Lionel Wendt


after 1934

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Lionel Wendt 1900–1944
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 349 × 203 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the South Asia Acquisitions Committee 2013


This photograph is a vintage print by Sri Lankan photographer Lionel Wendt. It presents a solarised study of the male form, printed in an unusually large format. The figure is cropped at mid-thigh and mid-head, indicating that it is less a portrait than a formal figure study. Wendt produced several series of formal figurative studies, largely male and some female. His interest in Ceylonese dance and music led him to document Kandian dancers as well as scenes of everyday life, and some of the subjects are known to have become regular models. His attitude towards the human form was informed by classical Greco-Roman poses and statuary, the figures selected for their defined musculature and idealised bodies. In photographs set outdoors they are combined with local references, while in more intimate studio images the subjects are in staged and formal poses, often with selected props.

Wendt’s early life was defined by his talent for music. When he left Colombo for London in 1919 to pursue his legal studies 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 the English pianist and composer Oscar Beringer at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and later with Mark Hambourg, the Russian-British concert pianist. 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 in photography 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 titled a self-produced retrospective of his work held in Colombo in 1940 Camera-Work, an act that the historian Manel Fonseka has seen as a tribute to the American journal of the same name and its editor, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) (Manel Fonseka, ‘Lionel Wendt and Sri Lankan Modernism’, in Fukuoka Asian Art Museum 2003, p.13).

Having been exposed to the work of Man Ray (1890–1976), Wendt experimented widely with techniques including photomontage and solarisation, which he had mastered via experimentation in the darkroom as early as 1934. He also experimented with printing techniques, producing texturised and mesh effects. This particular solarised image was developed to allow a visible grain in the surface, evoking the gradation and texture of a graphite drawing. The work is similar in style to Wendt’s female study also in Tate’s collection ([title not known] c.1934–7, Tate P80196). This work too is cropped at the neck and implicitly sexual and both images show an awareness of Man Ray’s treatment of the body.

An artist and art educator, Wendt played an important role in the development of Sri Lankan modernism, organising exhibitions, writing extensively for the benefit of artists and the public and acting as patron to a number of painters. He co-founded the Photographic Society of Ceylon in July 1935 and the 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 1934, at the request of British filmmaker Basil Wright (1907–1987). 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.

Further reading
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, August–October 2003.

Nada Raza and Hannah Dewar
April 2013

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