The classical ideal was long ago replaced by a more complex take influenced, among other things, by the uncertain world in which artists found themselves after two global wars and the nuclear threat.
BY PARTHA CHATTERJEE
The concept of beauty has changed in western art since Cubism was discovered in 1907 by Picasso and explored a little later by Braque and Gris, and in its more “pleasant” form by Glazies and Metzinger. This brought about a drastic change in how the western world saw beauty not only in the fine arts but in everyday living; in the design of clothes, furniture, crockery, even the way people wore their hair.
What began in Paris swept across Europe and America. Japan too fell; that was also the case with insular China, economically beleaguered and constantly threatened by civil war though it was. The aesthetic ideas from the occidental world made inroads into Chinese culture in large cities like Beijing (then Peking) and Shanghai. What was happening in India, ruled by the British?
The impact of changing aesthetics in western art was gradual in India, starting in the port cities of Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai). Cubism did not rear its head till after the Second World War, though Gaganendranath Tagore, a gentleman amateur and a cousin of Rabindranath Tagore, did some pleasing, even arresting, paintings in his version of Cubism.
He must have seen reproductions of Picasso, Braque and Gris and understood the technical possibilities Cubism offered and adapted it elegantly to his own requirements. He was an orientalist at heart, dressed usually in flowing robes and suitable headgear but had an open mind.
In everyday living, tinned food was a reality, certainly in the anglicised parts of big cities and tea plantations owned by the British and elsewhere, in designs copied from containers of similar products in England. Thus oats, cornflakes (possibly an American idea) butter, cheese, fish and even meats of various kinds, were available in tins.
Jams, jellies, sauces and squashes, apart from beers, spirits like whisky, brandy, gin and rum came in bottles. All this happened because of the First World War (1914-18) when soldiers of the warring armies depended on tinned goods as they were deprived of fresh food for long periods of time.
Paul Cezanne (1840-1906), a French artist discovered that most of the landscape he saw around him could be interpreted in terms of cones, cylinders and cubes. His landscapes from his native Aix-le-Provence were dismissed by the critics of his time as so much tomfoolery. But Cezanne paved the way for Cubism; without him Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris would have been hard put to conceive of Cubism.
A Dutchman called Vincent Van Gogh (1852-1890), a contemporary of Cezanne, changed prevailing ideas about drawing and painting while maintaining the classical unities of space and form as did, in another way, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1867-1904) in his brilliant but acerbic style. There was also the phenomenon of Honoré Daumier earlier, both newspaper caricaturist and a deeply perceptive painter, depicting aspects of everyday life. This happened incidentally when photography began to make its presence felt, at first slowly.
Gaspard-Félix Tournachon Nadar was the first photographer to do portraits of famous people of his age, particularly artistes caught on camera–it was a large box-like affair; first taking glass plates, and much later light sensitive photo emulsions coated on celluloid sheets. The emulsions were slow and called for long exposures, forcing the person being photographed to “freeze”. Nadar’s subjects were the leading personalities of his time, Balzac, Franz Liszt, George Sand, Jules Verne, Theophile Gautier, Leon Gambetta, Camille Corot, Eugene Delacroix, Mikhail Bakunin, Alexander Dumas, Sarah Bernhardt, Charles Gounod, Charles Baudelaire, and others.
These people, traversing the worlds of art, literature, theatre, music and politics, despite the limitations of the photographic medium then, conveyed the essence of their respective personalities thanks to the (perhaps) unintentional artistry of Nadar! Most of them had also been painted by the leading artists of their time. What was the difference between their photographic portraits and the painted ones?
The obvious explanation is that photo-portraits were more life-like and the painted ones (the best of them at any rate) captured the “soul”, meaning they offered often (unintentional) insights into the sitter’s personality. Could not a photograph do the same? Yes, it was believed, but only by accident. We are digressing from the main topic. But are we?
Photography, over a period of over 150 years has influenced the way we look at the world; and now with the proliferation of the digital image, more so than ever. But of that later.
The conception of beauty in art in France or Europe, in the second half of the 19th century was also conditioned by the largely unspoilt countryside still in evidence. Landscape painting, with or without figures, was very much the dominant element in European, particularly French art, which led the way in the continent. The invention of photography and the capacity of the photograph to render the physical world with considerable fidelity may have led painters to depict cities and landscapes more as impressions.
