Understanding a Master misunderstood at home, recognized in the West

Book facts: JUSTIN DARANIYAGALA [1902 – 1967] : Oil Paintings [Portrait format, 275mm x 350mm; 218 pages containing 66 full-page colour plates and numerous other illustrations in colour and in black & white. Bound in hard cover. Rs. 16,000. Published by Arjun Deraniyagala; printed by Jak Printers Pvt Ltd, Mumbai. Sponsored by John Keells Holdings PLC.] Reviewed by Neville Weereratne

It is now just short of half a century since Justin Daraniyagala died, in 1967. Sufficient time, indeed, to let his work mature in the minds and hearts of those who care to look at his paintings. There is not a great deal of it, his method of working being at once vigorous and impatient yet such that it carried Daraniyagala into the realms of mysticism as he contemplated each subject, adding to it or revising an observation made earlier, during a sometimes prolonged period of gestation.

This excellent publication, called simply ‘JUSTIN DARANIYAGALA. OIL PAINTINGS’ has been a long time coming but now it brings this man’s fabulous work within reach of us all. It is an essential tribute to one of this country’s most brilliant citizens but it is a recognition within Sri Lanka that could very well have gone by default.

Blind Mother and Child

(It should be understood, incidentally, that Justin Daraniyagala spelt his name with an ‘a’ in the first syllable, differing with the rest of his family on the grounds that it was more phonetically accurate.)

The circumstance of this production is very much part of the history of Daraniyagala who was reviled and rejected at exhibitions in Colombo. The establishment would have none of him and when he eventually appeared with the ’43 Group, was yet dismissed with such epithets as ‘revolting’ and ‘nauseating’ and ‘repulsive’.

The irony was that Daraniyagala had to wait for his work to be seen in the West where he was acknowledged as “one of the important revelations of our time” and therefore accorded, grudgingly, a place within the hierarchy of art in Sri Lanka.

Just as much as the discovery of Justin Daraniyagala had to await the assessment of European critics, it is the pleasing outcome of various associations that the principal text of this book is by an Indian journalist and painter. Shervanaz Colah’s research into her subject is exhaustive and articulate. It is scholarly in the manner in which she places Daraniyagala’s achievement within the context of a culture that relied upon Western approval before his excellence was recognised.

I make no apology for my own enjoyment of Justin Daraniyagala’s work. He answers for me the many questions and paradoxes that a work of art inevitably presents.

There appears to be some confusion as to the value of art in any society. What does it represent? What does it do for its people? Should it be made up of recognisable images from the landscape of the country? Should it not reflect the stature and physical attributes of its people? What about history?
The simple answer, I think, is that art is the conscience of its people. It reflects attitudes of mind, of heart, of understanding.

It aspires to appreciate the human condition within the circumstances in which it finds itself. Art bestows dignity upon the society that was able to give rise to it.Art criticism as an academic exercise imposes labels by which to recognise one mannerism or another. In his time, Daraniyagala was described as an Expressionist and it is as such that he was introduced by Maurice Collis in the catalogue to the exhibition devoted to his work at the Beaux Arts Gallery in London in 1954.
“Of the several main styles now current in the world of art, Mr. Daraniyagala has found Expressionism most suitable for his purpose. He manipulates its possibilities with grace and power. I venture to assert that there is no Expressionist painter in England today who is equal in craftsmanship and whose mood is so bold and various. He has humour, tenderness, gaiety and strong feeling, he is human and fantastic, simple and extravagant. His colour is clean, his textures rich, his impastos vivacious -- in short, his paint has great quality. His handling is continually that of a master. A magisterial personality emerges from his canvases”.

Girl with Goldfish

It calls for a certain humility to concede such an outcome. Thus, the French writer, George Besson was able to exclaim in 1953: “This realist painter, this man of vision from Ceylon with his extraordinary chromatic range of colour, this Daraniyagala whose name we should always remember, will be known from now on as one of the important revelations of our time.” Writing in Les Lettres Francaises, Besson said they were “like fragments of a huge, monumental composition of extraordinary lyricism, bursting with life and bearing a very special kind of formal lyricism.”

By contrast, the stupefaction shown by commentators in Colombo was the response of those who had not taken the trouble to understand what they were required to consider. As Ellen Dissanayake was to remark, they took what Daraniyagala meant to be a joke as a serious statement and what he intended as truly profound to be frivolous.

