Insights into the life and times of Lionel Wendt

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By 2017-10-08

By Ranga Chandrarathne
Ceylon Today Mosaic

In the book Lionel Wendt –Art and Life, the author has meticulously researched on the subject acknowledging the previous contribution on the subject. It has been mentioned that there isn't any single publication either in Sinhalese or in English on the life and times of legendary photographer, Artist and pianist Lionel Wendt except for the Lionel Wendt Theatre and Art Centre which were named after him.

Given the lasting contribution that Lionel Wendt made to many fields including pioneering the '43 Group' of Artist, it is , indeed, pity that publication on Lionel Wendt and his contribution to Arts has not been published until the author's attempt. Hopefully the publication 'Lionel Wendt –Art and Life' by Sampath Banara would fulfill the lacuna in this vital area in the art history of Sri Lanka.
In an article on Lionel Wendt titled 'Lionel Wendt: Recovery and dispersal', Manuel Fonseca observes the seminal contribution that Lionel Wendt made as; My husband had told me how much his own interest in modern art was inspired and influenced during his schooldays by the paintings that used to hang in the foyer of the Wendt theatre. But I had never seen them – or, at least, noticed them. They were part of an impressive collection built up by Lionel Wendt, left to his brother Harry and then to Harold Peiris, who gave it to the Fund.

A passing reference in Neville Weereratne's book (The '43 Group: A Chronicle of Fifty Years in the Art of Sri Lanka, 1993) to the decision in 1963 to sell these paintings, put paid to my article by launching me on a journey to discover the 'lost' collection instead.

Weereratne regrets this loss: 'They made a formidable gallery that would indeed have served well as the nucleus of a national collection.' He would probably be glad to learn that Keyt's Yama and Savitri (1938), one of the finest paintings in the collection, finally found its way home after a long sojourn abroad and was acquired for the Presidential Collection.My search for the Wendt painting collection, however, turned out to be a first step on a very different journey – the recovery or, rather, re-discovery, of Lionel Wendt himself. It opened up a whole new world, taking me to unexpected places and introducing me to people I would have been the poorer for not knowing. Among them were former friends and pupils of Lionel Wendt's, like the pianist Hilda Naidu, who gave me one of my most cherished possessions, a large original print of the famous self-portrait – the one that hangs in the foyer of the Wendt theatre. She also confirmed, quite by accident, in one of our many conversations, my hunch that it was his voice concealed under a pen name behind various satirical writings. Almost everyone I met in this way urged me to write a book about him.

Ian Goonetileke, of course, has revealed something of Wendt's influence on and relationship with George Keyt, related to him over many years of friendship with the painter. Former Wendt Memorial trustee Shelagh Goonewardene wrote about 'Wendt's contribution to art' in her Sunday Times column on theatre in 1980, reproducing it as a chapter in her book This Total Art:

Perceptions of Sri Lankan Theatre, in December 1994.Air Lanka's in-flight magazine, Serendib reprinted Len van Geyzel's introduction to Lionel Wendt's Ceylon in 1989, with several illustrations from the book. Painter and writer Neville Weereratne had a chapter on 'the Wendt contribution' in his book on the '43 Group (1993). Scholar Ellen Dissanayake published an article she had written about ten years earlier – 'Renaissance Man: Lionel Wendt' – in Serendib's issue for July/August 1994. An inferior reprint of Lionel Wendt's Ceylon was produced by an Indian publisher in 1995. A poor substitute for the original edition, it blatantly omits the 1950 publishing data, giving the impression that the first edition was also by the same publisher. I believe that the LWMF was not consulted about this reprint and it is unlikely that copyright permission was obtained, even for Len van Geyzel's introduction.
The turning-point; August 1994

It was not until August 1994 when Lionel Wendt: Photographs, an exhibition at the Lionel Wendt Memorial Gallery, took place, that the spotlight on Wendt unleashed a new wave of interest in his photographic achievement. For 35 years, Sri Lankans had no opportunity to see the work of their most famous photo-artist. Since the exhibition and sale of his photographs at the opening of the Lionel Wendt Memorial Art Gallery in 1959, there seems to have been no public showing of Wendt's work until this exhibition in August 1994. On that memorable occasion, one hundred original prints in excellent condition from the collection of the LWMF were displayed for a week at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery. The exhibition was organized by the Fund and the Deutsche Bank, who also sponsored it and published the catalogue.

It evoked great interest, especially from a younger generation of photographers who had never seen original work by Lionel Wendt. Three hundred copies of the catalogue sold in two days and almost five hundred more before the end of the week. Every photograph from the exhibition was reproduced. My contribution was as a writer to the catalogue where I published descriptions and notes about the photographs along with an essay: 'Rediscovering Lionel Wendt'."

Throughout the article Manuel has acknowledged the sheer difficulty in finding material and possible sources to study on the subject. In this sense, the author Sampath Bandara should be commended for sheer among of in-depth researches that he had conducted on the subject , perhaps, going through almost all the material that are available on the subject. The author has gone into minute details not only of the life of legendary photographer but also of the time and myriad of influences that Lionel Wendt would have come under during his short life as a remarkable personality.



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