Artists: Notes on Art Making

In the title of this essay I have made a statement which I shall try to explain in the following paragraphs. The biographical details like when he became the Director of Kunika Art Centre, or how many years he served the Lalit Kala Akademi as its secretary, will not find any place here. That he was also a poet, a painter and a photographer does not have immediate relevance to the subject. Because his affective and active presence was a critic to modern Indian art, covering the period from the mid fifties to the early eighties. Few art critics had worked so passionately and with so much involvement to promote modern art in India and to create an informed and appreciative audience. As for my personal memories of the man by the way of illuminating episodes, I have nothing to write about for the simple reason that I was more familiar with his writings than with the man.

Out of almost innumerable articles, reviews, introductions and monographs that he had written, the long pieces he wrote on the emergence of modern Indian painting stand out with a difference. The first twelve years between 1955 and 1967, when he took up analysing and explaining what was modern in Indian art to the slowly growing art audience in New Delhi, he was consciously evolving an ‘open system’ for art criticism which had appeared as a ‘minority’ viewpoint in the twenties and forgotten later.

A look back into the critical value system of the earlier generation will help us. The patriotic fervour and its consequent search for the national identity in our ancient art heritage supplied the ideology of the Neo-Bengal school. A conscious boycott of things European in art was considered a positive value. In fact, what the European orientalists were then propagating about our cultural heritage became the ideological core of art criticism in the first two decades of this century. Art appreciation then was dominated by archaeologists’ findings and the epic-puranic episodes. The story, the legend, or the theme became more important than the painting. That a painting could exist in its own right without little or no reference to noble themes and legends was not acceptable to “this monistic critique of aesthetic values which our archaeologists and essayists have chosen to advocate..” This is from a spirited attack on the closed system of aesthetic appreciation by Benoy Kumar Sarkar, writing from Paris, as early as 1922 (‘The Aesthetics of Young India’, Rupam, January 1922).

Had Richard Bartholomew been living and writing in the twenties, he would certainly have pitched in with Benoy Kumar Sarkar. The art criticism of the period, that is, the base from which Richard could not take off when he viewed the emergent modernism in Indian art, was best summarised by Sarkar in two categories: the historical art criticism and philosophical art criticism. The method of the former consisted in describing the paintings “limb by limb, telling the subject matter”, drawing attention to the costumes, and never rising above the descriptive plane. The latter analysed the ideas of ‘ideals’ the nine ‘rasas’, the message or the philosophy embedded in paintings or sculptures. When these art philosophers viewed a landscape Sesshu, a fifteenth century Japanese master, they analysed the symbolism of the pines and bamboos, but never the aesthetic appeal of the brushwork or the formal elements in a painting, Benoy Kumar raged. Rabindranath Tagore’s view of modern art, published early this century, also ardently advocated open system.

At this point I am tempted to quote from James Abott McNeill Whistler’s Ten O’ Clock lectures delivered in London in 1855. Talking about the Victorian critics and art scholars, Whistler came out against their literary preoccupations.

“A curious matter, in its effect upon the judgement of these gentlemen, is the accepted vocabulary of poetic symbolism… in dealing with nature: a mountain, to them, by habit, is synonymous with height - a lake, with depth - the ocean, with vastness - the sun with glory. So that picture with a mountain, a lake, and an ocean - however poor in paint is inevitably ‘lofty’. ‘vast’, ‘infinite’, and ‘glorious’ on paper”.

As if Whistler had heard about the long drawn out battle between the open system of art appreciation which Benoy Kumar Sarkar and others advocated, and the propagation of ‘Indianness’ as a positive aesthetic value by patriotic Indian critics of the twenties. In one of his repartees, loaded with venom, Whistler writes: “And so you find yourself….pleasantly pratting in print of ‘English Art’….You may as well talk of English Mathematics…: (Truth, Sep. 2 1886).

As it happened in the field of art so it happened in the field of science also. Let us have a glimpse of the parallel closed system in science before we come back to art appreciation. A closed system arises out of a persistent belief in the existence of a set of, universal and eternal verities that would explain and accommodate everything, including the emergent and the unknown. By the time the philosophers of science assimilated the findings of nineteenth century physics, and “were trying to make it a model for all knowledge”, explaining all natural phenomenon with a finality, many young physicists in the thirties felt that such a closed system would not accommodate the dizzying uncertainties of quantum physics and other destabilising findings in chemistry and biology. J. Bronowski puts it succinctly in his ‘Humanism and the growth of knowledge’ (‘A sense of the Future): “Frank Ramsey….had shown…. If the inferred units of a science are all defined as logical constructions, then the system which connects them cannot accommodate any new relations between them. In a less exact way, many young scientists felt that logical positivism was trying to make a closed system of science….”