The exceptionally productive French Impressionist Movement lasted from roughly the early 1870s to the early 1890s. Artists like Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Sisley, painted landscapes and people, as “impressions”, albeit recognisably so. When they painted flora or fauna the rendering was an accurate “impression”. These Impressionists had a gifted forerunner in Eugene Manet who had been reviled in 1860 for his “Olympia”, a young woman in the nude staring insolently at the viewer. The other painting of Manet’s that aroused controversy soon after was “Picnic on the Grass”. A woman lies on the grass in three-quarter profile in the woods surrounded by some admiring well-dressed men. Manet`s technique in these two paintings was realistic without being classic and idealistic. He was painting the real world and its people with style and verve but without sentimentality.
Manet was a master of the dry pastel medium. His profile of the actress Rosa Bonheur is as exquisite as it is impressionistic. The sensuality of her being, thanks to the artist’s respect and love for her personality and, of course, his masterly technique, comes through effortlessly. Would a photograph have captured her personality with such mysterious allure remains a moot point.
In India it was a time of decline for art and artists from the late 18th century onwards as the British tightened their grip on the country. The schools of miniature painting had faltered from lack of patronage as the new rulers had disrupted the old order. In northern India, which included Awadh, the Punjab hills and Rajasthan, the miniature was the ruling form. The basic sensibility was thus foreign to the European aesthetic. Western perspective drawing with its idea of a “vanishing point”, hence perspective, was not known to us, although some European artists during the reigns of Akbar, Jehangir and Shahjahan had done and presented works in the Western mode. But the impact on court artists was minimal.
In their own right, though, these miniature artists were true masters. There were some wonderful erotic Kangra miniatures on the Radha-Krishna theme. The paint was water-soluble and the pigments locally found and ground. In the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, they also did Pichwais in fairly large size. That apart, manuscripts in Persian and various dialects of what came to be known as Hindi, were also illustrated with opaque miniature water colours, sometimes of genius. Many gifted artists of the Kangra and Basholi traditions were still around but they found it increasingly difficult to survive. Painters from the Mughal courts were also finding work hard to come by.
On the other hand, there wasn’t any great sculpture being done in the 18th century or even a little before. It was not a great period for architecture either, with few major temples. In the east and west and the south it was mainly the folk arts and of course tribal arts. So the native traditions withered, though folk art retained its protean energy.
The British opened schools of art in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, and Lahore. The idea was to teach Indian students painting, sculpture and graphics in the western academic tradition. The results were insipid. There were some competent portrait painters sought by very rich merchants of Calcutta and Bombay, Maharajas and Nawabs and the well-heeled western educated Indians, especially the ICS type.
Raja Ravi Varma, part of the Travancore royal family, learnt oil painting from a German and mastered its rudiments. He also was keen to reach out to a large number of people and bought a press in 1894 to print his coloured oleographs in large numbers. The subjects of these mass-produced works were from Hindu mythology. Ravi Varma became very popular and could be called one of the pioneers of calendar art in India.
The calendar founds its way into mofussil India and figures from mythology by Ravi Varma or in his style became very popular. In undivided Bengal, local visual traditions echoed the Kalighat Pat paintings or the various Panchali traditions of folk and religious songs. Printed on very cheap paper with an illustration on the cover, they were in demand in rural areas, as were the illustrated Panjikas or astronomical almanacs printed in Bengali, Maithili, Assamese and Oriya.
At the time, ghee began to be sold in bottles with a label bearing an illustration along with the lettering. The drawing, possibly of a cow, could be vivid despite being rudimentary. Similarly, bottled condiments like pickles had a colour illustration of the advertised product on the label. When indigent artists fresh out of the art schools in metropolitan India before and after independence, and for a long time since, needed to eat, they turned their talents to illustrating books, calendars and labels for various consumer products. Ranen Ayan Dutt’s flowing line drawing of a woman combing her hair on the label of Jabakusum Hair Oil would shine in any artistic company over the last 100 years.
Over 80 years before Dutt, in Paris, Toulouse-Lautrec learnt the art of lithography to do colour posters for the artistes who appeared at Moulin Rouge and other night spots and happened to be his friends. The lithographs, done one at a time, were and continue to be, works of art. Yves Gilbert, Jane Avril and Aristide Bruant have become immortal thanks to Lautrec. Lautrec also did posters advertising bicycle racing and Dubonnet, a wine. Pierre Bonnard, a great post-impressionist artist, also did colour lithographs for advertising.
