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George Keyt

Sri Lankan Modern Artist

Born 1901, Sri Lanka

Died 1993, Sri Lanka

Lived and worked in Sri Lanka

George Keyt was a Sri Lankan painter known for his predominantly Cubist style. A contemporary of Henri Matisse, Keyt was heavily influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism which was evident in his diverse subject matter. He exhibited widely all over the world during his lifetime including various venues in India.

Education

Self-taught artist

Studied at Trinity College, London

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LIFE AND WORK

UNDERSTANDING George Keyt

Hinduism and Sri Krishna

Along with a preoccupation with Buddhist subjects, Keyt was also drawn towards characters from Hindu mythology. His interest in the characters from the Hindu epics, gods and goddesses and other legends was informed by his frequent trips and stay in India. The pantheon of Hindu characters gave him a versatile edge with his subject matter, along with his other religious preoccupation with Buddhism.

Sri Krishna is a frequent subject in his paintings and drawings. The blue-hued god is mostly portrayed while romancing his lover Radha, with gopis, her friends, in the background. The most iconic projection of couples from the Hindu epics is given a tender and lively treatment, with both his cubist fractions as well as his black and white drawings. Krishna and the gopis, 1961, is the titular painting portraying the figure of Krishna in blue and black, while the others gopis surround him, in an obvious scene of music and revelry.

George Keyt, Krishna and the gopis, 1961, oil on canvas, 42.3 x 39.4”

Techniques/ visual idiom

George Keyt's works show a diversity of influences, from Western modernist movements like Cubism and Fauvism to cave paintings and frescoes from Ajanta in India and Sigiriya in Sri Lanka. The Cubist tendency to break down a linear image and re-form them as abstracted forms, with stark multiple lines and curves cutting through the image became a visual trope for Keyt. This form was assimilated with the style and technique of frescoes found in the caves of Ajanta and Sigiriya. The distinct visual idiom of the frescoes depicting religious characters, dancers, scenes of groups of courtly people became a part of his visual lexicon.

This created a trans-cultural visual rubric with the depiction of local and mythological characters and its iconography combined with styles and techniques of Western painting as well as local cave painting methods and styles. Offering, 1970, dissects the figures in a cubist fashion, the wholeness disintegrating to create multiple perspectives. The anatomical features of the figure, costumes and the background are given a similar treatment.

George Keyt, Offering, 1970, oil on canvas, 67 x 70 cm

Mural painting and Buddhist revivalism

Continuing this trajectory of his fascination with the large scale cave paintings, Keyt undertook an ambitious project to paint the murals at the Gotami Vihara in Colombo. Unlike the actual walls of caves which were hard to prepare for painting on them, the Vihara walls were made specifically to be painted on. Without any sketches, Keyt made outlines with burnt sienna and later added colours to them.

This project entailed scenes from the life of Buddha, right from his conception to the passing away. The scenes are in continuous narration, with one sequence leading up to another. This project also elaborated Keyt’s interest in a revivalism in Buddhist art with the depiction of its mythology and Jatakas and his interests in the tradition of temple painters. His frequent trips to India, his readings of Buddhist writings and the influence of local traditions informed his Buddhist subjects in his paintings.

 

A mural painting by George Keyt at the Gotami Vihara, Colombo