Published by Tarq Gallery, Mumbai, 2017
A portrait is a story of time depicted by its subject.
Portraiture, one of the foremost forms of art that illustrated the personal lives of people, is also a medium of history to understand power, religion, politics, status and aspects of an era through the portrayed objects and lifestyles. In almost every visual art form - from drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture and coin reliefs, to photography and the most experimental contemporary art works - the theme of portraiture has been a constant. The manner in which portraits were perceived and depicted adapted with the period they were created in and thereby identified time and places.
The Renaissance period is crucial while exploring the manner in which time changed portraiture. During the Renaissance, artists experimented with mediums and subject matter to further evolve the portrait. Subjects were originally depicted against plain backgrounds. However, this changed as additional props and references to their lifestyle began to be featured alongside them to convey their status in society, profession or passion. Through association with the surroundings, portraits extended beyond just simple depictions, to those around which stories could be woven.
The post-impressionist artists such as Matisse, Munch, Picasso and Schiele explored a different direction of portraiture in the early 20th century. They focused less on replicating what was before them and more on aspects of personality, character and inner psyche of the represented subject through colour and form with psychological references. Popular culture in the 1960’s saw artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein popularising the portrait with the idea of commoditisation during a demand for excess.
Tanmoy Samanta’s works hark back to several art historical references and his in-depth knowledge and study of art-history and literature. His works bare references to the Fluxus movement, Bauhaus, Dadaist works, Japanese prints, the coexistence of interiors and exteriors in Indian miniature paintings, the literary works of Kafka and Marquez and the study of signs and symbols to discover alternate meanings. Samanta’s works are also strongly influenced by cubism and surrealism, where simple forms, monochromatic colours and fantasy prevailed. His influences from Indian art history are derived from the 18th - 19th century Company School, Bengal School and Santiniketan School of painting, from where he adopted the technique of opaque watercolours. This is evident in the artist’s use of gouache and the mysterious transparent layers in his work that leave the viewer searching deeper in the hope to discover more. With relation to these aspects, Samanta’s portraits bear an almost anthropologic reference with the use of sculptural elements along with painting.
The artist’s tendency to use readymade objects seeped in with his experimental book sculptures inspired by synthetic cubism. The series began in 2014 when the Samanta’s father, a schoolteacher, started separating the books that had lost their relevance in the age of the Internet. Samanta retained a few books, and experimented with giving them a new identity. He describes the book sculptures as an extension of his paintings. Inspired by Anselm Kiefer’s book sculptures, which were about civilisation, war and violence; Samanta’s sculptures, turn instead, towards a personal monologue with world sorrow. The process of creating these sculptures, make them appear like books from the outside but open up to reveal another universe inside, literally and visually.
In ‘Document’ (2016), a pair of lungs merges with the network of threads and stitched lines that bind the book, while ‘Night Eyes’ (2016) and ‘Relic’ (2016) are visions into time and fossils from the past. ‘The Banned Book’ (2016) is warned off by thin sharp razor blades - questioning the content, or perhaps the object itself.
Samanta treats a portrait as an ambiguous object of inquiry rather than a piece of information or representation. His works generate questions, construct meanings and delve into details that may often be overlooked at a superficial level. The imagery of his work and subjects is borrowed from his surroundings that further take on another meaning of exploring their world with reference to their connections with the personal and public. Samanta presents the portrait of the material world through banal objects, thereby teasing the minds of viewers to look beyond the literal, and into inner appearances and passages of the mind and soul. Similar to the contours of time, the definitive form of the portrait constantly shifts. With his preference to create a language of solitude and reflection, the artist attempts to redefine portraiture. Drawing from the known and the unknown, from memory and from imagination, Samanta’s host of isolated images, narrate in minimal depictions, the tales of time, objects, motives and consequences.
A series of ‘Still Life’ portraits attempt to characterise objects similar to the style of portraiture, but also relook at the manner in which still-life can be depicted. Borrowing from the ‘Stream of Consciousness’, what one sees here is similar to the way in which our thoughts travel without the links and references that bind patterns and the flow of association and references in verbal dialogues or conversations. Unrelated objects come together to create a frame. The monologues or muted talks with the objects can be associated with their memories of time, travel and spaces. They are witnesses of occasions and have associations with someone’s life events. They could be heirlooms, abandoned, lost or misplaced items carefully preserved in a fold of memory. In ‘The Telephone’ for instance, the real and the surreal become united with the fish sitting quietly in place of the receiver, disconnecting connectivity to create a sound lapse. ‘The Pot’, a rather evocative work draws its ancestry from the artist’s family home, where his grandmother fed a crow with the belief to serve her parents. That fold of memory from the artist’s mind opens up to the viewers. Similarly the other objects from these series reside in minds of their past and are presented here with an opportunity to enter another’s memory with time.