Much later, in the 1920s and after, Sonia Delaunay, an artist of repute in Paris, took to designing with great success, bedsheets, pillow slips, car seat covers and such. Her husband Robert Delaunay began in the so-called “representative art” tradition and gravitated towards various forms of Cubism. Sonia continued her dual career for a time but finally went back to painting. It was she who made it possible for Robert to continue painting even when trends changed and markets became unfavourable, because of the money brought in by her commercial work.
After Picasso painted his then notorious Cubist eye-opener “Les Demoiselles d Avignon” in 1907, derived in equal part from Cezanne and African sculpture that had found its way into Paris, the art world began to change rapidly. Picasso was constantly trying to find himself, discover new things within. He was always trying to understand visual phenomena and a world that changed very fast around him.
Air travel became a reality after the First World War in which mustard gas was used on humans and civilian populations were bombed from the air. It was bound to reflect on the arts.
Kazimir Malevich, in far off Communist Russia, gave up for a while doing figurative art, at which he was good, to paint two canvasses that would greatly affect the aesthetics of western art. “White on White” and “Black on Black” are completely non-representational paintings that do not show any object from the physical world. Malevich’s two works could be seen as both a psychological and physical intervention into western painting and have now become an integral part of its aesthetic. Malevich was sent by Joseph Stalin to a remote village school where he died possibly of humiliation.
Indian art centred principally around Shantiniketan, a university founded by Rabindranath Tagore. In the main, its inspiration derived from mythology and the images discovered in recently opened caves in Ajanta. Nandlal Bose, who became a distinguished artist, benefited the most from a trip undertaken with students to Ajanta and Ellora. His gouache paintings, some of them arresting, and superb line drawings, produced works that shone visually, independent of their moorings in Hindu mythology.
Bose’s pupil Krishna Reddy went to New York and became an internationally known graphic artist. He is acknowledged as a master printmaker. His work is abstract, that is, no human being, animal, insect or, for that matter, flora, features in it.
Abstraction in Indian art came through various sources; post-war American abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Europeans like Hans Hartung, Piet Mondrian, Franz Kline, not to forget Antonio Tapis. Suraj Ghai in Delhi and V.S. Gaitonde in Bombay, both fine figurative painters, gradually moved away from their original inspiration to abstract forms. In many of Gaitonde’s non-representational paintings, a figure can be discerned, just so. Ghai returned to semi-figurative expressionism and then went through various kinds of lyrical, stylised figurative work and almost abstract landscapes and black and white satirical drawings, often of (Jonathan) Swift-like import.
Two other Indian artists, namely Ram Kumar and Sohan Qadri, also worked in the abstract mode. Ram Kumar’s landscapes and cityscapes (influenced by his trip to Varanasi) are broken down into barely recognisable forms and painted in broad strokes, usually in a melancholic mood. Even when his colour palette is on the bright side, they somehow evoke a feeling of loss. Qadri’s best canvases have a serene Zen-like feel and a powerful yet contained energy.
Painting and sculpture in Europe and America moved in a certain direction perhaps because of the despair following two discoveries after World War II, namely that man’s real nature beneath the veneer of humanity needed very little to surface. The massacre of six million Jews by Nazi Germany was one instance. The dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war in the east became a source of permanent fear for all humanity. Any country with nuclear weapons could destroy the whole world, including itself.
In this sombre climate it was only to be expected that artists like Chaim Soutine (a Jew from Belorussia) would paint animal carcasses dripping with blood, that the Englishman Francis Bacon should paint utterly distorted human and animal forms. Soutine and Bacon were the harbingers of lost hope in modern western art. Soutine, for instance, even in his portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, for all his mastery of technique, comes across as a chronicler of dystopia. Only in a few landscapes done in France does he seem to be somewhat at ease with himself—barely so.
Bacon’s chastising of the world for its lack of basic humanity became a source of parody in the pubs of Soho, London, as he was (sometimes) rightly seen as a figure of theatricality in a culture where wit, humour and understatement were greatly valued. It must also be admitted that the so-called British stoic trait may well have been a mixture in equal part of hypocrisy and the fear of pain, particularly of the psychological variety. Bacon became a great favourite with the denizens of the fashion world.
It is only logical to believe that people accepting grief and lack of communication as a given in their lives were gradually being weaned away from the beauty of the landscape in their surroundings and the pleasure in looking at the human face or figure. Reality, in the generally accepted sense of the term, was being constantly distorted and was changing its form and shape from moment to moment. This idea of fighting a losing battle always, not only against history but with oneself, would inevitably find its way into all artistic expression, including the visual.
