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George Claessen: Babel to Abstraction
Seventy Years of Art and Poetry


20th October 2023 - 31st January 2024
George Claessen: Babel to Abstraction marks a major retrospective exhibition of the renowned late artist George Claessen’s multifaceted work - the first presentation of his work in London for 18 years. Presented by Three Highgate Gallery, which is in the vicinity where Claessen himself lived and worked, the works on show span over 70 years and reflect his extraordinary career as an artist and his commitment to abstraction, stating “Every hue and nuance from a prism comes."
A Presence, 1969, oils on board, 65x55.jpg

George Claessen, A Presence, 1969 © The

Estate of George Claessen.

Courtesy Three Highgate

Born in Sri Lanka and later moving to London in 1949 where he lived for the rest of his life, George Claessen (1909-99) was a self-taught artist and poet whose art was characterised by his mystical outlook and beliefs. As the British Empire crumbled, Claessen’s painting and poetry can be regarded as a headlong flight from the devastating destruction of nationalism and colonialism. ‘Home at last – it must be heaven,’ he wrote as he saw Britain for the first time in 1949, glimpsing the rooftops and spires of Gravesend from the ship that had brought him from Bombay. Settling in North London for the rest of his life, those spires seen at the end of a long voyage stayed with him, creating in his art a sense of aspiration and of belonging.

 

Claessen was a founding member of the '43 Group, a 20th-century modern art movement established in August 1943 in Colombo, Sri Lanka who embraced modern European artistic forms over traditional Sri Lankan forms while also using some of their own cultural origins as the building bricks for a new art. Poetry was also at the centre of all of the '43 Group’s art and almost all of its members were practitioners of more than one art, allowing for a wider vision. In the 1960s Claessen joined the New Vision Group in London, which consisted of artists committed to abstract and avant-garde art in its many iterations.

Notation in Yellow and Black, 1975, lithograph, 42x53.jpg

George Claessen, Notation in Yellow and Black, 1975

© The Estate of George Claessen.

Courtesy Three Highgate

Nieuwe Kerk Delft, 1978, pencil and watercolour, 35x51.jpg

George Claessen, Nieuwe Kerk Delft, 1978

© The Estate of George Claessen.

Courtesy Three Highgate

Throughout his career, Claessen expressed in his art and poetry a unique lyrical language based on his emotional and mystical outlook. It is for this calm poetic abstract expressionist style that Claessen is most celebrated. As the exhibition curator, Alistair Hicks, views it, Claessen ‘treats paint like he treats the words in his poems. He is shifting them around like a child with putty.’

 

He started to draw and paint aged 29 after joining the Colombo Port Commission as adraughtsman, an occupation he continued until his retirement. It is notable that it was not until he was safely settled in London that Claessen fully made the leap into abstraction - a place where abstraction had become the currency of the avant-garde. Yet his abstraction is a world entirely of its own - he made a home in his art. 

 

Claessen found a regenerative spirit in abstract art - indeed his paintings illustrate its healing qualities. ‘I did try to make another dimension,’ he said, ‘another dimension which I thought had been overlooked and not known in a mathematical sense.’ In some of his later abstracts there is a sense of combining geometry and the spirit he was looking for, but he was still wary of trying to pin things down. In painting after painting he is asking the viewer to expand into the picture, to break out of the cage of our mathematical minds. 

 

George Claessen exhibited his work internationally until well into the 70s, while working as a draughtsman until his retirement. He showed at Venice Biennale in 1956 and at the Saõ Paulo, Brazil, Biennale of 1959, where he won an award. His solo shows included Velasquez Gallery, Melbourne, 1947; Archer Gallery, London, 1950; New Vision Centre Gallery, London, 1962; Stanhope Gallery, London, 1975; Gallery 706, Colombo, 1993; Frank T Sabin Gallery, London, 2000; The Gallery Cafe, Colombo, 1999 and 2018: and Paradise Road Gallery, Colombo, 2021.

In addition to the retrospective of Claessen’s work, Three Highgate Editions, the publishing arm of the gallery, is releasing a new collection of his poetry to coincide with the exhibition. Entitled Collected Poems of a Painter, it features 86 of George Claessen’s poems and a foreword by Alistair Hicks. It is available to purchase here.

 

Three Highgate and George Claessen’s Estate have also partnered with Emmy/Sundance award-winning documentary film director, Rob Lemkin, to produce a documentary film delving into his life and artistry. The film is scheduled to premiere in December 2023 to tie in with the exhibition run at Three Highgate. 

‘George Claessen: Babel to Abstraction’ has been curated by Alistair Hicks, an independent curator and writer and former Senior Curator at Deutsche Bank, in collaboration with the founder and director of Three Highgate, Irina Johnstone. Alistair Hicks has recently curated Paula Rego shows at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hannover, and the Pera Museum in Istanbul. He is the author of Global Art Compass; Urban Mirrors; New British Art in the Saatchi Gallery; and The School of London.

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