George Claessen -
Collected Poems of a Painter
Published by Three Highgate Editions; distributed by Shearsman Books, 2023
In 1928, George Claessen’s future as a writer and poet was already showing great promise. Aged nineteen, he had just won a prestigious poetry prize in a national Sri Lankan newspaper. That led to writing stories and articles for various pub-lications. It seemed as though his desired vocation was assured until the birthday gift of a paintbox changed the course of his life. During a temporary job as a night watchman stationed at the edge of a jungle, he began painting to pass the time. By the end of his stint he was irrevocably hooked.
In the early 40s, George was one of the founding members of a Sri Lankan art group, which was based in Colombo and was spearheaded by Lionel Wendt. Known as The ’43 Group, this movement would become renowned as the first modernist art collective in South Asia. By the end of the decade, his path as an artist eventually drew him to London. His painting became increasingly abstract. By the 1950s he was exhibiting internationally, notably at the Venice Biennale in 1956, and in 1959 he won first prize at the São Paulo Biennale.
In later life, while living in London, he returned to poetry, often interrogating the same metaphysical themes he explored in his abstracts. The fruits of these endeavours resulted in a number of volumes, including Poems of a Painter (1967), Poems about Nothing (1981), Collected Poems (1995) and subsequent inclusion in various poetry anthologies.
Describing his desire to use poetry as a creative alternative to his visual artistic work, he memorably said that it was, ‘…the outcome of an urge for expression in another form – a phenomenon not uncommon in painters, just as the same would and does apply in reverse to essential poets’.