The above arguments and the rapid transformation of our society underscore the necessity of an open system for criticising and appreciating modern art. A system which is not hidebound by the tenets of the past ‘golden ages’ of art in the East or in the West. Such tenets had already been broken by the Impressionists, the Fauves and the early expressionists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And it was not an accident that the radical change in the viewpoint of Cubists and the new world-view of the physicists were coeval. The concern of modern science, Bronowski points out, is with relation, with structure and shape. Any closed system like our Shilpa Shastras, or that of classical Greece or that of the Renaissance, is ridiculously insufficient for appreciating modern movement in art. Just imagine our approaching abstract art, or to be particular, that of Piet Mondrian, without any reference to structural relations. “And abstract sculpture often looks like an exercise in topology, exactly because the sculptor shares the vision of the topologist” (Bronowski). The Six Limbs of Indian Sculpture cannot besufficient for viewing modern sculpture.

Richard Bartholomew, as an art critic, waived aside this closed system of art appreciation which Benoy Kumar Sarkar challenged in his twenties. In his articles written during 1957-67 he went back again and again to the development of oil medium in the hands of emergent modern Indian painters like Hussain, Souza, Ram Kumar, Gaitonde, Satish Gujaral, Krishen Khanna, and to the slow transformation of the human figure and the familiar world in their paintings done in the new medium. He understood the modernist significance of the works of Amrita Sher-Gil and Rabindranath Tagore, and regretted that they could not become influences earlier because it was only in the fifties that the originals were in circulation (‘Modern Indian Painting’, Thought, August 26, 1967). In the fifties the pioneers of modern Indian art started exhibiting to an audience that was not prepared to accept art as a necessary extension of man’s secular and social being, and was unhappy and disturbed to see the destruction of artistic values which they accidentally picked up from cheap oleographs of Indian deities and ‘life-like’ images of tenth-rate European artists printed on calendars, to Richard it was not even a closed system - a hangover from the past. It was plain disinformation and a sad lack of system of any kind. In his essays and reviews he had to tell the perturbed viewers about the new elements in paintings for which the earlier forms, techniques and values had to be sacrificed. So that ‘sacrifices’ do not appear to the new art audience as “acts of demolition” (Max Kozloff quotes Leo Steinberg; Renderings). He had to tell them about modern sensibilities and their expression in new techniques in oil.

He was keenly aware of this gap between the audience and the new generation of painters” “Though there is a sizeable body of appreciators, and a constant, if limited, patronage, it must be admitted that for many the new painting is puzzling, if lively, phenomenon. The imagery and the visual language have yet become current. These have yet to be assimilated by the masses before people begin to see the sensibility of the age mirrored exactly in the forms employed by contemporary painter” (‘Criticism and Contemporary Indian painting - I’, Thought, June 15, 1957).

Unhampered by the dated concept of Indianness, Richard never felt any compulsion of reminding the artists of their borrowings from the European masters, and he appreciated the integrity of modern Indian painters for their “careful indigenous grafting” of the influence Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Rouault was wholesale transplantation. The sympathy and informed understanding with which he wrote about the early moderns, and the self-imposed responsibility for the hesitant, puzzled art audience, created an art environment which was never there before. Few art critics became so much a part of the modernist movement in Indian art, fewer still had put in so much effort and thought in evolving a critic’s credo.

He defended the modern painters when they were mistakenly criticised for their content and styles. It was difficult for the unprepared critics to appreciate the spectacles in the canvasses of Ram Kumar and Satish Gujaral, and in Husain they lamented over the lack of ‘finished drawing’.

“How Indian is modern Indian painting?”, to this frequently asked question, Richard answered, “As Indian as Indian culture today. As Indian as Indian politics today. As Indian as Indian education today.” And he also told facile critics that the sylvan scenes of the Indian miniatures done in tempera could not be repeated in oil, simply because the Indian painter, handling the new medum, must think in European art language.

One can gauge the depth of his feelings and involvement in such confident statement:

“ The anxious days for Modern Indian Painting are over and the formative exploratory phase has come to an end. Painters who individually launched the new movement in the mid-forties are consolidating their position.”

