I'm an impostor. I stumbled into modern Indian art while researching a fairly unknown British artist called Francis Newton Souza. As it turned out, Souza had had a bit to do with India in his early life, but in 1949, after a few professional set backs, he left Bombay and went to London, where he enjoyed a modicum of success before hightailing it to New York and oblivion in the late 1960s. That was the story I knew. And then I read some more and was reminded that history is a form of fiction. It filters, separates and compartmentalises events to fit ideologies, theories, needs. Twist the kaleidoscope and another pattern appears.
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Originality in art, as elsewhere, is a form of inspired appropriation. Every innovation has a lineage, every picture a precedent. Yet an individual style is unique. This is not so much a contradiction as a paradox. When Souza acknowledged his debt to Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Rouault, among others, and simultaneously said that no one had ever painted like him, he stated a truth that applies to any artist who has a personal style.
For Souza that style is most identifiable when he forces the slithery substance of oil paint into a scaffold of thick black lines that describe rudimentary human or architectural forms. There's not much attention to elaborate composition, or such niceties of virtuoso painting as linear perspective and colour harmony. His is an art of stark contrasts and rough edges. Stylistically it shares much with Expressionism, but conceptually it is closer to another tradition. Born in Goa and educated at a Jesuit school in Bombay, Souza was familiar with Roman Catholic imagery and often cited the icons of the Goan churches as a primary source for his own work. Those images do not merely declaim doctrine, they induce religious experience within the devout. As such they are from a different order of art to that of Expressionism, with its emphasis on subjective experience and self-expression; they are a form of public rhetoric intended to communicate a message of the highest importance and obliterate the worshipper's ego as it encounters the divine. In technique and tone this is not subtle art; the pervasive and emotionally overwrought images of Christ and the saints in the full gore of their martyrdom are an assault intended to drive the message home and break down resistance.
Souza adapted this forthright manner of address to his own purposes. Over the years he created a dramatic public persona. The photos he posed for, the prose he wrote, the things he said, contributed to a sense that he inhabited a world beyond the bourgeois, full of wonders and horrors. Yet, in truth, that persona was limiting. In his writings and paintings, Souza was an artist pushing against more than middle class convention. At its best his mature work is an uncompromising exploration of the nature of the self and its annihilation either through an encounter with the divine or the erotic. For sure there are the satirical swipes at institutional hypocrisy, particularly within the church and commerce, but these are easy targets, ones Souza could hit with his eyes shut. It is only when he addresses the grander theme that his full powers become apparent. Within this body of work the cityscapes occupy a special position. These dark, glowering agglomerations are the antithesis of the ideal or heavenly city. Where the Renaissance artists posited a model of rational planning bathed in radiant light, Souza substitutes a ramshackle heap of rickety buildings packed in on one another and then casually throws in such a title as Paddington, one of the most rundown areas of London. But such pictures are not sermons on the degrading nature urban living conditions; Souza relishes this reality. It is here that the festering mess and complexity of humanity reveals itself shorn of its pretensions to wholesome order.
Like those images in the churches of Goa, Souza set his work at 'stun', but whereas religious doctrine rushed in to fill the awed silence of the Goan faithful, with Souza something more nebulous seeped in. It wasn't Existentialism, as he remained convinced that there was a higher force at work in the universe. No, it was a sort of agnosticism; a belief in a force beyond the self but a profound ambiguity about its morality. If Souza's paintings repulse, and some surely do, it is because they both reveal us to ourselves and acknowledge the torrential energy of a life force beyond the individual, which will annihilate each of us in turn.
That is not to say Souza only worked in one register. There are other, gentler facets to his work; some paintings are tender, even quiet in mood, and demonstrate an elegant handling of paint, colour and form. Yet he is less sure-footed when making such pictures and they can seem mawkish. Not so his contemporary and co-founder of the Bombay Progressives, Akbar Padamsee. Although the earliest paintings in this show demonstrate Padamsee's debt to Cézanne's treatment of form and space they are more than homage: they provide an insight into some of his abiding concerns. Nature Morte a la Carafe et au verre is a static image. The relatively flat perspective sets out a rational spatial arrangement with the interior divided into three clear zones: the tabletop, the left and the right background sections. The inherent stability of this scheme is complemented by the apparent solidity of the objects, which is achieved partly through the use of thick paint that literally enhances the physicality of the bottle and glass, and the use of shadow and colour to establish spatial relations. By contrast colour is used to confuse space in Paysage Urbain. The boundaries between form and space are dissolved within a flux of abstracted shapes and exquisitely subtle colour harmonies. As individual elements lose their identity and flow into the whole, the painting gathers a strong sense of movement. These twin concerns of movement and form find a psychological dimension in the recent watercolours and metascapes. With the watercolours, the myriad touches of light and dark tones form a trembling web on to which the monochrome figures are projected. Simultaneously insubstantial and real, these images capture a sense of a fleeting moment and a psychological condition. The shimmering metascapes, which are made with oil paint and a range of colour, are physically more substantial though they describe a world beyond the physical and perhaps the self.
