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August 08, 2018

Tracing The Source

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Devika Swarup

Art movements, trends and fashions are iffy, whimsical things, states Madhu Jain, who takes a ramble through the decades to find what is motivating creators in the subcontinent today

I still recoil from the finality with which the French painter declared, “Painting is dead. Apres Cezanne, rien — nothing!” This was a few years ago and the emphatic Parisian painter had recently laid down his easel and paintbrushes and picked up a pair of scissors and coloured paper. It was easier for young and (even more so) middle-aged artists to follow in the wake of Henri Matisse during his paper-cut-outs phase, towards the end of his life, than Cezanne with his masterful strokes and painterly contemplation of apples and mountains — and the revolutionary multi-perspective of his subjects.

Art movements, trends and fashions are iffy, whimsical things: when do they begin and when do they end? Hard to say, right? From the obtuse, jargon-studded prose of art theoreticians and critics to the simplistic, generalising overnight-critics corralled by many publications and online portals to write about the contemporary art scene, and, of course, the art market — it’s confusing and deliberately opaque.

Each generation thinks it is bringing down the barricades and raising the bar. ‘The king is dead, long live the king’ declare the successive proclamations and manifestos about new movements. But if you rewind to the past, to art history lessons and memories of cruising through museums and galleries in Europe, the United States, India and elsewhere in Asia, you realise that transformations and transformers have always been active. Rarely is something ever really new: someone’s been there before you.

Computer-savvy breed

Artists before the advent of social media had it easier. The internet made it simpler to be ‘inspired’. All you had to do was copy, paste and play around with received images and concepts. It took a while to discover the fact that you had not broken any new ground. More important still, even before rivals and the pundits of the art world did so. V. Viswanadhan, who lives between Paris and the Cholamandal Artists’ Village, Tamil Nadu, christened this smart, computer-savvy breed ‘Google artists’. However, with the increasingly ubiquitous nature of the internet and platforms like Instagram, it also became that much easier to get caught out and be called a copycat. Even the theory a work of art came wrapped in was swiped.

Generation Now has it much tougher. Instagram, the blitzkrieg of images, in addition to new styles and technologies, and the ever-expanding realm of what goes under the umbrella of ‘art’ has caused quite a churn in the world of art, globally and here in India. Many among the new generation of painters are going back to the past: discovering ways to connect traditional and historic art to the digital generation. Technology allows them to play god — the world is their oyster, their paintbrushes and chisels their wands. Several artists are increasingly using old master techniques to portray contemporary reality and concerns.

In an exhibition currently on at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, there is a startling image of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa dressed in a rather drab communist worker’s uniform, her hair covered with a worker’s cap, painted by Roman Cieslewicz. Marcel Duchamp will be eternally remembered for the urinal he hung on a wall, as well as for mischievously painting a moustache on the face of the Mona Lisa, decades earlier. It was just a joke for him, but this work joined the canon of art history soon enough.

While Manjunath Kamath’s witty and digital collages yoked mythological figures into contemporary spaces and plonked them together with people of our times, a few Indian artists have played around with Raja Ravi Varma’s portraits. Rohit Chawla photographed women dressed as characters from the works of the 19th-century painter. Indian painters are also rummaging through the country’s folk and tribal art, as well as sculptures of various centuries, ancient murals and miniatures to source imagery, colours and forms — and in search of inspiration and a different pictorial vocabulary. Not least of all vibrancy.

Modern inspirations

Conceptual realism has been a buzzword for many practitioners of contemporary art, for some years now. Abstract expressionism has had its day — at least for the time being, until the pendulum swings again. Perhaps it is just the flavour of the day, but several of the younger Indian artists are turning their gaze towards the subalterns, the underclasses and the marginal. An increasing number of artworks now focus on how migration, displacement, urbanisation, alienation and the changing topography of city chawls and slums — and those trapped within a kind of no man’s land between the urban and rural — are impacting lives. Just as a few Dalit artists have begun to depict their condition and lives, as Dalit writers and scholars had done a bit earlier. A reality check: they are taking a closer look at what is around them. The quotidian comes into focus: ordinary objects, people, street scenes, railway carriages and bus scenes enter the picture.

Concepts and theories increasingly underwrite much of contemporary Indian art. I think, therefore I paint — or sculpt. I have a feeling that the mushrooming artist residencies, both in India and abroad, in addition to the expanding art departments in colleges and universities with courses about the theories of contemporary art practices, now influence the kind of work we are seeing in our galleries and museums. It is almost as if they are painting the talk.

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