Keshav Malik essays

The relation between painting, sculpture and architecture is a pertinent one when thinks of the mural. All monuments belonging to ancient civilisations are examples of close collaboration between these arts. Yet it is difficult to think of the matter precisely because of the general character of the principles that would have to be invoked which are of a discouraging triteness and banality. On the other hand the neglect - deliberate or fortuitous - of these principles is probably the cause of the anarchy which, as far as these relations are concerned, has reigned throughout the modern period. This anarchy has done nothing towards creating worthwhile ensembles - that is to say, monuments on any sorts of scale, public or private.

In addition it appears that, although their development has been parallel in time, architecture on the one hand and painting and sculpture on the other, have followed somewhat different paths. Thus architecture has conformed to functional, national and organic standards, resulting in unbroken surfaces, sharply defined masses and functional materials such as glass, steel, iron and rubber. Painting on the contrary has moved towards a complicated geometry which gave the (often misleading) impression of extreme simplicity only for a very short period in the early twenties. In any case surrealism and the liberation of the forces of instinct soon shattered the rational framework of this speculative geometry. Sculpture, which closely followed the tribulations of painting, has never, in regard to the subject under consideration, provided us with any new elements - any elements, that is to say, that could take a definite place in an architectural ensemble - so that nowadays no one knows what to do with it.

As regards painting, the reason for this state of affairs can be sought in the necessity the artist has felt of displaying a boundless individuality; in the cult of an absolute freedom that defies all restraint and in the unique, spacious, particular, magical, incantatory or ritual character of works of painting or sculpture. A work of pictorial art is addressed to the subconscious as well as to the senses. A work of architectural art today, with a few rare exceptions, is addressed only to the aestheticized functions of life. The fact which at first appears rather odd, is that the foremost representatives of contemporary painting have never been attracted by architecture properly so-called, whose development they had themselves (although involuntarily) influenced. This is extremely regrettable no doubt but perhaps less accidental than it seems.

Collaboration between architecture, painting and sculpture is closely related to another activity which has recently acquired a bad reputation - decoration. But in art all bad reputations are transitory, being merely symptoms of irritation with some particular form of art supposed to be degenerate, out-distanced or exhausted. Later on however other artists appear who suddenly discover in it new possibilities. It is these new possibilities that we are concerned with here, not traditional forms.

The disrepute into which all decoration has fallen resulted obviously in the opposite extreme - its rejection. It would seem as if in architecture a wave of puritanism had sought to do away with the flesh and blood and to show the mere sinews, the nerves and the bony structure. The very colours used were abstract, austere, frigid. The only harmonies considered pleasing were extremely limited in range - black and red or brown, beige and grey. It is scarcely necessary to point out the Nordic character of these harmonies which however were often effective in other locales.

Personally it seems to me, the first thing to be done is to give life to the material used and, in order to do this to get rid of a quite considerable number of the taboos which are still current among architects. A new kind of moulding for cornices might be designed which, while still remaining, if this is desired, sober and austere, could be ready to receive, of its own accord as it were, painted surfaces or low or high reliefs. It is not entirely possible to pass from an entirely bare surface which does not ‘give’ in any way, to a coloured surface and even less to a relief or a statue. It is the purpose of moulding and profiles, shallows and projections to create such a passage, but just as there are ancient mouldings that are quite charming but somewhat mannered, so there could be cleaner and sharp mouldings which could accord with present day architecture. These principles having been stated, it becomes possible to imagine an architecture which would lose nothing of what it had already acquired, but whose every part would be enlivened by the play of shadows and the contrast of material - colour and tone being no longer something that is incorporated in the surface; the surface being indeed conceived simultaneously with its material and colour. Colour should form part and parcel of the material and it should not be possible to disassociate them. From the technical point of view I would think fresco and mosaic had the advantage by their very nature but certainly other materials should not be excluded.

The colours of a mural should adhere closely to the surface and never acquire the character of an impressionist or actual perspective. In a figurative painting some sort of stereoscoping quality can be discreetly employed but this should never be carried so far as to produce a box-like effect which would break up the unity of the wall, a unity which it is the business of the painter to respect, or even to enhance. The perspective of tone or line can indeed be usefully reversed at the points where this danger might become pressing. Curved volumes would be acceptable only with a strict minimum of modelling. The vanishing point or points can be employed as desired, for modern painting is not interested in the illusion of reality.

