Lionel Wendt / Ceylon

After a period of relative oblivion, the Sri Lankan photographer Lionel Wendt (1900–1944) was rediscovered – or discovered, in fact – worldwide as a unique, individualistic photographer who availed himself of experimental techniques and
modern compositions.

This year, Wendt’s work will be on exhibit at Documenta 14 in Athens and, from 10 June till 3 September 2017, in a large-scale retrospective exhibit at Huis Marseille, which will shine a spotlight on the fascinating work of this photographer in all its facets.

[title not known] c.1933-8 Lionel Wendt 1900-1944 Purchased with funds provided by the South Asia Acquisitions Committee 2013
Wendt  was born on December 3, 1900 in Colombo,

” The pianist, photographer, critic, and cinematographer, Lionel Wendt was the central figure of a cultural life torn between the death rattles of the Empire and a human appraisal of the untapped values of Ceylon. “

His friend Ricardo Neftali Reyes Basoalto (1904-1973), consul of Chile in Ceylon, well known as Pablo NerudaMemoirs.

The most famous photographer of Sri Lanka, Lionel Wendt, occupied a central place in the artistic life of his country. He was intellectual, and knew also to give life to a plentiful artistic expressions  music, painting, photography and cinema.


With B. G. Thornley and P. J. C. Durrand, in July 1935, he initiated the “Photographic Society of Ceylon”.

His contribution was essential in the formation of the “ whose the inaugural meeting was held in Wendt’s house, 18 Guilford Crescent, on the 29th August 1943.
At this place now stands the Wendt Memorial Theatre. The objective was to regroup some independent painters, such as George Keyt and Ivan Peries – artists who are now recognized as the best representatives of the mid-century modernism in Asian art.

He took part in many exhibitions in Sri Lanka between 1935 and 1944. His photographs were exhibited in Europe, America, South Africa and Asia…
It is important to highlight the Exhibition “Camera-Work“, presented in 1940 in Colombo with 267 prints. There, he embraced the main aspects of the Sri Lankan life and culture, to which he was thoroughly attached.

His themes are marked by richness and diversity : landscapes, daily life – without forgetting its social dimension -, architecture et archeology, photo-montages with details of a human chest or a fresco, portraits, particularly the nudes where he likes to depict the aesthetic value of the human body…

He found the way to harmonise his knowledge and interest for modern expressions of art (MagritteMan RayChirico…) with his concern on the representation of traditional aspects of the Sri Lankan life. His fertile imagination uses a range of technical processes : photo-montage, photo-collage, solarization, relief prints, photograms…

He was close to the realism of Atget (Jean-Eugène Atget ,1857-1927, father of the photo-reportage), the surrealism of Man Ray and the social documentary of the photographers of the FSA (Farm Security Administration, USA).

It was on the site of his house that, soon after his untimely death, was created the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery under the auspices of the Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund.

The role of Lionel Wendt in Sri Lankan painting stands “in the same relation the photographer Man Ray stood to French.”

W. G. Archer
India and Modern Art, London, 1959

From 10 June till 3 September 2017
Huis Marseille, Museum for Photography
Keizersgracht 401
1016 EK Amsterdam
The Netherlands
T +31 (0)20 531 89 89


  • Lionel Wendt’s Ceylon, First edition 1950, Lincolns – Prager Publishers London.
  • Lionel Wendt’s Ceylon, Reedition, Navrang, Lake House Bookshop, 1995.
  • Lionel Wendt Photographs, Catalogue of the Exposition, 1994.
  • “Rediscovering Lionel Wendt” by Manel Fonseka, Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund, 1994.
  • Lionel Wendt A Centennial Tribute, The Lionel Wendt Memorial Fund, Colombo, Sri Lanka 2000.