Artists: Notes on Art Making

Chavda seems to be experimenting in a new style. He is evolving an individual type of cubism. His colours and subjects have changed the same intense feeling for the subject is apparent in every painting.

Baburao Sadwelkar continues to be the abstract painter par excellence, building up tensions on the surface of the canvas and blotches of paint, and giving the paintings such exotic titles as “Strange Things in the Midnight Air”, “Cooling Air”, “Elegy”.

Har Kishan Lall in his mountainscapes and studies of Chamba has given with the palette further proof that for creative treatment of landscape, he has no peer. With austere colours, treated with the palette knife, he can only evoke the magic and charm of little known places, but also impose the individuality of those places in recreating them. No wonder, he is bagging prizes all round. “Dizi” Kulkarni, who recently had an impressive one-man show in Bombay, has put up three of his unsold pieces from the earlier exhibition. They reveal his preoccupation with colour and form.

March 5, 1971

Nowhere perhaps is the confusion in conceptual thinking more confounded today than in the realm of Indian aesthetics, especially in relation to painting. Many of our seemingly fundamental assumptions lose their validity even on perfunctory examination; categories have a tendency to change dialectically into their opposites, values have lost their meaning. Criteria are relevant only in context, contexts are relevant only in assumption. Controversies over function and character are battles fought with brittle weapons which disintegrate even as they are trained on the opponent. We stick to our ephemeral doctrines in the fond belief that our bearings are intact.

Twin Crutches: This confusion has its parallel in the practice of our painters. From the naturalism of Raja Ravi Varma and the revivalism of the Bengal School­- which once dominated the Indian art world and now is breathing its last in the niches and nooks of backwater-aestheticism­- through the pathetic forays for inspiration into folk and miniature art and the grafting of ill-digested leanings from successive movements in modern European art on a fundamentally inhibited outlook, to the latest fad of “abstract expressionism”. Modern Indian painting has been hobbling on the twin crutches of eclecticism and conservatism. All that is valid and significant in this period is in spite of, rather than because of, the conscious effort at establishing identity or arriving at contemporaneity.

The swing against naturalism (which was foreign to Indian painting) towards tradition, and away from tradition to abstract expressionism (which again is a development in Western art), presents an interesting pattern. What ought to be rather than what is to be has been the preoccupation of the painter as it has been that of the aesthete.

Shifting Premises: The great conflict between the representationalists and the non-representationalists (now being carried on its latest form between de-Kooning and his followers and the abstract expressionists in America) has its inevitable echo in Indian art. Yet the concept of representation in the light of contemporary science becomes undefinable. What, for instance, is a landscape in a painting? Is it what the naked eye sees from a distance of a few hundred feet on land, or a few thousand feet from the air, or a few thousand miles from a satellite orbiting the earth? To take another example, an object seen through the microscope presents an entirely different aspect than when seen by the naked eye. The representation of the microscopic vision of an object may seem as abstract as the most abstract painting.

Twin Poles: From academic naturalism through impressionism, cubism and down even to surrealism, the great movements in modern European art were all seeking to arrive at what they considered to be the nature of reality. Yet perception of “reality”, whether of man’s “inner” world or his environment is conditioned by the fetter of relationship, and what is perceived is but the aspect in which reality appears in that relationship. The actual always appears in an aspectual state, and is therefore imperceivable. Representation, therefore, becomes the limitation, distortion, confining of reality. Again, it is interesting to see in the insistence of the abstract expressionists against cognizable image the attempt to arrive at something beyond aspectuality, which again is only the limiting and inhabiting of expression.

Being and Manifestation: What follows is that painting can be the manifestation of the act of painting, an activity through which the personality of the artist unfolds itself in its incessant becoming, beyond formulation and resolution, anticipation and arrival. All discussion of the problems of contemporaneity, subjective and objective, representational and non-representational art become unreal to the act of becoming, for it becomes a matter of experiencing, not understanding it.

Communication in art therefore can never be ideation. The artist does not communicate an experience or an idea, the act of painting is itself experience to him. The viewer has not to look for communication, he has to be in communion with the work of art. It then becomes a First Encounter, a unique experience, a miraculous revelation, a thing of wonder, as when a child opens its eyes to its surroundings.

Social Ideology: A notion has been sedulously fostered that the function of painting is to “sing of Man”, that a painter cannot be above the social milieu and therefore cannot escape its effect on his work. To this is added the rider of the painter being some sort of messiah, a prophet who reveals man’s destiny and leads him in his struggles. From this standpoint, all non-representational art is rejected out of hand as escapist art. At a time when humanity is in the grip of a terrible crisis, this may indeed seem a noble attitude. What one does not follow, however, is how the absence or the presence of a social ideology makes for lifeless or valid art. This argument smacks more of applied art. The scientist probing the mysteries of Nature did not arrive at atomic physics because of ill-wind or goodwill towards humanity, and the artist likewise in the unfolding of his personality through art is in nowise motivated by social purpose. The incontrovertible fact remains that the worth of a work of art is not incidental to the ideological predilections of the artist. What makes a work of art “representational” or otherwise, valid and of significance to human beings, is that indefinable element which can only be “known” in terms of experience.

Criteria and Judgement: Can there be then, an objective criterion for judging a work of art? The question is easily answered if it realized that a work of art has to have an organic cohesion with each element, complementing,containingandinterpenetrating the others in a dynamic whole. It is in this sense that we talk of a painting living in its own life. This self-contained uniqueness of a painting is again a matter of experience. To assume a set criterion is to reduce painting to a formula and rob it of its life.

The question of “judging” a painting implies its valuation in terms of a commodity, and has little to do with its aesthetic relevance to the viewer. It has been noted that people who have spent thousands of pounds on paintings which they had obviously bought because they were sources of joy for them felt terribly cheated on the realization that what they had brought as the works of masters were actually fakes. Why at all should they bother when the fake moves them is a very moot question. Again, painters who starved in their life-time are now valued in millions, while many contemporaries who have not broken through into the limelight are working away in starvation. What has made the whole matter ridiculous is not the fickleness of the artist but the conditioning of the mass-man who must “like” or “dislike” a work of art in the light of its price.

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