Suicide often became a way out for certain artists in the west. Mark Rothko killed himself. So did Jules Pascin, much before him. Arshile Gorki took his life, as did the Czech Expressionist Oliver Tobias. It was difficult to find fulfilment in personal relationships. Everyone appeared to be in transit. However, such existential despair did not grip Indian artists, save for the Tamil painter K. Ramanujam, a poetic draughtsman who committed suicide in 1973. In more recent times Krishna Kumar, a talented sculptor from Kerala followed suit in 1989. Jangarh Singh Shyam, an artist of consequence from the Gond Tribe in Madhya Pradesh killed himself in Japan in 2001, possibly because he was unable to fathom the social, ethical mores of the modern world into which he had been thrust quite by chance. These names apart, there have not been instances of major artists taking their lives.
Indian artists are by and large survivors, regardless of the quality of their work. What makes them cling to life regardless of their economic or artistic situation is difficult to tell. Where they get the strength to go on is also difficult to fathom. Is it an instinctive awareness of the sweep of time but not its immediacy? On the bright side, there are many more Indian artists today of varying quality managing to earn enough to work. There are many more schools and advertising agencies today where reasonably paid jobs can found to help sustain the “real” work.
One question a lot of people ask is where is the place for art and the artist? The simple answer is, everywhere. There is a greater demand today for the artist’s aesthetic than ever before, in the unlikeliest of places.
For instance, young artists who can draw well, model in clay or other media ,work in television news channels as animators to help satirise politicians and their politics. Some work in fashion, as producers of shows and events that are very well paid. Often this becomes the major source of income. They may also work as art directors and production designers in Hindi and regional cinema. TV serials need sets; here again those for the big Hindi channels pay a lot better.
There are auction houses that sell good, bad and indifferent art from moderate to very high prices, depending upon the reputation of the artist, often created by a particular art gallery or auction house. There is more forgettable art attractively done, being sold today at high prices than ever before in India.
Photography, after enjoying its high noon of success, producing such masters as Andre Kertesz, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Gary Wimgrand, Ruth Orkin, Dorthea Lang, Ernst Haas, Irving Penn, W. Eugene Smith, among many, many others, has gone into decline in the digital age after maintaining its identity for nearly 150 year
It is now imitating painting and the graphic arts, often with bizarre, comic results. For example, many journals of digital photography have images from everyday life that are made to look like a watercolour, an etching in colour or Black & White, etc, by using Photoshop to sentimentalise the image.
It is also well to remember that the nature of what was known as “fine art” has changed. While there is a place for good old drawing, colour and composition and the depiction of the human figure, interiors, and landscapes in an undistorted or even stylised form, there is also the contemporary being who gets pleasure out of the “distortion” of the human visage, interiors and exteriors in painting and sculpture. In the re-arrangement and display of “found” objects that can mirror his/her experience of an increasingly complex and unhappy world.
Installations are the most eye-catching items in current art. An installation may contain many elements; hand-made or machine-made objects or found objects, shown independently or with video footage, sometimes combined with laser lights or strobe lights, sometimes not; the possibilities are endless. Artists do not make the installation themselves but get others to assemble their “plan” much in the manner that architects adopt. Thus masons, carpenters, electricians, machinists and other technicians may be employed to put together the master design under the supervision of the artist. An Installation may exist by itself, as a part of an art exhibition or as the focal point of a happening, where a dance performance, a concert or poetry reading takes place. Whether an installation’s value is only transitory, remains to be seen.
Cartoon strips and the graphic novel, the second feeding off the first; have also begun to be taken seriously as forms of artistic creation. They combine the pithiness of the drawn visual and the economically used written word. Major artists have emerged in each form over the last 50 years. Political and social cartoons found in the newspapers and magazines, are being taken seriously for their sociological as well as artistic value.
There is often surprising visual pleasure to be got from looking at a printed sari, salwar-kameez suit, skirt, kaftan or top. There is a lot of talent invested in textile design, ceramic ware and in the making of traditional and modern utensils. Even barbers and beauticians by virtue of their individual talent could be called artists.
This eye for beauty in everyday functional objects was first encouraged at the Bauhaus, a laboratory where art and science met in the Germany of the early 1920s. The Bauhaus cradle, the Bauhaus doorknob, the Bauhaus Wassilly chair and the Bauhaus lamp, are among the products of this inspiration. The Bauhaus spirit permeated the works of many students from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. They have produced many industrial designs, textile designs, etc. Gadgets like blood glucose monitor, a wearable baby monitor, laminated bamboo furniture, a lightweight carrier that fits on the back and shoulders, with a slightly curved stand over the wearer’s head to carry bricks and other building materials and hundreds of others of utilitarian value, show how much they learnt from Bauhaus.
