In the 1940’s, it can be said that intellectual independence came of age and, as reflected in the arts, there was great freedom of expression. Art began to mirror Trinidad and Tobago’s cultural and ethnic diversity. In addition the new consciousness of a rich pre-Columbian heritage was added to an already cosmopolitan mix. The work of Boscoe Holder (b.1921 d.2007), Sybil Atteck (b.1911 d.1975) and M.P. Alladin (b.1919 d.1970) are rich in this respect, with their African, Chinese and Indian influences.
In the early 1940’s Holder visited Martinique. He was profoundly impressed by the sophisticated beauty of the black and creole women in their madras head-ties and their delicate lace-trimmed blouses and multi-coloured kerchiefs, traditional dress forms that no longer existed in Trinidad and Tobago. Until his death in 2007, Holder used the images of the black and creole Martiniquaise in his paintings.
Sybil Atteck started her artistic career in the early 1930’s, making scientific drawings and watercolour renderings of insect life and flora for the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture. In 1938 she attended the Regent Street Polytechnic in London, where she studied fine art for a year and later visited Italy. Returning to Trinidad she became active in the promotion of the arts, assisting in the formation of the Trinidad Art Society. In 1946 Atteck visited Peru where she studied Inca pottery and in 1948 studied under the German Expressionist painter, Max Beckmann, at St. Louis University, Missouri, in the United States. Atteck’s return to Trinidad and Tobago in the latter part of 1948 heralded a new movement in art.
In 1955, Atteck’s Still Life with Fruit was accepted for the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy in London.
In the early years, the annual exhibitions were generally a source of controversy, the first exhibition in 1944 being described by one critic, Edgar Mittleholzer, as disappointingly dull; and by Albert Gomes, as an event in Colony’s history … One of the best presented to the Trinidad public during the period dating from the Society of Trinidad Independents .... This was the beginning of a dialogue that has lasted until the present time, as to whether art from Trinidad and Tobago should strictly reflect its culture or whether it should be universal in its expression. After the 1947 exhibition these differences were articulated by two opposing views. Mittleholzer wrote: I am never tired of reiterating that West Indians should remember that they are first of all citizens of the world, and only secondly West Indians. But, Alfred Mendes retaliated: I contend that the spirit and scene of our island can produce a style of expression that future critics and art lovers will recognize as typically West Indian. Mr. Mendes’s harsh criticism of Sybil Atteck’s work after her 1948 exhibition, for its non-Trinidadian influences, is said to be the reason that she afterward only showed her work in group exhibitions.
Membership to the Trinidad Art Society was up until the late 1950’s was considered to be exclusive, due in part to the support and patronage of those who represented the Colonial Administration. In 1960, however, after the Backyard Exhibition in Argyll Lane, in Lower Laventille, showing the work of Ken Morris, Leo Glasgow, Pat Chu Foon and the sculptors Samuel Raphael and Babba Holder, membership became more open. Supported by Sir Hugh Wooding and Drs. Ralph and Wilma Hoyte among others, members of this group were accepted into the Trinidad Art society and were able to establish acceptance for the intuitive artist.
This later included the work of Leo Basso (b.1901 d.1982). Although self-taught, Basso was strongly influenced by his mentor, the neo-impressionist painter, Pierre Lelong, then living in Trinidad and who once described Basso as the only artist in Trinidad with a sense of colour
The contribution of Carlisle Chang (b.1921 d.2001) to art in Trinidad and Tobago began in 1954 after he completed studies in ceramics and painting in England and Italy. As a student his influences were mainly from the European abstract expressionist painters of the day, in particular his tutors Keith Ford and Hans Tisler and the artist and stage set designer, John Piper.
Chang’s style of painting introduced a finer finish than Atteck’s robust style. His clear colours and application of paint to canvas with almost invisible brush-strokes contrasted with Atteck’s bold and heavily textured finishes. Chang initially adopted the popular geometric style of the Atteck school, but later developed an independent, non-objective style, combining his European training, early East Indian influences and Chinese instincts.
Associated with the Trinidad Art Society was the Pointe-a-Pierre Arts and Crafts Society which flourished in the 1950’s with the energetic support of both Bro. Fergus Griffin (b.1916 d.19..) of Presentation College and the English teacher/artist Leslie Melton (b.1933). Members included Jesse Packer (b.1878 d.1968) and Gerald Daly (b.1909 d.1988), Knolly Greenidge (b.1937 d.1998). Bro. Fergus Griffin was also a member of the Art Society and a critic at their exhibitions.