This photograph is a silver gelatin print on paper by Lionel Wendt, produced in Sri Lanka between 1933 and 1938. It depicts a mask, cropped closely within the frame, overlaid with a stylised pattern of bamboo leaves. While Wendt began photographing with a small Rolleiflex in the early 1930s, it is likely that this image was produced with a Leica, his preferred camera. It is one of fourteen photographs by Wendt in Tate’s collection (Tate P80193–P80213).
Lionel Wendt was born in 1900 in Colombo, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) to a prominent family of Dutch and Sinhalese origin. His early life was defined by his talent for music. When he left Colombo for London in 1919 to study law at the Inner Temple (Wendt’s father, Henry Lorenz Wendt, was a Supreme Court judge and member of Sri Lanka’s parliament), he took the opportunity to train as a concert pianist, studying with Oscar Beringer at the Royal Academy of Music in London and later with Mark Hambourg.
During his time in Europe Wendt encountered modernism in music, visual art and literature, a discovery that was to impact upon the photographic production he started in earnest in the early 1930s. He kept abreast of developments across Europe and America following his return to Colombo in 1924 and amassed a large collection of the latest photographic technology. He also subscribed to a number of international journals, such as Photograms, Photographie and U.S. Camera, which he invited his contemporaries to make use of at his photo studio, Chitrafoto. Wendt maintained a close friendship with the Nobel Prize winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and acquired the latest literature for him from England during Neruda’s time stationed as Chilean Consul in Colombo between 1929 and 1930.
Wendt’s approach to photography was considered and based on extensive research. Many of the works in the Tate collection – such as [title not known] (Tate P80198), which depicts a natural object in a glass vase set against a backdrop of an ominous sky – show an engagement with modernist movements such as surrealism. Having been exposed to the work of Man Ray Wendt experimented widely with techniques including photomontage and solarisation, and the figure in [title not known] (Tate P80196) – cropped at the neck and implicitly sexual – shows an awareness of the American photographer’s treatment of the female body. Wendt also titled a self-produced retrospective of his work held in Colombo in 1940 Camera-Work, an act that historian Manel Fonseka has seen as a debt to the American journal of the same name and its editor, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. (Manel Fonseka, ‘Lionel Wendt and Sri Lankan Modernism’, in Fukuoka Asian Art Museum 2003, p.13.)
As an artist and art educator Wendt played an important role in the development of Sri Lankan modernism, organising exhibitions and writing extensively for the benefit of artists and the public as well as acting as patron to a number of painters. He co-founded the Photographic Society of Ceylon in July 1935 and 43 Group in August 1943, a collective that sought to reaffirm the value of traditional Sri Lankan culture in the face of colonialism and state-sponsored academism. As artist and citizen Wendt had a strong sense of national identity and a broad knowledge of the culture and traditions of his native Sri Lanka: an understanding indicated by his central role in the production of the award-winning documentary Song of Ceylon in 1934, at the request of British filmmaker Basil Wright. Instead of simply reproducing modernist conventions in his photographic work, Wendt used what he had gained in Europe to convey the richness of Sri Lankan life and traditions. Many of his photographs depict local models and local scenes – from a traditional mask to examples of contemporary dress – reaffirming his role as a pioneer in the region.
Eugène Prager (ed.), Lionel Wendt’s Ceylon, London 1950.
The Gaze of Modernity: Photographs by Lionel Wendt, exhibition catalogue, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Fukuoka City 2003.