After graduating with a painting degree from Lancashire, a Commonwealth scholarship allowed Lazaro to enrol at MSU Baroda for a Masters. Whilst there, Bannuji (the late Bannu Ved Pal Sharma, master miniature artist of Jaipur) was recommended to him by Nilima and Gulammohammed Sheikh. Lazaro became an itinerant fixture in Bannuji?s studio and was apprenticed to him, on an off, for the better part of ten years. Those years in Rajasthan were decisive. The submission to a guru and the traditions of the art of Indian studios was amply reciprocated by its cultural values which gave him his métier and anchored him.
For his PhD, Desmond studied the surviving miniature painting workshops across Rajasthan, choosing to specialize on the cotton painted Pichhvais of the Pushtimarga sect at Nathdwara. This brought him into close contact with several masters of the art. Their studios at Nathdwara, Udaipur, Bhilwara and Jaipur, have a fluctuating population of migrant artists and apprentices, paper makers, burnishers, mineral and gem stone procurers. Then there are pigment grinders, those who prepare the ground for a painting, others who ink the outline on the final sketch, and there are those who shade and colour. Finally there are those who paint the face and ultimately there is the master who paints the eye that gives life to the painting. In his years spent studying the tradition, Desmond participated in each of the different processes.
In his work we see two parallel traditions at play, one which is the traditional Indian system with its own universe of practitioners, community, methods and motivations and the other which comes from the tradition of artists of the modern age that emphasise individual agency. The dichotomy in these parallel traditions is not small. One lays emphasis on the celebrity of the individual painter who is expected to articulate a new and original style while the other expects a tradition to be followed and works served to the temple and its pilgrims, ideally without care for signatures. While the pichhvai tradition he learnt expects the art to be narrative or to fulfil a devotional purpose, the modernist painter in him is programmed to give stress to the individual “secular” image. One must naturally expect him to be unable to keep the two worlds separate; combining the stereotypes of both and forcing us to create a different point of view from which to appreciate his work.
The tricky practicalities of running a traditional painting studio in a contemporary climate are equally part of this dichotomy. The studio cannot function single-handedly. Pigments have to be made as do the papers, cloth, preparatory filling in of backgrounds, etc. This demands a complex and subtle relationship of power and exchange between the main artist / head of a studio and the others who supply or provide services of varying degrees of labour and creativity.
The khadi - cotton cloth - used for the large works is the traditional material for pichhvais. It has a particularly close weave, enabling the pigment paint to form a flat even surface, much like paper. Initially the cloth is starched onto a board with arrowroot (the traditional binder) and upon completion the cloth is then simply pulled off the board.
The sheets of paper are handmade by Zakir Husain of Sanganer, Rajasthan. The paper pulp is made from 100% cotton rag, a method dating back to early Mughal / Iranian traditions and akin to Japanese paper making, in which individual sheets are 'lifted' with a bamboo stretcher from a vat of cotton pulp. These sheets are then placed onto a wall and air dried. After drying each sheet is hand burnished with a large (goti - an agate stone attached to wooden handle) on a semi-circular wooden frame, thus polished the paper is ready for painting.
Jaipur has been the trading city for gem stones and minerals for centuries. Our contemporary political vicissitudes notwithstanding quantities of Lapis, Malachite, Indigo, Azurite, Cinnabar, Lac, Kaolin, Conch shells et al are still trading along the same ancient routes from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, to be made available in the Jaipur markets. Lazaro’s technique of painting, be it cloth or paper, follows the traditional methods of miniature and pichhvai painting. Hence all pigments colours are prepared by hand according to the four principle methods of production; semi-precious mineral stones, organic, alchemical and earth.
Semi-precious pigments are made from mineral rocks and stones extracted from the earth, commonly known as 'stone colours', such as blue lazwardi (lapis lazuli), green danafrang (malachite), white: kharia (chalk white), orange: desi sindoor (minium), red: hinglu (vermilion cinnabar). Organic pigments are made from plant, animal or insect, known as lake or dye colours, for example, blue: neel (indigo), red: lak (lake lac). Alchemical pigments are made by chemical process; for example, white: safida/jasta (lead white), green: zangal (verdigris), orange: sindoor (minium). Earth Pigments are made from soft earth deposits; for example, yellow: ramraj (yellow ochre), red: geru (red ochre).
