Artist within Cartoonist
By Chandana Ranaweera
One of the pioneering members of the ’43 Group, Aubrey Collette was an eminent cartoonist whose subjects were politicians and other public figures. His keen observation skills, remarkable ability to summarise events, qualities or features of a person, symbolism, and his unique style as a caricature artist made him popular among the newspaper crowd who looked forward to Collette’s next cartoon.
His portfolio is filled with cartoons, sketches, and caricatures he had done, making him a through-and-through cartoonist in the eyes of many art enthusiasts but little do many know that Collette perfectly knew his way around the brush and the canvas.
Collette was born on 5 September 1920 to a photographer father. He had the artistic gene in him and showed colours of becoming a painter since he was a child. Although he made a name for himself as a cartoonist few of the paintings he had done in his time shows what a great painter Collette really was.
His painting titled, ‘Seated Woman’ is an oil painting done on canvas and is regarded as one of the best paintings of Collette. The work of art which mostly uses dark black, blue, purple, yellow, and a hint of white, depicts a seated woman who is deep in her thoughts. Not just the detailed facial expressions but the placing of her hands in the painting adds to the ‘thoughtfulness’ of the woman, and it can be deduced that Collette had consciously decided on this gesture of the woman to support and enhance the overall theme of the painting.
‘Tamil Labourers’ is yet another high-quality painting of Collette which is much praised by the enthusiasts and critics. The skill of Collette to portray the daily struggles of Tamil labourers using a unique array of oil colours on canvas is truly astonishing. Probing deeper into the painting, it becomes apparent that Collette had tried and succeeded in bringing out the features in physique unique to labourers, their clothes, and accessories unique to Hindu beliefs. All this detailing adds to the quality of the painting and tells a much-detailed story that goes beyond the initial allure and the beauty of the painting.
His painting, ‘Steps by the Door’ depicts a door of an old house and a few steps leading up to it. Although it may sound simple, the painting is pretty detailed. The roof, the downpipe from the roof to let the rainwater flow down, and other details of the surroundings depicted in the painting shows the keen eye Collette had to grasp the whole picture.
His painting titled, ‘Face’ is another unique painting which he had completed using only a piece of brown pastel. This painting can still be witnessed at Collette’s private family collection. Another masterpiece of Collette’s is the portrait he had done of Ivan Peries. The 17 by 22 painting is a watercolour portrait done on paper.
The portrait of Harry Peiris – another pioneer of the 43 Group – is another notable portrait done by Collette using gouache. Using gouache colours which are opaque and lighter than usual watercolours in a portraiture is a tough task as it makes it harder to enhance features, however Collette has perfectly risen to the task creating a much-detailed portrait of Harry holding a paintbrush in one hand and a palette in the other on a 25 by 39 piece of paper using mostly the shades of yellow, black and white.
Another painting of Collette that involves Harry is the painting titled, ‘Lime and Harry Peiris’. It depicts Harry with a lime in hand – picked up probably from the lime basket next to him – sitting in a comfortable chair. This watercolour painting was done using shades of white, brick red, brown, yellow, rose, and blue on paper.
Apart from these, his painting titled, ‘The Bandung Conference’, The ‘Leaning Lady’ in his family’s collection, and ‘A Purposeful Walk’ are all considered as excellent pieces in his body of work.
Collette dared to try out new things and experiment using different mediums. He became popular as a cartoonist during his time at the newspaper Lanka Times between 1945 and 1948. He then joined Lanka Observer as a cartoonist and served there for many years before moving to England in 1960. He spent his last years in Australia where breathed his last in 1972. He was a popular figure in not just Sri Lanka but in Australia as well. As a tribute to this wonderful and unique painter/cartoonist the Australian Government used his cartoon series titled, ‘Coexistence’ in a series of stamps in 1988. Although it came posthumously, needless to say this is a rare accolade that is achieved by any Sri Lankan artist on an international level.
(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)