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Lionel Wendt

Sri Lankan Modern Artist
Born 1900, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Died 1944, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Lived and worked in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Lionel Wendt occupies Sri Lanka’s vanguard position of a Modernist whose photography showed great technical rigours and experimentation. He was also instrumental in forming the 43 Group in Sri Lanka, the most formidable Modernist art collective in the island. His subjects range from male bodies to Lankan landscape, instituting different discourses of identity and politics. He was greatly influenced by Surrealism and other avant-garde photography techniques.

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Photographs show a dedicated search for the avant-garde in techniques

When Lionel Wendt went to London for his studies in law to become a barrister, he soaked himself in the art scene in the continent, at a time when tremendous leaps were being made. His avant-garde photographic techniques allude to the western artists trying to initiate themselves in techniques that called for more radical processes and outputs. Techniques like montage, paste-ups, reversals and paper negatives marked Lionel’s photographic processes, a parallel with the darkroom techniques in the West.

His works bear an association with Man Ray, one of the more famed Surrealist artists. Ray’s solarised nudes bear a closeness of techniques with Lionel’s own darkroom experiments to find ways to create solarised images. He later publishes his findings in Leica News and Techniques.  His Miss Miriam Pieris/Portrait in Outline, 1934-36, is an example of the use of solarisation technique in photography for Lionel, reversing the play of light while exposing the negative to bright light during development.

Lionel Wendt, Miss Miriam Pieris/Portrait in Outline, 1934-36, photograph.

Surrealist influences conjure the dream state and reality in his works

Apart from the photographic techniques that interested and seeped into Lionel’s works, Surrealism as a movement influenced much of his experiments with photography in terms of subjects. Surrealism’s agenda of creating visual non sequitur, problematising the boundaries between reality and dream influenced Lionel in creating his own juxtapositions.
In one of Lionel’s photographs, an image of a man holding a canvas and paintbrushes is superimposed onto an image of a landscape, giving the man almost invisible contours and mass. The piece that the man is shown holding seems to be another photograph of a landscape of similar colour and hue, giving the impression of a fluidity of view between the two images through the body of the man. To add to the disjuncture, a tiny, reverse image of the man holding an umbrella is presented like a mirror view in the smaller canvas, while the rest of the landscape where the same figures are situated is not a reflection of the other.

Lionel Wendt’s unknown titled photograph show Surrealist influences.

Male nudes form the subject of Lionel's photographs

Lionel Wendt’s sexuality was an openly confronted topic and much of this is possibly reflected in his male subjects. The subjects of his photographs are usually in a stylised and naturalised poise, accented on their musculature. The photographs show a conscious, and yet a natural invitation for a gaze from the viewer, with a resplendent sexuality.
The photographs like the Male Nude Draping Black Vetti, 1934-38(?), and Sleeping Male Figure in Black Vetti, 1934-35(?), show the male nude in full view, following a trajectory from the classical female nudes of Western art, inversing the subject and gender, and principles of exhibition.

Lionel Wendt, title unknown (Male Nude Draping Black Vetti), date uncertain (1934-38), photograph.

Lionel Wendt, title unknown (Sleeping Male figure in Black Vetti), date uncertain (1934-38), photograph.

The question of his identity as mixed is a constant negotiation in his works

Lionel Wendt belonged to mixed parentage, of Burgher and Sinhalese descent, putting him in a tensed scope of identity politics at that time. His identity as an “outsider” becomes a crucial point as he is constantly trying to negotiate this with an “insider’s” aesthetic and view. His male subjects usually belong to the working class, displaced from their actual realm of work and placed within a studio and then photographed. A lot of emphasis is put on identity markers of these subjects.
He frequently photographs his subjects with props like the fishing net or in clothing like the loin-cloth that working class males would wear for their physically laborious work. At the same time, this can be further said to be through an ethnographer’s lens.

Lionel Wendt, Young Man with Fishingnet, 1938, vintage toned gelatine silverprint, 9.8 x 11.8”.

A resurgence of interest in his works affirms him as a forefather of Sri Lankan modernism

Lionel Wendt’s prolific output in photography spanned just a decade because of his untimely death. But in this short span of time, he experimented, perfected and produced an eclectic body of work from nudes to landscapes; dabbled with various techniques and manoeuvred through questions of personal and cultural identity. After his death, a rather stern executor of his will destroyed a huge amount of his work dwindling his artistic produce.
He went into relative obscurity and only recently has his significance resurfaced. His traits toward seeking revolutionary methods uphold the modernist’s manifesto. He also help found the 43 Group, Sri Lanka’s leading modernist groups. Apart from his short, yet prodigal career as a photographer, he was initially trained as a pianist and barrister.

Aubrey Collette, The 43 Group