One studio-assistant in fact, is perpetually devoted to the production of pigments for Lazaro. Mention must also be made of Chitarmal Kumawat, perhaps appropriately described as Lazaro’s foreman who is also a Jaipuri miniature painter. Sourcing supplies of gemstones and other raw materials, ensuring that each constituent element in the studio is exploited to his optimum creative satisfaction, administering and managing the people and commodities involved in this collaborative act and yet retaining his own status as principal artist is a complex tightrope for Lazaro. These relations have to be founded on respect, love and a shared commitment to the act of painting.
As punters and purveyors of modern and contemporary art groomed by its aesthetics and modes of production, for us Lazaro’s work thus hangs uncomfortably in the balance between ethnic craftsmanship and contemporary art. It is in fact, symptomatic of the changing nature (and I shall refrain from saying „problematic?) of contemporary art practice co-opting modernism and traditional art, fashion and graphic design, photography and movies.
Lazaro says his work ten to fifteen years ago was inspired by Frank Auerbach’s large canvases with expressionistic, free-flowing, rapid and dramatic swathes of oil on canvas. He also remains inspired by David Hockney and the “Kitchen-sink painters” of 1950s London exalting the minutiae of everyday in vivid colour. Like Auerbach’s work Lazaro’s sketches are carefully built up almost making visible the ghosts of the previous versions of the drawing,andsomewhere in this melange of lines one’s eye settles on the form he is portraying. This however, is a technique that is aesthetically antithetical to the tradition of miniature painting where a single clean deft line is supposed to capture the essence of the form or portrait. In about 1997 Lazaro’s line work or sketches departed from the Auerbach mode, although he remains a fan of tonal variations and thick layerings of paint in his work.
Even before he met Bannuji he had already started making sketches of miniatures and pichhvais, captivated in the former by colour, detail and composition and in the latter by the idea of Krishna and by his seeming absence in those pichhvais which substitute him for a tree. The exposure to the traditional or desi colours however, was to be a transformative experience that allowed him to start the process of finding his calling. As he learnt the art, it became essential to adopt a different quality of line.
In 1997 he completed a second Master’s at the Prince of Wales Institute of Architecture in Visual, Islamic and Traditional Art. Here his experiences in Rajasthan were given a formal focus. His Professor, Keith Critchlow’s views on sacred geometry became a fundamental inspiration through which he began to formally approach not just pichhvais, but all painting. The Prince’s School of Traditional Art’s ideas were built on the philosophical works of William Morris, Rene Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, Ananda Coomaraswamy and their foundations in Platonism and the Perennial philosophy; espousing the virtue of traditional handcrafted art, its spiritual and civilizational values as opposed to mass-produced or industrialised work. Critchlow’s Kairos -Foundation for the recovery of traditional values in art and science continues to promote these principles. Lazaro worked then for years in the traditional vein producing pichhvais and wrote a PhD that was published in 2005 titled as ‘Materials, Methods & Symbolism in the Pichhvai Painting Tradition of Rajasthan’ (Mapin, India). The book illustrates each aspect of the art from iconography to colour symbolism and geometry to pigment preparation.
It is only natural that while he was apprenticed to traditional masters his work was very much faithful to the iconography and techniques of the pichhvais. His early independent projects also show adherence to that iconography. In time his pichhvais became more elaborate and grander in scale, a single one taking over a year to complete. At the same time he also started deconstructing the elements of the pichhvai, isolating them and producing a large number of sections of pichhvais as complete works. These focussed usually on Krishna’s cows, but could also be just the gopis or just a part of Shrinathji?s face. These works mark the first main departure in Lazaro?s work that starts showing a graphic sensibility which has become the corner stone of his work now.
At about the same time however, his exposure to Pahari painting made him rapidly assimilate its compositional aesthetic. New ideals and mentors emerged: Nainsukh’s loving clean lines, controlled and restricted palette and ability to disguise the most exacting artistic practice in seemingly clean and simple works. At the same time, the “Basohli”, Kulu, Mandi styles with their rich saturated backgrounds of colour that have inspired so many artists of our time have also left their impression here.
Looking at the majority of paintings in this exhibition without taking into view the entire body of his work, critics may argue that the paintings lack originality in spirit and composition, they are not as detailed as you would expect from a finely trained miniature painter, and that he works from photographs. But to be limited to such a superficial view would be missing the point. Although his work starts with bold brushstrokes it always comes down to the tiniest of brushes in the end. This brings it back to being a detailed miniature, gives it that necessary breath of life and takes it away from being a photographic work. His academic, subtle and controlled shading and extraordinary quality of pigment create tonality that sucks light in to the painting. He further limits his already limited palette to take the viewer to a heightened level of aesthetic narcissism. He appears to work along the dictum that less is more. And certainly in the massive paintings on cloth, particularly in the one of the moving red train, one is brought face to face before a certain trompe l’oeil pictorial illusionism; where there is a productive existence of the viewer rather than a passive voyeur.
