Searching for Ivan | Sunday Observer

Searching for Ivan

3 September, 2023

The 23 Ivan Peries paintings exhibited at Gallery FourLife in June, as part of a retrospective on the man, constitute a general outline of one of Sri Lanka’s greatest if underrated modern artists. I use the word “modern” with some hesitation, because it is prone to much misuse, especially in relation to art and the social sciences. Yet there is something distinctly modern or modernist about Peries.

In his script for Tissa Liyanasuriya’s documentary, the late Tissa Devendra described George Keyt as both revolutionary and reactionary: “revolutionary in his consistent struggle for artistic expression, reactionary in his deep homage to the creative vitality of the great and ancient Hindu and Buddhist tradition.” Peries belongs to a different league, as Qadri Ismail once pointed out in an essay.

The critique that is most frequently hurled at the 43 Group, of which Peries was not a mere member but very much a guiding, one could say searching, light, is that it did not properly respond to the needs of a country and a society that had gone beyond the colonial moment. Deeply critical of colonialism’s impact and imprint on Ceylon, the 43 Group nevertheless remained circumscribed by the Westernised and Anglicised milieu from which most of its members hailed.

This criticism has been invoked, and levelled, by Ian Goonetileke, but also by Tissa Abeysekera and of course Qadri Ismail. Ismail’s critique is quite instructive: while introducing modernist painting to Sri Lanka in the face of conservative opposition, he notes, “the group’s staging of Sri Lanka in its artistic production… was profoundly complicitous with both orientalism and Sinhala nationalism.” Peries’s achievement, the way I see it, is that he is one of the few members at whom this charge cannot be levelled.

Unique approach

For Ivan Peries, to invoke Senake Bandaranayake, is a painter not of fact but of feeling. In his best works – and there were a number of them at the exhibition – the painting merely becomes a means of expression. In this Peries may have been closer to the sittara artists of Sri Lanka’s ancient Buddhist temples, who painted not what they saw but what they felt: not actual representations, but idealised forms.

Yet Peries does not intrude on abstract art the way Claessen does. Nor does he intrude on the sort of esotericism bordering on religious fervour that Gabriel does. Simply put, he stands out because he is not formulaic like the later Keyt, or difficult like Däraniyagala. He is unique because he is different. His paintings are fixed in time but also out of time. They are time-bound and timeless. They are also humane: even the most perplexing of them tell us about the human condition.

Most of the paintings on display at Gallery FourLife fall into the last phase of his career, the late 1970s and 1980s. These are the standing and sitting men whose idiosyncratic postures have come to epitomise him today. Indeed, it is these figures and shapes that come to one’s mind when talking of the painter. These are compounded by the leaning tree series, as far away and far apart from his early work – including his Homage to El Greco (1939), also on display here – as they can be. These later works must be located in their context. Ever the mercurial man – something that can be said of most of the 43 Group – Peries had fallen into hard times in the 1960s, financially and socially. By the 1980s these worries had petered out, and in his last few years he had become more productive, producing “a substantive number of pictures”, as Senake Bandaranayake puts it.

Peries’s signature is not his use of elongated figures and postures. Though they epitomise his later work, they do not define him. Rather, it is a dualism – sometimes separated, often compounded – between a certain delicateness of style on the one hand and an intense use of colour, texture, and brushstroke on the other, which he grapples with for the better part of his career and even life. Without overtly psychoanalysing this dichotomy, one can validly argue that it represents two contradictory aspects to the painter’s personality, the one more impressionist and the other more expressionist. One can contend this dualism is reflected in his life, and for the better part of it, it was. Peries is the closest to a van Gogh Sri Lanka has ever produced. In him we notice the same tortured personality, the same striving towards an austerity of style, a fidelity to lived experience.

Painter’s perspective

This striving is, I feel, a conscious undertaking on the painter’s part, and it shows clearly in the standing and sitting man series, all painted in 1982. On the face of it, there is next to nothing that distinguishes one from the others. They all show an unnamed person looking sideways, sometimes at a seated person. The painter’s perspective is not from his back but from his side. His arm is hanging, perhaps caught in moment of thought and reflection. This contemplation underlies whatever action there is in these paintings, which is another way of saying there is hardly any action at all. To paraphrase a remark often attributed to George Keyt – “Justin [Däraniyagala] paints women; I paint woman” – I suppose one could say Keyt and Däraniyagala painted people, while Peries painted forms. The highlight of the series comes from an earlier time: Standing Man on the Shore (1971), where we discern an intermingling of two motifs, the elongated figure and the austere landscape.

These paintings may be impressionistic and abstract, but they are also inscrutably personal. Tobacco Box (1976) gives us a glimpse into the artist’s habits, patterns, and routines, his afflictions and addictions. This is not really the still object of Braque and Derain; it is very much part of the artist’s existence, his suffering. There are, in that sense, traces of humanity in many of these works, as in his reimagining of the Easter Sunday Raid (1942-43). In here, the men and women are caught between two worlds, of fear and devotion: fear of the raid, and devotion to religious service. Caught adrift these worlds, they are at a loss as to what they should do. The planes, resembling insects, draw closer; symbolically, they have divided into three groups, a number having much resonance among Catholics. More pertinently, on a day that celebrates resurrection, they seem to forebode death. This, I think, is Peries at his most religious, though there is nothing explicitly theological in the painting.

Painter of interior monologue

Nothing theological, and nothing political. Yet as Qadri Ismail suggests in his critique of Neville Weereratne’s reflections on the man, Ivan Peries may be the least apolitical of the 43 Group. In this he could have been second only to Aubrey Collette, whose caricatures and cartoons were very much products of the political environment of his time (however elitist and right-wing his own politics may have been).

This does not mean Peries makes political statements. But in his elongated figures, his austere landscapes, and in the solitude and solitariness that is a hallmark of his later work, one notices a refusal to celebrate culturalism, an affirmation of disassociation. It is, as Senake Bandaranayake and Manel Fonseka notes, “a meditation on his native Sri Lankan experience”, an experience quite outside the bounds of, and in start contrast to, the paintings of Keyt, even Däraniyagala. While Keyt gives vent to his feelings about women, Peries does not vent out at all. To extrapolate from Bandaranayake’s assessment, in his later phase he becomes a painter of interior monologue.

Trying to make sense of Peries’s oeuvre, I showed my assistant Pasindu Nimsara some of his paintings, those that had been displayed at the Gallery FourLife retrospective. I then showed him some of Däraniyagala’s paintings, and then some of Keyt’s. Bewildered by the former and perturbed by the latter, he seemed more comfortable with Peries’s work. “The colours,” he observed, “stand out.” As indeed they do, in contrast even to Keyt’s opulent textures and fleshy tones.

At times, he added, it is difficult to spot out what this or that part of a painting represents: what is the house, where is its roof, where are its walls? I think that is ultimately the assessment one makes of Peries: that there is no beginning and no end, no midpoint, in his work. He does not wallow in abstractions, but nor does he indulge in concrete forms. The paintings at this retrospective show that side to him clearly, and distinguish out as one of the great modern painters, not just of Sri Lanka, but also of Asia.