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July 13, 2017

Is The Current Generation Witnessing The Death Of Painting?

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Gouri Katdare

That’s what doomsayers would have us believe…but when it comes down to business, the painting suddenly zooms into the picture, whether it is at auctions or in gallery sales….

Who moved my canvas? For a while now the doomsayers have been announcing the death of the painting. Quite some years ago, a cutting-edge, visiting French artist I met in New Delhi declaimed with a hundred per cent conviction that painting was indeed dead. After Paul Cezanne, there was nothing left for painters to evolve, to take forward, he exclaimed. The 19th-century painter had done it all and put a full stop to the evolution of painting. The artists who came after him might as well have put away their palettes and easels.

The Frenchman pointed to his own ‘painting’ hanging on a wall of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi: he was one of a dozen French artists participating in an exhibition of contemporary French art. His work (I can’t get myself to use the word painting) consisted of a thick wooden frame with some dabs of paint on it. The frame enclosed an empty space: a rectangular bit of the NGMA’s wall actually. So we were, according to him, in the post-painting era.

It appears that painting is becoming more invisible. It was arguably reduced to being a wallflower at the Kochi Biennale this year — hardly visible in the middle of all the installations, videos, light art, sound art, films, photography, performances, performance art…I could go on. Much the same is happening at the Venice Biennale. Or indeed elsewhere in art fairs and major shows, globally. Curators, art critics and theoreticians increasingly come and go, not talking about Michelangelo (as the late poet T. S. Eliot may have put it). Their discourse is about much denser things: theories, aesthetics, politics, and ideas which require big and opaque words to put across.

Stratospheric prices
Yet, when it comes to the business of art, painting suddenly zooms into the picture: whether it is at auctions or in gallery sales. About two years ago, a mid-century Picasso painting titled Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O), brought down the hammer at 179 million dollars (with taxes) at Christie’s. It was probably at the time the highest amount ever paid for a single work of art sold at an auction. Paul Gaugin’s When Will You Marry Me sold privately for about 300 million dollars in 2015. I suppose you have to be a dead artist to sell at stratospheric prices. It is clear that artists who lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries have been doing exceptionally well.

Many gallerists today would (in India at least) have us believe that the art market is on its last legs. The lament has been going on since the big dip of 2008. The art mart was made even more terminally ill with the fatal blow to black money after last year’s demonitisation, and more recently with the GST bill. “We are all living on our past sales,” a gallerist in New Delhi tells me rather woefully. Most artists are now, according to her, getting by on their savings from the boom times — even though they keep up a brave front. Those who bought expensive real estate have additional burdens of debt. The blow to black money just after Diwali was a blow to the art market.

Lado Sarai, a rather dusty but happening outpost in New Delhi, used to have a narrow street full of galleries showing younger artists. Today, not even a handful are left. Some of the galleries have downed their shutters; others have fewer shows. The Hauz Khas village which served as a bohemian prototype is almost at its ‘sell-by’ date. Astute gallery owners put on fewer shows now; but they keep them on for much longer.

The Mumbai art scene is evidently far more lively and exciting. However, some of the original pace setters have shifted to smaller spaces. Or even to Alibaug: Shalini Sawhney moved Guild Gallery there in 2015. Or, a few like Pundole Art Gallery have metamorphosed into auction houses. The more enterprising contemporary Indian gallerists and art dealers have been exploring the Singapore and Dubai markets.

The Next Best Thing
For a while in this millennium, Indian artists were the flavour of the month. Francois Pinnault, the French billionaire who owns Christie’s, among much else, used to buy the works of contemporary Indian artists, most prominently Subodh Gupta. So did other European and American collectors. But art collectors have whims, and can also be fickle. Chinese artists have long been the favoured ones. Korean artists also appeared on the must-have lists. Currently though contemporary African artists appear to have become the Next Best Thing.

The wheel never stops turning. And it is time to get real. Many Indian artists who had moved to Europe or to the United States used to refuse to bring down their prices for the Indian market, their calculators set to dollars or euros. These days, it seems, they are willing to adjust their prices — sometimes by as much as 40 per cent.

The art market will continue to see-saw. Interestingly, it is the mid-level artists who are the most vulnerable. Those at the very top tend to do alright because collectors buy their works to, well, show off and enhance their own status. The new and unknown artists manage to sell because the expanding middle class with limited budgets needs to put something on its walls as young couples move into homes with long-term mortgages. Those sandwiched in between are having a tough time.

The business of art isn’t dead, it’s just gone quiet.

Where have all the galleries gone, the exhibitions? Where are they now?

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