By A. B. Perera
The really important and richly significant feature about Richard Gabriel is not that he is the last of the ’43 Group – he was the last of the original group of ten depicted in Aubrey Collette’s cartoon the ’43 Fresco. They were Lionel Wendt, Geoff Beling, Harry Pieris, Richard Gabriel, Ivan Peries, George Keyt, George Classen, Aubrey Collette, Justin Daraniyagala and Rev. L.T.P.Manjusri.
They were uniquely and diversely talented artists who met socially and more importantly to exhibit their work without any professional jealousy. They were equally generous in inviting other artists of distinction to be members of this Group and some of these artists are still alive. Neville Weeraratne has written substantially and authoritatively about the '43 Group in his book A Chronical Of Fifty Years In The Art Life Of Sri Lanka, published in 1993. He too is an invited member of the '43 Group and his wife Sybil Keyt as well.
What is truly noteworthy about Richard Gabriel is that he is a deeply religious, Christian artist. His art is most easily accessible at St. Theresa's Church in Thimbirigasyaya, where the several congregations that attend services.
They are enveloped in and plunged into an atmosphere of fervent Christian devotion of Richard's creation. Another church blessed by Richard's paintings is that of his home parish at Pannipitiya – The Church of Christ The King. The Jesuit Fathers' chapel at Clifford Place has a statue of Christ, there are religious woodcuts at the National Seminary Ampitiya and many religious paintings in private collections like those of The Holy Family at the home of Professor and Mrs. Ashley Halpé.
The iconography, symbolism, colours and forms of Richard's paintings depict the deeply Catholic and at the same time yet truly Sri Lankan aspect. These are two powerful aspects of Richard Gabriel's art. In the painting of The Holy Family the Sri Lankan Christian symbolism is seen in Mother Mary, St. Joseph and the baby Christ, as humble Sri Lankan rural folk dressed in saree, sarong and shirt seated on a rattan woven chair. Richard's biblical knowledge comes across significantly in Mother Mary's foot trampling the serpent's head while St. Joseph is seen trampling the tail. The colours forms and texture in this painting are truly rural Sinhala. Incidentally, I've learnt that Ashley Halpé too was invited by Harry Pieris to join this '43 Group in 1952 and has exhibited three of his paintings at the exhibition at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington that year even before he entered the University of Ceylon.
Richard's self-effacing humility also stems from his deeply convinced belief in the Catholic Faith. I have heard that many artists who visited him and his wife Sita Kulasekera (also a '43 Group artist) at their home had a warm welcome and encouragement. A true humble giant of Christian art.
Richard Gabriel was not only prolific in his art with his total commitment to it but was also very versatile in that his creations were in oil on canvas, pastels, wood carvings and engravings on copper. He has produced a masterpiece of a book of etchings – "The Cross" limited to 33 copies symbolising the 33 years of the life of Jesus Christ. His had probably a versatility that no other artist of the original '43 Group or later invited members, were gifted with.
This Sri Lankan extraordinary artist has also put Sri Lanka in a most prominentposition in the world of art not only through his numerous exhibitions in famous art centres of the world but also through his contribution to permanent collections such as his painting "Fighting Bulls" at the Petit Palais as well as by winning many accolades at famous art Biennales of the world.
Richard Gabriel's art is an outstanding legacy of Sri Lankan Christian art that we can proudly treasure!