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The art of Richard Gabriel

For over a period of some 450 years, Sri Lanka was under the influence of several western cultures. Much evidence of that experience still remains. It is to be seen, for instance, in the well-known Roman Catholic Church, the heritage of the Portuguese (1505-1656), An elite group of towns folk known as the Burgers who sprang from Dutch colonial servants who stayed on after their masters left the island.

While the British set up commercial and administrative institutions during their rule they gave birth to an English speaking, and English educated people to work in public office and private firms. This process at work created a new class of intellectuals familiar with the taste and culture and gave rise to a new political consciousness and introduced a notion of painting that serves decidedly secular purpose very different from the decorative art of the Buddhist temples.

Richard Gabriel

Richard Gabriel is a product of the history briefly recounted above.

Payyagala Baduge Richard Mansuetus Don Gabriel was his full name. There was no room left to write this name on his birth certificate. When it is put on, on A4 sheet it fills one line from left to right. He was born a Roman Catholic born on February 19, 1924 in the old Dutch fortress town of Matara. Gabriel's father died in the year he was born. His father had four daughters by an earlier marriage and three sons from a second marriage.

At the age of nine, after Gabriel had studied for a few years at the local conventschool, the family moved to Colombo. Life in Colombo was hard. His mother Cyriline Don Gabriel maintained a frugal household with her meager pension enhanced by small earnings from sewing and lace - making. Richard Gabriel was the youngest of the family. Gabriel attended St. Peter's College, Bambalapitiya. St. Peter's provided Richard Gabriel with a liberal education. That gave him an awareness of Sri Lankan's antiquity and its people, an ancient race dedicated to the teachings of the Buddha.

Meanwhile, war had broken out in Europe. Japanese entered the war in 1941 with the raid of the Pearlharbour. The presence of British military personnel and their camoutflaged vehicles were of course, a visible reminder that there was a war in progress. On the Easter Sunday morning of 1942, the Japanese raided Colombo and many saw the havoe they created. It was Sri Lanka's first real experience of war. Education was interrupted when school buildings were requistioned for use by the British armed services. As a public relation exercise to win public support, the Government Information Department organised an exhibition of paintings in 1943, named The Ceylon Waar Effort Picutres exhibition. Gabriel submitted four paintings in oil which depicted the bombing of Colombo. All four of his paintings won prizes. This prize money was Rs 200, a vast sum in those days. At the age of 19, he became a founder member of the '43 Group. Gabriel was warmly recieved by his Colleagues in the '43 Group. Some of them were his senoris by many years but did not stand in the way. On the whole in Gabriel's words;" members of the Group were my close friends. I doubt there was ever any professional jealously." The '43 Group, of course, welcomed young painters and in more than 20 years of activity, saw several of them take their place in its company. Richard Gabriel was one of the orginal Group fo artists '43 Group as others included Aubrey Collette, George Keyt, Ivan Pieris, Harry Pieris and Jastin Daraniyagala to name a few. Gabriel's life has been characterised by ceaseless endeavour.

From the time Ivan Pieris took him under his care and led him devote himself to art, his work has been constant and consisitent.

Ivan Pieris took Gabreil to Harry Pieris, who was Gabriel's lifelong guide and philosopher. Traned in art first under Ivan Pieris, one of Sri Lanka's most gifted artists and winner of the Western art scholarship and later under Harry Pieris, another of Sri Lanka's talented painters, Gabriel reflects their influence in his orginal creative work, but his work remains true to his own vision. He finds interest in all types of work - figure composition, landscape, portraiture, and differnt media.

Richard Gabriel married Sita Kulasekera in 1951 and pursued their single - minded interest in painting. In 1952, the British Council offered Gabriel a scholarship to study in the United Kigndom and together with his newly married wife he sailed for London. He enrolled at the Chelsea School of Art where he had his experince of drawing from the nude in formal drawing sessions. Later he continued his studies with Peterde Francia from whom he learnt the essentials of prepasing canvas for wall paintings. Gabriel had his first murals done at St. Theresa's Church, Thimbirigayayay. Gabriel is highly skilled. The texttures he achieves in his canvases have a vitality that comes from a profound appreciation of th enature of clolur. Not for Gabriel the obvious spectrum taken directly, from the paint box but one that is built upon layers upon layers, because eventally, colur is a compisite of every hue of the rainbow.

The vigour with which Gabriel paints comes from the enjoyment of his own skills. Gabriel had early experimented with linocuts and wood cuts, an dlter graduted to etchings in 1967.

The immediate result was a book of etchings produced in 1975 called 'the cross' and dedicated it to death, 'God's gift to us all.'

The invitation to paint murals at St. Theresa's Church was, of course, a God-sent. It was a rare opportunity. Other commissions have incluced work done for the Jesuit Chapel in Bambalapitiya, for the National Seminary at Ampitiya, Kandy. 'The last supper' at St. Aloysius' seminary in Borella in 1967. Many generations of young seminarians were introduced to the world of art and their own inborn talents wer encouraged and nurtured and made to grwo by Richard Gabriel the genius. His religious background explains many facets of his work other than the murals.

His enormous output at the easel, his powerful work as a sculptor in wood, as a muralist, and now a print maker were evidence enough of a lively mind.

 

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