Time to buy art; more sales in the offing

Written by Suneet Chopra | Updated: Nov 7 2004, 05:30am hrs
This is a good time to buy art. Indeed, as far as I can ascertain, good art not only has buyers, but also is available. We have just had two major auctions of Indian art at New York in late September which set tone for the season. This was definitely an advantage for the Osian auction where two paintings of Vivan Sundaram sold. The painting of a reclining chair from the Quiet Charm of the Bourgeoisie series sold for Rs 5 lakh while the Carpenter and his Wife sold for Rs 9 lakh. A number of other artists too sold at good prices. Now, we have the Art With a Smile and Saffronart auctions in the offing.

The Art With a Smile auction to be held at Claridges on 4 November, has 50 lots up for sale representing 50 artists. The works are largely the property of the Delhi Art Gallery. The range is interesting. There is a Husain water-colour expected to fetch Rs 3.25-4 lakh; a Souza gouache on paper at Rs 2.75-3.5 lakh; a landscape by HA Gade at Rs 1.50-2 lakh; a gouache on paper by Gopal Ghose between Rs 90,000 and Rs 1.25 lakh; a Nandalal Bose water-colour landscape at Rs 2-3 lakh; a Nikhil Biswas gouache on paper at Rs 1.10-1.50 lakh; a Chittaprasad water-colour on paper at Rs 1.75-2.50 lakh; a Ganesh Haloi abstract gouache on paper at Rs 1.50-2 lakh; T Vaikunthams Telengana Woman at Rs 1-1.50 lakh; and an excellent charcoal on paper of horses by Sunil Das between Rs 85,000 and Rs 1.25 lakh.

A painting by Hem Raj expected to fetch between Rs 85,000 and Rs 1.25 lakh
The range is mind-boggling too. There are landscapes, nudes, figurative works, abstracts and realist works. Nothing is missing. But talking of realism, one has to clarify what realism is. Realism is not just anything that is academically representational. It is art that opens the door to the essence of the reality we are living in today. It is contemporary, incisive and expressive of the artists appreciation of that reality.

Take Sunil Das study of horses. They are drawn from life in the stables of the Kolkata police. This particular work expresses a lean vivacity and a collective presence. It shows the horses as searching for something. And if we look at the year it was drawn in, 1962, we can sense an element of uncertainty too, for it was drawn during the India-China conflict that was not only ill-advised but also reflects the first reverse India met after Independence. It is a work that reflects both the misplaced optimism and the uncertainty of 1962. In that sense, it draws one to the reality of the time it was drawn in.

One thing is clear. Imaginary compositions from the epics or an imagined past translated into Kitschy imagery of bazaar art in no way qualify as realist art. This was the art imposed on us by the colonial masters. It is the slavish and unimaginative art of chocolate box covers and its pseudo-historicity deprives it of the right to call itself realist. I was horrified to see a recent snippet in one of our leading dailies describing an exhibition of academic art, some of it surrealist, some of it plain Kitsch, being described as realist. Revivalism and realism have nothing in common with each other. Revivalism is merely a romantic representation of a refurbished pseudo-past, just as the romantic belief in the efficacy of multinational capital poses as globalisation and the romantic notion that the mere presence of the barrel of a gun in itself is the basis of liberation from oppression. Ours is an age when many myths abound and they must be dispelled by realist art. So, obviously, realism in art has a future, but not romantic revivalism.

Revivalist Kitsch, however, has no worthwhile investment value. It has a following among those for whom it serves as easily understood romantic symbolism rooted in a form of escapism. This is the very opposite of realist art even if it is representational art. As such, it neither attracts the serious collector nor says anything about our times, except by default where in trying to be a good representationalist, the revivalist artist actually borrows images from the life around him and fits them into the bazaar imagination of his compositions. Realism demands a greater discipline of approach. The investor must be aware of the constraints realism imposes on an artist beyond the mere fact of pictorial representation.

Collectors must look at realist art with greater discrimination. It is one of the best types of art in the market. But it must do more than represent an imagery. It has an organic link with the reality of the time it was made in. And if it fails in establishing it, it is merely representational art at best and just an illustration, fit only for story-books and calendars at worst. Investors should steer clear of such art.