There was, in fact, a lack of education and therefore, humility among a profession whose business it should have been to assess the success of a piece of work on an appreciation of its deeper, wider reality. It should have begun with asking, as I have suggested, with a fundamental consideration: What is a work of art? Daraniyagala himself attempted to answer that question in a paper prepared by him and discovered after his death.

He said: “Man, ever since he began consciously to consider his position, has always realised that his mind, the instrument he has been at such pains to develop and refine throughout the ages, can only deal with objective facts. He has realised that as far as he is concerned, the objective world does not constitute all there is. Beyond the objective world there is yet that other world of which we are conscious through instinct and intuition, an intangible world yet one which exists and plays its part as definitely as the other in the destiny of every human being. The development and cultivation of these aspects of the world, accessible only to instinct and intuition, has always been and still is the purpose of art.”

The problem facing a viewer looking at the work of an artist whose concerns go beyond the external semblance of natural objects is his own capacity to recognise the inner value of things. That is why a painting like Blind Mother and Child, which I think is a perfect masterpiece, would seem obscure if the viewer did not have the humility to accept the condition the artist recognises as true and ever present in this relationship.

In this instance, the viewer has to concede that a blind mother has no access to her child except through the tactile knowledge she gains from touching it. This requires an enormously amplified feeling for the mother’s incapacity to communicate except through touch. Her entire being is suffused with the problem and just as much as the mother’s condition is enlarged to emphasise her predicament, the child’s acceptance of that condition puts these protagonists in perfect relationship with one another. This is what the viewer needs to appreciate.

Daraniyagala was a highly skilled draughtsman and had the technique with which to bend his material to his needs. If that resulted in distortion then Daraniyagala has shown at every turn a masterly knowledge of his material and his capacity to manipulate it to gain his purpose. The result is that the artist communicates his experience without ambiguity but it also demands that the viewer makes the effort to participate in that experience with humility.

This concern of the artist brings forth yet another dimension to the perspective we are called upon to understand and appreciate. He is not satisfied with a simple, anecdotal knowledge of his subject. His exploration takes him into philosophical considerations intended to accommodate body and soul in their unique situation, elevating the experience above the mundane.

Justin Daraniyagala’s nephew, the late Ranil Deraniyagala (to whom this publication is dedicated), made a careful study of the work. It is reproduced in this book and provides valuable insights into the painting, the styles and mannerisms that Daraniyagala employed. He attempts to create a formal niche for him. He describes as one of Daraniyagala’s most brilliant achievements, Girl with Goldfish: “The emotional climate of this marvellous picture is so rarefied that in front of it one breathes differently, as at high altitudes. The paint-film is paper thin. Yet it manages to accommodate the most incredibly varied brushwork, and the apparent effortlessness in execution is, in no small measure, responsible for the exhilaration we feel. In this picture, an object lesson in painting, the choicest colours of Daraniyagala’s palette combine to form a pictorial complex where forms cling to one another by the profoundest necessity. It is a painting not so much of the things it depicts as of their essences, so to speak, in their own radiance.”

If I may pause here to comment on the quality of the colour printing obtained in this publication: the paintings are reproduced with due care and, as far as I can recall, as accurately as the art of printing can achieve. Not being able to compare them with the originals is an obvious disadvantage but while admiring the reproductions, we need also to take into account what changes take place when colour is condensed, as it has to be, when the reproduction is reduced in size to a mere fraction of the original.
We could also pause here to recall Daraniyagala’s antecedents. Born in 1902, he proved himself to be an athlete at S. Thomas’ College. His life in art began (with that of Harry Pieris, alone of the ’43 Group) at the Atelier School of the Mudaliyar A. C. G. S. Amerasekera in Colombo. After studies in law at Trinity College, Cambridge -- where he won the bantam weight boxing blue -- he joined the Slade School of Art in 1924 to study under Augustus John and later at the Academie Julien in Paris. He was a friend of the poets Auden and Yeats, and of Paul Claudel. He was a student of anthropology with Prof. Malinowski, and of various esoteric subjects such as black magic and demonology, and Sinhala ritual masks. He was also a gemmologist with a particular interest in jade. The width of his interests was quite staggering.