He was the critics of this formative, exploratory phase in modern Indian painting. This is also true of the state of art criticism in the fifties. His writings echoed the growing confidence and self-respect of the Indian artists. Let us share his exhilaration when he brings glad tidings:

“Indian painters have been exhibiting their work at London, Paris, Prague, Warsaw, New York, Cairo, Tokyo, Manila and Moscow; and if our painters have not been acclaimed as the geniuses of the age, their works have been viewed with sympathy and with interest and their exhibitions have had considerable successes. In some of the International Exhibitions in Asia our painters have ranked high” (‘Modern Indian Painting and its Dilemmas’, Cultural Forum, September 1958).

The growing art awareness among the public that the younger generation now finds congenial for starting dialogue with the audience, owes much to the writings of Richard Bartholomew.

He also started the dialogue between painters of his generation. In his critical reviews and monographs, the painters found their search for individual visual idiom, their lapses and excellence - all reasoned out and articulated in terms of words. It was like viewing themselves in a mirror, recognising and appreciating each other’s problems and dilemmas, failiures and successes. The Indian artists needed a ‘feel’ of being active members of a community, a sense of direction, and encouragement when the public was not ready to accept them. And they found them in his writings.

As a regular art column writer of the Times of India, when the artists of his generation had become venerable major painters, and the modern language of painting was more or less accepted by the growing art audience and a new class of patrons, Richard appeared a bit tired after the long crusade he fought for modern Indian art. He wrote in a relaxed mood, sometimes analytically descriptive, leaving the value judgement to the viewers. Pontificating he did not like much, perhaps he was afraid that it would hamper the active participation of the common viewer in the art experience. The load of tension and inspired reasoning that one found in his earlier writings gradually wore off at this stage. Yet, he was always on the look out for new talents, encouraging them, noticing their originality and, where necessary, discussing their works at length.

He also suffered from the critic’s schizophrenia, as he had to tamper with his first reactions to a work of art so that he could externalise them in literary form, expressing the essentially visual in terms of the verbal. This did not always introduce objectivity into his critical evaluation. He had his favourites, and he had his share of prejudices, which is only human. Very many in his profession, in India and abroad, and in different periods of art history, shared these with him. For instance, in his enthusiasm todemolish the closed system of art appreciation, evolved during the rise of Neo-Bengal School, Richard seemed to have grown a deep-rooted dislike for the paintings of that school. For him they were an undesirable accident, if not a non-issue. Even Gaganendra Nath Tagore, who did not belong to the school, he did not attempt to evaluate. Nor could he discover modernist trends in Gaganendranath’s watercolours, even when this stalwart’s paintings had foreshadowed radical changes in the pictorial space. But when such changes appeared later in the oil paintings of the fifties, Richard came out with rare reviewers. The oil medium reigned supreme in his time, although it had reached India in the last decades of the nineteenth century. What fascinated Richard was the modernist use of medium, and its thousand pictorial nuances and possibilities.

Richard was well equipped to evaluate the development of watercolour as a medium in the hands of Abanindranath Tagore and his disciples; he could have re-viewed the technique of water colour wash in the context of romantic lyrical elements in modern Indian painting. He could have done it much better than others around him. He did not.

His writings some times give an impression that he had secretly nurtured a disdain for the social history of art. We come across his attempts at connecting modern techniques and imagery with the changing society, only sporadically in his writings. I only wish that he wrote at length about the social compulsions and other historical forces like the changing world view of the scientists and developing technology that made what modern art is now. Not that he was unaware of their importance as a catalytic agent in the transformation of artistic expression. There is enough evidence in his writings to the contrary. Perhaps his crusading zeal to nurture and defend the pioneers of modern Indian painting pushed the social-historical view of art to the background.

Richard had a tender attachment to his favourites. His sympathies were with theartist of his own generation, with whom he grew up as an art critic. In the concluding paragraph of one of his ‘art notes’ written in January 1959, he said: “My sympathies are obviously with the painters of my generation with Husain, Ram Kumar (he did some of his best pieces on both), Samant, Satish Gujaral, Kanwal Krishna, Biren De, Paritosh Sen, Krishen Khanna, K.S. Kulkarni, Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee.”

I have tried to present only one aspect of Richard Bartholomew as an art critic who was evolving an open system of art appreciation, and in the process, identified himself with the modernist movement. This has, of course, limited my view of his contributions to modern Indian art.

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1987
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