It also goes without saying that his eye is choosing to photograph certain things, these are typical objects of small town and urban India isolated from their context. Most of the work focuses on a vehicle from the seventies or vignettes typical of India: the slightly old verdigris Vespa, a rusting white Ambassador, the clichéd auto-rickshaw, the small roadside Ferris wheel style jhula, a bicycle, the vendor bearing his basket of goods on his head, juxtaposed against the mass produced plastic chair. In this body of work at least, Lazaro’s vision is not so much Orientalist as derived from the “Kitchen-sink” ideals: making precious and valorising the everyday, and the relics of an India that is fast disappearing. The selective isolation of an element suspended in an eternal space makes it trapped as if for inspection, for delectation. The open space invites the viewer to enter the space and live within it, alongside the relic of what was once everyday, but has now been made precious, in gemstone colour. The unfinished portions of the paintings invite the viewer to participate in its process and method. The ideas and themes are played-out but his sophistication comes out in doing it all rather well. He paints what amuses him and with an aesthetic that he strongly holds on to in all aspects of his life.
These are images that appeal to him spontaneously and intrinsically; but in my conversations with him, I discovered that subconsciously behind them lies a compelling personal story. The first ambassador car he painted was his son Emile’s toy. His wife Agathe, famously drove one around Delhi when they first met. The work of this craftsman then is led by his hand as much as the work of this artist is led by his eye: the method is in harmony with the medium and the inspiration.
Lazaro’s work for this exhibition can be broken broadly into two types. The first makes mundane objects into precious artefacts; their preciousness enhanced by his use of pure jewel colours. The second group are more recent works. These have movement and narrative. The earlier works are more the things he loves about India - objects for you as the viewer, and for him as a painter - precious spaces to see, rather than the secondset,which are spaces to be, spaces which he inhabits, where the colour and form of India is not enough, but is the space in which he contemplates and negotiates a life.
Lazaro says, “In these new works I continue to employ traditional techniques in a craftsman like manner through the stringent preparation of all my materials: cloth, paper, brushes and pigment colours. These materials are an integral part of the process of painting however by the changing the imagery “context and meaning” inevitably shift. The pichhvai scale continues although the iconography moves from the sacred to the secular; rusting cars, shards of modern life, modernity itself is animated, suspended in the miniature format. The personal narrative shuffles miniature paintings of the Jahangir period - those psychological portraits of people and animals - to memories of the industrial urban landscape of my childhood. In both, the often-discarded moments, people and places, ordinary and everyday things, become elevated and transmuted”.
There is a journey from the early to the new paintings. The direction that he wants to take his work now, is to motion and narrative. The man in the Union Jack tee-shirt behind the fence was a specific instance that Lazaro photographed. It also speaks to him at multiple levels: personal / public, Indian / non-Indian. The protagonist is actually a bricklayer on the other side of the green grass. It is an image about what is happening to Indians today. But again, it is also autobiographical. Anglo-Indian, he is part of each but not included wholly in any one country. The fence is equally about class and place.
“The Fall” came about after thinking about close friends, secure on the outside, but actually falling off their seats of reason and being. Lazaro rehearsed the moment and Chitarmal took the photo of him falling. In the sketch, The Fall captures that moment when you are suspended - just hanging in there - when you don’t know where or if or how you are going to fall. A state of suspended animation. The suspension is personal as much as it is sociological. Lazaro goes to the extent of saying, “It’s also about the falling of the man, and the second coming of the age of the feminine to replace that”. This is an idea that he feels characterises our times when we must accept our fragile state of suspension between one social order and an unknown other world.
Locating himself in this fragile utopia we understand the portrait of him balancing on the precipice between conventionally sitting square or letting-go and falling off his moulded plastic chair. Then in the next work we actually see that he does let go, and allows himself to fall. And when he falls, he is cushioned by the mattress which is Indian.
For Lazaro this letting-go is possible because of a faith that under-girds his practice. Two statements by him sum it all up, “I paint because I love it” and his realisation that being one with it, without a worry is reinforced by the faith that if you ‘fall from the cliff, the angels will catch you’.
From the catalogue of the exhibition 'The hand that leads the eye leads the hand', published by Gallery Chemould (2008).