There is also in Padamsee's late watercolours a sense of melancholy which is faintly reminiscent of Ram Kumar's urban paintings of the 1950s. Wrought in a naïve style the pathos of those images of ordinary individuals caught in the grind of life was part of the social realist tendency that Kumar was then associated with. His predilection for such subject matter and his membership of the Communist Party led some critics to read these paintings as political statements, but Kumar did not, and still does not, consider himself to have been a political artist. To him his paintings of the 1950s simply represent his personal sense of isolation as a foreigner living in Paris. And consequently when he found that his concerns had moved away from social exile and isolation he developed a more abstracted style better suited to his new subject matter. Crucial to this development was the Benares series of the 1960s. As is well known, Kumar was fascinated by Benares, a city shrouded by death and an attendant spirituality. As the series unfolded, the city was represented as a heaped island of irregular, rectangular patches of paint floating on, and sometimes dissolving into, a monochrome ground. The juxtaposition of these two elements, the formed and the amorphous, served a metaphor for the passage from life to death.
If the Benares series is a meditation on death, then the late landscape paintings concentrate on life. The vibrant colours, strong rhythms and shimmering surfaces convey a sense of restless vitality. In Untitled 2006 everything is in flux. The centrifugal rhythm of the spiral composition whirls the eye around the canvas, never allowing it to linger for more than a moment over any detail before sweeping it along. And round and round it goes, the wondrous cycle of life.
There is here a formal connection with Raza's mesmerising L'arbre du mal and his recent abstracts Summer and Earth. However, the dynamic arrangement of colour and form in Raza's work is more often directed towards a specific symbolic purpose. L'arbre du mal, translated literally as the tree of evil, is composed of a dancing patchwork of vibrant colours abutting a the black expanse of the tree; the one emitting energy and the other a deathly absorption of light. This tendency towards symbolism led to the established lexicon of signs. In Bindu the harmonious co-existence of the circle and square suggests an ideal state which many cultures have associated with the juxtaposition of those two shapes . But it serves as more than a symbol; the experience of looking at the picture is in itself restful, almost meditative, as the eye is led through darkening rings to the black inner circle, and vice versa.
By contrast Gaitonde's sensual abstraction is more ambiguous. However much the luminous forms of Untitled 1987 suggest letters or ideograms, they remain abstract fragments. The livid orange and black fungal smudges wreath it in an air of decay, as if it was rotting down to its constituent parts - a type of picturesque ruination. Yet Gaitonde described his painting as non-objective and said that his principal interest was the arrangement of colour, line and form without literal or metaphoric reference. The challenge for any artist following this path is to prevent the mark from being read as representing something else, be it a letter, a figure or simply creating the illusion of real space. It is exactly this threshold that Gaitonde's work explores. There is a sense in his paintings that the marks before us are right on the edge of organising themselves into something recognisable but they never quite do. It is this visual ambiguity that breathes life into the work.
At the end comes the masterful painting of Husain, an artist with such a facility for figuration that he has painted in several styles with equal success. While Husain's interest in Indian cultural traditions is clearly relevant to his art it is not what marks him out as an outstanding painter. Husain's predilection for mythological subject matter means that for the most part he has been a narrative painter. The ability to tell a story in a single image requires particular skills and Husain excels at them. From the reflective mood of Nude Women Abstract to the energy and terror of Wounds, it is clear that Husain has a masterful grip on the pictorial elements of line, colour and form and an ability to convey a range of emotions convincingly. But to paint narratives an artist also needs an acute sense of imagination and composition. In his most ambitious works the positioning of figures in relation to one another and the space and objects around them is often startlingly complex but rarely confused. Indeed it is through this complexity that his paintings often gain the extraordinary narrative richness that has marked Husain out as a major figure.
It often used to be said that Husain was the only artist among the post-Independence generation who had an international reputation. While there are now others joining him on that stage, it is worth reflecting on what that means. To have such a position suggests not merely that audiences in other countries know Husain's work, but that they find it relevant. There is an irony in this, as Husain is also the one artist commonly identified as engaging most closely with what is called the 'indigenous' culture of India, and may therefore be considered the least international in subject matter. Ultimately, however, such ranking of individuals is a diversion. What matters and all that most artists want is for their work to be looked at without preconception or prejudice. For a long time modern art from India had a low profile in Britain and there were many reasons for this, some to do with the individuals involved, some cultural and some historic. Perhaps, as the world changes and new histories are written, a new audience is emerging.
Toby Treves, London, 2006