The design of inner wear for men and women, often influenced by products from abroad, if elegant, can be acknowledged as much for their look as for their utility, where craft and art fuse easily. Even cars and two-wheelers need a design aesthetic that melds looks and performance into the complete product. Posters advertising objects of everyday use, or announcing cultural events, or even political ones, as in Poland from the 1990s till now, can be of artistic value depending on the talent and vision of the artist concerned.
One example is Smiley the Kolynos Kid advertising Kolynos toothpaste, a brand that has disappeared from India and, of course, who has not seen the “Utterly Butterly Delicious” artwork for Amul (developed by Sylvestor Da’Cunha and drawn/created by Eustace Fernandes). Equally iconic is the Air India campaign featuring the Maharaja drawn by Bobby Kooka. Then there are the government posters on immunisation, particularly one in Hindi of a baby in profile with an open mouth, two drops of anti-Polio fluid poised tantalisingly just above it with the accompanying text Do Boond Zindagi Ke. The ones on family planning of a mother, father and two children are drawn geometrically in the Bauhaus style and the shapes brushed in with black ink. The Hand on the Congress poster is yet another example.
In a different category are the once-ubiquitous film posters, done by hand until the digital age made it unnecessary. Notable examples are the posters for Mother India, Mughal-e-Azam and Sholay, to name a few. It is worth noting that M.F. Husain also painted film posters in his salad days.
Three artists since independence have played a seminal role in putting India on the international scene. Maqbool Fida Husain (1915-2011) was a master draughtsman who worked out his own aesthetic derived from Indian traditions. His paintings, invariably conceived with an elegant design sense and truly Indian in character, were universal in appeal. His work from the beginning was stylised and embraced everyday life. Human beings jostled with animals, bicycles, lanterns and other accoutrements of a larger, rural India that also included a singular beautiful rendering of myths and legends. Incidentally, the posters for his two feature-films, Gaja Gamini and Meenaxi, may have been approved by him. In his days of struggle, he designed furniture.
Francis Newton Souza (1924-2001), like Husain, was from a lower middle-class background. He revealed an early talent for drawing and painting and his student work was startling. His line drawing, particularly of the female figure, was majestic. He never had to do huge film hoardings like Husain in early life to make his line supple and powerful. It was, as if by divine decree, flowing and carnally charged. He went into expressionism in his middle thirties and produced some startling pictures with Christian themes. But he revealed his sensual, more vulnerable and interesting side in his line drawings that celebrated the beauty of the female form and of course in some of his early and late paintings.
Syed Haider (1922- ) did figurative work and landscapes in the realist mode really well. Then his landscapes became more and more non-representational till they ended up as arrangements of blotches of colour to form a composition. Fortuitously, he was shown a book on Jain cosmology by Ravi Jain in Paris 40 years ago. He discovered the artistic vocabulary he was looking for all his life to express, possibly, his inner being. His discovery of the Bindu and then other geometric configurations connected to certain strands of Hindu-Jain mysticism, made his artistic career. Today Raza sells at the highest price commanded by an Indian artist in the international market, even higher than Husain and Souza.
Husain, Souza and Raza, each in his own way benefited from the changing concept of beauty in international art. They were not plagued by the outcome of a possible nuclear disaster or of alienation from their fellow beings; although Souza and Raza lived abroad for long years, neither seemed to have had a bad time socially. Souza was the more outgoing; Raza was settled in Paris having married Janine Mongillat, a fellow artist. She passed away in 2002 and he decided to come back.
Souza went into financial decline in late-middle and old age. Husain died wealthy but in tragic exile, Raza survives. None of the three has made his reputation as a landscape painter, although Raza could have, but he prudently understood the artistic temper of Paris from his time (the early 1950s) onwards, and therefore refrained.
Sailoz Mukherjea and Gopal Ghosh were the two modern Indian artists who celebrated the landscape they chose to paint. Each was a virtuoso who, in the mood, celebrated nature with a fervour understandable in the French Impressionists from a happier time. Sailoz and Gopal Ghosh are forgotten and are marginal figures in the art auctions. Their celebration of the palpable beauty of the world is now considered passé. Their work may give pleasure to some fuddy-duddies such as this writer but what about the young? They are ones who count because they have time on their side.
(Partha Chatterjee is a writer on the arts based in Delhi.)
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