Logical Choices Of The Future

Written by Suneet Chopra | Updated: Jun 30 2002, 05:30am hrs
The way things sell varies considerably. What one gallery sells in a day another may never sell at all. Does this mean there is no basis for what we can call art that is an investment as well Art as investment cannot be dependent on individual taste alone. It needs to be seen in a broader perspective.

What is this perspective It is the evolution of a particular form of expression that has relevance to a globalised world today. What is this expression It is, first and foremost, direct visual communication. That is, figurative works get a better response than abstract ones.

In figurative works, those with an unslated narrative content fare better than those with long discursive mantras and the like. For example, at the recent Saffronart on line sale, a 25cm x 31cm landscape by SH Raza, dating back to the 1950s fetched Rs 1.50 lakh, the same as a much larger abstract of 1975 (47cm x 34cm). Another expressionist landscape of 1961, an oil on canvas measuring 64cm by 44cm, went for Rs 6.08 lakh, while an abstract acrylic on canvas (31cm x 31cm) fetched only Rs 1.75 lakh. Another abstract work failed to sell. This is even more the case with works with slokas reproduced on them. It is evident long-term public taste wants art to communicate through painterliness and not play at being something it is not. This ought to open the eyes of western sponsored curators who have been reduced to gimmicky or mechanical reproduction as the political and social developments in the so-called advanced world reflect the complete bankruptcy of thinking, which no doubt expresses itself in gimmicks instead of originality. That is why the Eurocentric Dokumenta exhibition of art could only find a photographer to represent India despite its very vibrant artists.

Beasts as we know them--Cutouts by Indonesian Institute of Arts, Jakarta
The West fears history today, for it is a history in which past wrongs and barbarism far outweigh the progress and development introduced by colonialism. The East, on the other hand, is not afraid to reveal it as truth is on its side. That is why Husains oil on canvas of Gandhi sold at no less than Rs 7.20 lakh, while another representing the Krishna theme, sold at Rs 8.64 lakh, possibly because it presents the epic as having evolved out of the daily lives of peasants and not overburdened with the concepts of desting or religion.

It is the irreverence with which our contemporary art approaches the time honoured epics made almost incomprehensible by worship and awe that is behind the prices people pay for such works. Piety has a place in the family prayer-space; but it is definitely not popular either on the living room wall or in an art gallery. What is demanded is an excavation of the humanity buried under the ashes of sanctity that have all but taken the life out of our epics.

This revolution of the unrevealed, or rather, of what has been suppressed is not sought out only in Indian contemporary art, but is the chief characteristic of the Minotaur series of Picasso, the butchers meat of Soutine, or slaughtered cattle of Tyeb Mehta. The victim who emerges as the hero in our contemporary art is the universal image that draws us to Tyeb Mehtas falling figure, or that of Davierwalla in Mumbai. This image reflects how the promises of the Renaissance, so beautifully woked by the Christian creation myth on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome or Leonardo da Vincis perfectly geometrical man, have turned sour. And we prefer to look at Adams fall from grace, the horrifying churchmen of Francis Bacon or Francis Newton Souza. These images will continue to haunt us for a while yet. The crucifix, with a tormented Christ on it will continue to evoke fellow-feeling until exploitation is finally done with.

However, some images of the future are with us already, as in the lovable beasts of Douanier Roebsseau or Wilfredo Lam, the Cuban artist who was a lifelong friend of Picasso and who was much admired by Andre Breton. Born in 1902 in Sagua la Grande in Cuba, his centenary is being celebrated this year, and naturally, it will affect the spirit of the Havana Biennale, to be held at the end of 2003.

For me, however, his centenary represents the coming out of suppressed traditions in our art, like the exotic beasts painted by Jangarh Singh Shyam, one of our most gifted tribal artists who committed suicide in Japan last year, as the Museum whose guest he was refused to let him leave at the end of the stipulated time, and allegedly, even kept back his passport like any bonded labourer. When one looks at how Jangarh appropriated even aeroplanes into his tribal visual language (as is evident from his mural in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly) we know that the joy of being part of the global village can come to an end suddenly it one is naive. So, the beasts of the jungle will emerge, they will colour our art, they will take over canvases and challenge sanctity like Husains forms of Sita and Saraswati. They may annoy fundamentalists, but they are good investments, for collections like that of Chester Herwitz, or the distorted apostles at Christs Last Supper in Souzas paintings.

Irreverent works, despite the howls and shrieks of fundamentalists, are a good market proposition today and will remain one for time to come. So, irreverent figurative art with a subtle narrative content is good for both collectors and galleries to stock.