The mediums chosen by Samanta are often metaphors and objects that contribute to understanding the larger picture of his paintings or sculptures. They are articles collected from the past. During the course of the artist’s work, they have suddenly found meaning and a magical lineage is conjured with the subject. The instinctive rendition of material by the artist leads to surreal compositions of portraits waiting to be discovered.
Though tempera is Samanta’s primary medium for his paintings, he has experimented with diverse materials. Hisinclinationtowardsobjects related to study and exploration is evident through the protractor and the maps. These make an appearance from Samanta’s old geometry and geography books, while frozen narratives and distant memories surface through animal imagery, fur, metal pins, stencils and other objects.
Protracted thoughts of the artist bear the appearance of studies and conversations in a set of protractor portraits and concentric circles. These thoughts are measured, weighed and delivered with a degree and structure of understanding the angles of his portrait series. The geometric abstraction of the protractor metaphorically suggests degrees in memory and universality.
While discussing images as a specific entity, Jacques Ranciére referred to them as an object of a twofold question - that of origin and of the end purpose; the uses that they are put to, and what they consequently result in. Samanta borrowing from this thought, has extended the way in which we look at an image, similar to the manner in which Berger described the way of seeing - “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”
A corresponding set of seven works to the protractor series is reminiscent of forms that appear familiar but cannot easily be identified. This familiarity opens up a new world of discovering, imagining and constructing memories and thoughts. The circular frames of this series derive their form from the faces of the protractor set, similar to an epilogue. The hints of identity that we may claim to know are never confirmed. Some are recognisable suggestions, while others are protracted beyond recognition by thought and time, reminiscing our associations with portraits from various periods.
The map is a recurrent theme in Samanta’s work. His favourite possession as a child, the globe was like a magic-ball for the artist with all its colours and beautifully complex maps. In his early work, ‘The Cartographer’s Paradox’ (2014), Samanta plays the role of a surveyor who morphs the lines dividing continents to create new shapes, boundaries and travel diaries on this unstable earth. The map appears once again in his recent portrait work ‘Scream IV’ (2016). A direct reference to Edvard Munch’s, ‘The Scream’ (1893), ‘Scream IV’, is almost a reaction to the horrific portrait of the structure of the world and map dissolving under conflict.
Describing ‘The Scream’ as the ‘Monalisa’ of our times, Samanta was haunted by this work and intrigued by how difficult it is to define our emotions in present times. He created five works in this series, referring to ‘The Scream’ as a symbol depicting anything from cheer or excitement, to anguish, protest, grief or a face-off of emotion and time. ‘Scream I’, dominated by fur, is a portrait of a woman with the soft white texture behaving as a metaphor for laughter. The portrait completes itself without any details, but just the suggestion of form. ‘Scream II’ references Dali and the surreal needles of time, while ‘Scream III’ becomes the face of time. Virginia Woolf’s, Mrs. Dalloway and a ‘Stream of Consciousness’ become the portrait of the vague passage of thoughts in time ‘Scream V’.
Focusing on the way in which mankind is jeopardising his own world, the artist mocks man in ‘Man Pointing’ (2016). A man sprouting a large brain and almost non-existence body attempts to pass a needle through a ring, making a perpetually useless act being carried-out by a fairly powerful and apparently knowledgeable creature. Further referencing the deterioration of his surroundings, Samanta creates a portrait suggesting the perils of nature. ‘The Gas Mask’ (2016), which would traditionally have been a portrait study of a bird, takes on a new dimension with the bird using a gas mask to filter out the smog and pollution. The skeletal looking gas mark harks extinction.
Through this series of portraits, Samanta creates an acceptance of looking at portraiture in a non-traditional manner. He experiments with medium and brings forward icons of time to re-characterise them in a contemporary context. In his works, they depict life, character, thoughts and metaphors. Through manifestation of ideas and experiments, the artist has extended the form of a portrait into the imagined realms of travel, time and imagination with the tales of books, objects and memories.
1] Jacques Ranciére – ‘The Politics of Aesthetics’ (edited and translated by Gabriel Rockhill, Bloomsbury, 2014)
2] John Berger – ‘Ways of Seeing’
Published by Tarq Gallery, Mumbai, 2017