Non-figurative painting could play an important part in animating architectural surfaces. It would not be surprising if this turned out to be its ultimate ambition.

For such a programme as this to be successful, it is obviously essential that the architect, the painter and the sculptor should work not separately but as a team.

Our epoch, which has seen the flowering of art in the full sense of the term, well, it would seem, not have left to posterity a single monument to its glory. Can this be a universal law and must we suppose that the first creators of a style are not those who complete it?

Perhaps a mural is unnecessary to Corbusier’s architecture in Chandigarh. It stands or falls by its own strengths. There a modern house with its plain walls, scanty furniture and no decoration can, and does, look commanding and correct.

But we have hardly any such self-sufficient architecture in Delhi. Here the time has come to try to relate painting and sculpture and design to architecture. This at once depends onthegrowth of the new community - a community closely knit by ideas and yet able to preserve the private and personal. What we have are only mere beginnings to transform our outer environment. But there are indications that the community’s commitments to our visual surrounding are increasing, a goal in which architecture, the mother of all plastic arts, is yoked to its sister arts - supporting and supported by them.

The murals that we have here in Delhi are few and far between. Rashtrapati Bhavan, Plaza and Odeon cinemas, Vigyan Bhavan, Nigambod Ghat, the TMB Buildings have murals on their facades or interiors. The best of these efforts do succeed in doing what a good mural should in a limited way.

They achieve by means of colour contrasts, linear contrasts or even textural contrasts a breaking up of plain surface. They make flowering stone out of a dead wall, give life to a floor, or as a stucco moulding or carved ornament, used to do on the façade of a building. That is, they create a certain proportion of decorated surface to plain surface to satisfy the ‘divine’ or golden laws of harmony. Earlier the architects knew how to do this with a line or circle placed just in the right place on a white wall. The Islamic architects knew and used this principle very successfully.

It would seem that our architects today have often completely failed in this primary necessity. The murals on some of the Delhi buildings have indeed come as a blessing to them and done what should have been done in the first place by architecture itself. But being decoration, the murals are not a vital part of the building but only something by themselves. The correct placing of each gives it however value as a reciprocal gesture. The wall is dead without the picture, the picture is dead without the wall. Probably many will argue that is enough, but that is not what the mural is meant to achieve. A great mural lives by itself; without either receiving or giving life to the wall it is also able to transcend the wall and even the room. One could write the same about sculpture, of course.

To be more specific the following muralists in Delhi should be taken into account:

M F Husain’s murals as on the income tax building in Indraprastha estate or on the front of Dhoomimal Gallery, Connaught Place, are of the simplest design, in his well known manner. No striking contrast emerges between wall and tile. The income-tax locale is not of the best, facing as it does the traffic on Ring Road. The sheer wall itself attenuates the decoration. Besides the material used, the tile is lustreless. One fails to notice it.

Similarly the Dhoomimal front is ordinary. Here, however, because of a lack of open space, the feeling conveyed is of a cramped mural.

Satish Gujral’s work by contrast is wide and varied. He employs folk motifs; and uses wood, metal, ceramic and glass to create his rich textures. Rajdoot Hotel and Intercontinental Oberoi, to name only two locales from the very many that he has worked on, are fascinating. The artist is able to pack in a little space endless variations. And the relief always stands out from the wall. This is generally true except in cases like Baroda House where it appears top-heavy. In general the work inside the buildings comes at a lower level with the eye and is more fetching. In the case of Shastri Bhavan the architectural ordinariness does scant justice to the two murals on the entrances. Prashar’s mural, similarly, on a wall of Nirman Bhavan, is top-heavy. The rounded stone background on which the stylized recreations of machines in maroons and yellows are placed is attractive at a great distance. Close inspection gives them away. Apart from this the artist has not employed local motifs which are to his disadvantage.

Ravinder follows somewhat in line with Satish Gujral in his materials of tiles, glass and also his symbols, below the large fountain in Connaught Place. The circular wall is appropriate, and dramatizes the total effect.

These are only small beginnings, and have yet to make a mark on the character of the city. But they are necessary to bring the painter or the sculptor out of his involvement with canvas or concrete alone to a larger dimension, one in which the general public may be involved.

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1972
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