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Justin Deraniyagala:

Never at war with life



Justin Deraniyagala

Most people see only ugliness in suffering. They are repelled at the spectacle of pain. But few people are raised to the heights of religious and aesthetic exaltation at the experience of misery. They find lips of the spirit with which to feed upon the substance of sorrow and to transform it into beauty. Such a man was Justin Pieris Deraniyagala the painter.

Justin Deraniyagala was a rare phenomenon - an artist who was never at war with his life. His days were spent intranquillity. His even temper enabled him to a life of undisturbed calm. If we want to find drama in Deraniyagala we must look at his paintings rather than his life. He regarded and recorded the sufferings of humanity, like a spectator who watches a shipwreck from a sheltered vantage point upon the shore. Deraniyagala was one of the most objective of painters.

Education


A painting by Justin Deraniyagala

As the son of the late Sir Paul E. Pieris Deraniyagala was born in Colombo on 20 July 1903. He had his early education at S. Thomas's College, Mount Lavinia. His first art training started at 'Atellier' Art School under Mudaliyar A.C.G.S. Amarasekera and with Bergen at Training College and also C.F. Winzer. In 1921 he left for England entered Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1924 he obtained B. A. degree in Law and Bantam Weight Boxing Blue. Thereafter, he entered the Slade School of Fine, Arts, London. He obtained the first prize for drawing in 1928.

After many years in London and Paris studying and working with the best of European painters he came under the influence of great modern masters such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Georges Braque. His notes drawings and sketches on canvases are considered among the great in contemporary paintings. His paintings have attracted, fascinated attention of many art lovers not only in Sri Lanka but in Western Europe.

In 1935 after returning to Sri Lanka he worked in the British Museum on Ceylon antiquities and with Malinowski. With many more international exhibitions behind him he was elected vice president, Ceylon National Committee of International Association of Art.

Deraniyagala's subject matter has always been the human figure, usually female. His themes are largely universal ones. His paintings are all human, all - too human and that is why to this day they are able to arouse so sympathetic a response within us. We recognise them at once as our friends. For their thoughts are our thoughts, their feelings are our feelings, and their hopes are our hopes. They represent the aspirations, the struggles the dreams, the achievements, the disappointments, the sufferings and above all faith and courage of mankind. Deraniyagala continued to paint his cynical pictures of human character with endless feelings. His subject matter was not beauty as such, but the human figure, especially women `the girl with gold fish', 'the Bride', Girl with mirror' done often using dark muddy murky tones on canvases. One of the famous portraits painted by a Sri Lankan artist, is `The Blue Nude' and another painting done in the 1920s was of Josephine Baker, the American born French entertainer and singer.

He won the UNESCO awards at the 28th Venice Biennial the world's biggest exhibition of contemporary art for his painting titled. `The Fisherman'. One of his paintings is reproduced by the UNESCO as a colour print.

In 1943 with some of his friends he formed the 43 group. He sent his work to London in 1952 through 43 group. Justin Deraniyagala was one of the seven Sri Lankan painters of the 43 group whose work was hung at Venice. The credit for putting Sri Lanka on the world's artist map goes mainly to the 43 group.

Justin Deraniyagala was one of the few Sri Lankan painters to be popular in the West very early in his life. John Berger, an art critic of the New Stateman and Nation thinks of Deraniyagala as a philosopher painter. Maurice Collins art critic once wrote the introduction to a Deraniyagala exhibition at the Beamx Art Gallery. London as I venture to assert that there is no expressionist painter in England today who is equal in craftsmanship or whose mood is so bold and various. He has humour, tenderness, gaiety and strong feeling. His painting has great quality. His handling is continually that of a master. A magisterial personality emerges from his canvases".

Throughout his life he remained a bachelor. During his later years with his increasing ill-health worked at Nugadola, his village home in Pasyala. The hundred of sketches and drawings including water-colour paintings never left his studio in his lifetime, but came to light only after the artist's death. His paintings had all the colour, vigour, and power they are always noted for.

He died at the age of 64, on May 24, 1967 at Nugedola, Pasyala after a lifetime of dedication to his art.

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