthian lyricism evocative of a field of blossoms rippling in the morning breeze. Despite this title, one cannot get away from a nagging sense of deja vu when studying the work closely: just a while ago, for one fleeting moment, I would have sworn that the tree in the scene above was the Bo Tree in the village temple, newly adorned with young leaves for the coming year.

"Beginning with the dawn", a delightful composition that contrasts warm, and cool shades, is a fitting prologue for the entire collection. The comforting gold of the mountain path is set off against the chilly mist-muted green and lavender blue backdrop of the distant hills. The colour complementarily here is startling. Truly an excellent piece of work.

In "Blue Mountains", one of his more recent works, Mel Assauw experiments with the effect of total light on the landscape. Chiaroscuro is done away with altogether. The palette begins to shimmer in a haze simulating the effect of a pre-mirage heatwave, with figurative representation permutating almost to the point of abstraction. This is an interesting stylistic development as it could very well have a bearing on the artist's future work; at present he seems poised to venture into an area of experimentation, where form could well be subservient, to mood suggested by colour and tonal nuances.

In the light of this new development, " Flowing River" appears to be the apotheosis of formal representations as the vehicle of mood, in his work. Fraught with mystical overtones of an exclusively East Asian nature, the artist has with rapid brushwork conjured up a stark and windswept Himalayan landscape, redolent with the majesty of a meditative Shiva. The frothy rill cascading down the rocky incline - we might be gazing upon the source of the mythical Ganges itself - is pristinely virginal, with the promise of fertility that finds fulfilment in sunlit valleys thousands of feet below.

Melvile Assauw is the quintessential landscape artist. However, his poignant study of "The Fisherman" shows us a different aspect to his artistry; an ability to turn his hand to portraiture with equal facility if he so desires. His old fisherman's benumbed features reflect a quiet despair born of resignation, reminiscent of a hangman detachedly dealing death. It is a tribute to his versatility then, that we find it difficult to reconcile the pathos in this picture with the light-hearted vibrancy in his landscapes.

This unusual depiction of sublime heights and despairing depths notwithstanding, Mel Assauw, existentially, is very much a denizen of the midland plains. An inner sense of wellbeing pervades his work. Even in "Honeywood," a vast and drowsy vale reposing under an overcast sky, the sun is bearly contained!

In these troubled times, when it would have been considered fashionable to even feign sensitivity to the prevailing social traumas, Melville Assauw should be commended for resurrecting a genre that in recent years, has been all but relegated to the limbo of post - independence irrelevancies. Art provides balm for the troubled soul - Mel's art cures, not through catharsis but through remembrance.

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