Justin Daraniyagala never missed a meeting of the ’43 Group which took place in the lounge of Harry Pieris’s home in Barnes Place. These were rich events when he would arrive in a pair of white trousers held in place with an old tie. He was extremely thin and slight of build. Since he retired to live in the comfort of the family residence in Nugedola, Pasyala in 1942, his visits to Colombo were rare and far between but it was in those years of seclusion that Daraniyagala gave himself over to explore his particular world of reality, drawing and painting with unswerving purpose.

There were two aspects of this engagement. His drawings of the people of his village are gentle, sympathetic and affectionate. Their physical presence is expressed with an assured, uncritical line and a swift spontaneity. When he considers their psychological and spiritual condition, however, he finds himself confronted by an enormous responsibility which cannot be dismissed lightly. Hence his continual search below the surface of things. Hence the distortions and the exaggerations he uses as a means of revealing what lies beyond the superficial appearance.

Daraniyagala was sensitive to the different circumstances in which he found his world. He did not take it for granted. Each situation had its place, its value, its contribution to make towards the whole. This is very much the method of his compositions. Each element relates to its neighbour, even if that relationship is fraught with anxiety and fear. It is a view of human life conditioned by the elements, by beliefs, and by aspirations. Naturally, this kind of approach required constant revision and development. The paintings were never quite finished, and being of independent means, never needed a sale.

For those who possess them, they are incalculably valuable – and a few are, indeed, found in private collections. Members of the Deraniyagala family are to inherit what remains of the collection but I would make bold as to say that these must, eventually, be made accessible to the people as the national treasures they are and maintained with due regard to the vulnerable nature of their materials.

Daraniyagala was an enthusiastic member of the ’43 Group. He was not at all involved in its formation under the patronage of Lionel Wendt but readily joined when Harry Pieris invited him to do so. There was not much he could do living as he did in the remoteness of Pasyala but he was always seen at previews of the Group’s exhibitions and at its meetings in Harry Pieris’s lounge. At these he held forth vigorously, unapologetically, making assertions on any number of topics as they came up. It was here the pugilist in him showed up when he threatened to “knock the Spaniard (Picasso) off the walls”! He believed very much in the genius of its members and so enjoyed associating with them. In fact, he was ceaseless in what moral support he was able to offer it.

Without doubt, Justin Daraniyagala was one of the principal members of the ’43 Group. So was George Keyt but there was really no diminishing order in which to place members of the Group: Geoffrey Beling, George Claessen, Aubrey Collette, Ivan Peries, Harry Pieris, Richard Gabriel and Manjusri Thero while he remained with it, all had their places designated for them alphabetically.

This book is an attempt to paint a picture of an incredibly boundless subject and of a highly skilled draughtsman, one who was to win acclaim in the high company of distinguished masters of his time among whom were Matisse and Picasso.

At the 1932 exhibition of his work shown at the Adams Gallery in London, the distinguished critic, Eric Newton, said: “Justin Peiris (Daraniyagala) though his transcriptions of nature are based on visible fact and not on visual idea, speaks rightly the same sophisticated language as Mr. (Graham) Sutherland. It is a language of a man who had theorised a good deal about how to do it but cares less about what he does. His drawings at the Adams Gallery owe, as one would guess, a good deal to the study of Matisse. Mr. Peiris has learned just how much can be done with a pen line and trained his hand (rather than his eye) to make that line flow easily but energetically over the paper’s surface. His drawing of Sinhalese girls has a kind of casual eloquence, like a woman’s studied negligee. They are by no means pastiches in the manner of Matisse. Mr. Peiris’s line has its own characteristic: it is rapid and urgent, it has more sinew and less elegance than Matisses’s.”

These are extraordinary skills given only to a chosen few. If you would stop to admire the line he conjures in his drawing, you would appreciate Daraniyagala’s engagement with oil paint on canvas. They belong to one another. The brushstroke is no less elegant than the line, the choice of colour illuminating each in a magnificent glow.

We now have, in this splendid volume, a great, sweeping view of Justin Daraniyagala’s work at the easel.

There is a promise of a second volume devoted to Daraniyagala’s drawings and water-colours. This will be awaited with eagerness and it will, surely, augment this monumental undertaking. The book which was launched on June 25 at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel is available at Barefoot and other leading bookstores.

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