In Dali’s Footsteps

One of Thomas Mann’s most memorable fictional characters is Tonio Kroger, the young artist who was aware in himself of two warring sensibilities, apparent in his unusual name. One was the socially responsible temperament of his German bourgeois father which responded to and appreciated the regulated security of the ordinary, and the other was the indolent artistic strain inherited from his Italian mother. In this relatively early work Mann portrayed one of his most enduring themes: the nature of the artistic sensibility, particularly its disruptive aspect both to the individual who possesses it and the society which contains it.

Rahju Michael Pereira, whose paintings were on display recently at the Alliance Francaise de Kandy, is Sri Lanka’s Tonio Kroger. He has spent approximately equal portions of his young life in Norway and in Sri Lanka, the homelands of his mother and father respectively.

He studied art at Einar Granum’s School of Art in Oslo, Norway, but has returned to his birthplace and the surrounding of his earliest years as if “coming home.” While his own personality may or may not contain the incompatible strands neatly symbolized in Mann’s story, his art and life show very strongly the young artist’s search for his own individual nature and preoccupation with what is special and unique about himself.

The general style chosen by Rahju in which to express this search is the type of surrealism associated in the public mind with the work of the twentieth century painter, Salvador Dali. Surrealism not only suits Pereira’s sometimes bizarre subject matter- dreams, visions, make-believe- very well, but he has attained an admirable technique that allows him to bring off quite successfully this meticulous and difficult style of painting. In an extension of the Dali manner, he also incorporates bits of the real world into his paintings, such as pieces of chain link, or barbed wire, or real cloth, a real envelope, a mirror and a real needle effectively impales a very realistically-painted butterfly (with painted shadow) to one canvas. Like all surrealistic paintings, Rahju’s seem to have a hidden meaning and call for explanation, but I think it is wisest not to attempt precise literal interpretations in the manner of a detective or puzzle solver. Rather one should let the paintings affect one like music or dance or one’s own dreams- that is, to recognize and respond wordlessly to the themes he portrays, their repetition and variation, and the general mood the works suggest. Rahju has developed an evocative personal mythology of motifs which are repeated within one canvas or from one work to another. Emblems of fragility such as leaves or butterflies, the architecture of human bones and limbs, and the human hand (as hand-print, as shapely silhouette, or as mysterious but eloquent painted gesture) appear over and over and thus acquire resonance and significance to the viewer.

The structure of his paintings also seems to follow a sort of idiosyncratic pattern, frequently making use of balanced rectangles. These may be two equal zones divided by a horizontal line, or more asymmetrical yet balanced rectangular shapes, against which foreground motifs are placed. Paired or mirror images also seem to occur frequently. His natural inclination thus would appear to be for balance and symmetry, somewhat at odds with what one would be led to expect from some of the pre-exhibition publicity-e.g., that the artist is “half Sri Lankan, half Norwegian, and fully mad.”

An effective surrealistic device is the use of the line of one form to be at the same time a line of the adjoining but very different one. In one simple but memorable work, a profile line drawing of a woman’s face that divides a canvas vertically in two, turns into a “crack” in that picture, above and below the face, as if it is breaking open and revealing the sky beyond. In two of the largest and most complex works, “Look at yourself” and “Look at yourself 2”, there is a picture of a painting painted on the canvas: in one a figure reaches out of the painted paintings, and in the other, the painted painting (of clouds) merges with the “real”(painted) sky. Such ambiguities are the essence of surrealism and give it much of its poetic force. In these two particular paintings they also suggest the interpenetration of art and reality, the ways art is and yet is not part of the very life of the painter- a problem for the modern artist who is, after all, concerned with turning life into art and impressing art upon life. Although there are several titles suggesting Eastern themes and certainly a mystical attitude is frequently expressed, one also notes that many of the titles of Rahju’s paintings and the appearance of his own face in a large proportion of the works show an overt preoccupation with himself that is perhaps more characteristic of the western than of the Asian artist. This is I think a natural interest to be expected in a young painter. One thinks of the many self portraits by the young Courbet each in a different costume or mood– as if trying on personae in order to determine which fits best. In any case, today’s artist has little choice but turn to himself as the richest source of subject matter because the society in which he lives no longer provides consistent inspiring or widely-shared values for him to reflect or transmit. I would hope, however, that like Courbet, Rahju might experiment with other styles and personae before setting permanently into the Daliesque. Still, I must agree that it suits his abilities and inclinations very well.

I could point to individual works which struck me as being more or less successful, but here I think it sufficient simply to remark that the general quality of the work shown is admirable and gratifying, especially in one so young. One awaits to see what else he will do. There is much to admire in his technique, and his dream-like scenes and metamorphoses provide fertile substance for the imagination.

Newspaper review of the exhibition

'My Illusions Within, My Visions Beyond'

at Alliance Francaise Kandy, October 1984.

Published in The Sunday Observer, The Sunday Times and The Island