Monday, September 29, 2008
The Bearable Slowness of (art) History
Have you noticed the unbearable fastness of contemporary history? I am not talking about the general history; but the contemporary history of art as you and me are involved in the making of it. Artists, events and works of art are caught into the storm of a dizzying pace that takes everything forward. In contemporary history, there is no slow down button, there is no reverse key, here we have only the ‘play’ button which often plays things in ‘fast forward’. There is a fatal irreversibility about art and artistic events, in a sense this irreversibility reflects the true nature of history. We see artists and their works traveling all over the world, art events taking place before our eyes, narratives and myths made out around the life and works of the artists and soon we realize that there are several layers that make this contemporary history a bit intangible. Things fall over each other, overlapping the sense of time and space and leave us in a ‘high’. Contemporary art historical awareness is something akin to the feeling of being in a discotheque at night. You are aware of everything happening around, the music, the lights, the drinks, friends and strangers jiving to the music, talks, whisperings, embraces, hot kisses, groping at corridors, quick making outs in lavatories, the dread of vomit at the washbasin mirror. You become too familiar to your own self in a discotheque and this familiarity makes you to hate yourself.
For me art history, which I understand through books, internet, reproductions of works, museums, old catalogues, biographies, movies etc, is all about a slow paced time and space. I see artists, works of art, events, not so important details of the individual lives of the artists floating in a space, which could be touched, felt and perhaps rearranged to our purpose of understanding. Unlike contemporary art history, de-layering is possible in the remote art history, not because we are away from the time and space of its actual occurrence, not because we have methodological and scientific tools to interpret the events, but because history allows the interventions of imagination in a personal level, which could enter the layers and create a narrative, a very intimate one with the very history itself.
I think about Cezanne, the master artist of 19th century France who gave scientific explanations to the impressionists, post-impressionists and even to the cubists. Cezanne speaks of forms and colours and he imagines a still life as a composition of basic geometrical forms. I look at the ‘apples’ of Cezanne and the hills that he has painted and I try to discern cubes, triangles and squares in those works. Yes, I can see them or at least I believe I can see them. I never imagine Cezanne as a young man. When I read his history, despite the photographs, I imagine him as an old man (some one like Himmat Shah but different in nature and articulation) sitting in a huge chair and speaking to you in a very grave voice. Same is the case with Matisse. I see him as a patriarch with his losing eye sight, cutting colour papers into various shapes and making collages. I can see Matisse and Benode Behari Mukherjee sitting in the same room and sharing their ideas about art, sipping hot tea or a shot of whiskey, with the music of Ray Charles and Steve Wonder playing alternatively in the background.
Why France? Just look at that old sketch by Abanindranath Tagore (Please tell me if this sketch is by someone else). All three Tagores (Abanindranath, Rabindranath and Gaganedranath) are seen doing their respective saintly activities, while art historian and scholar Anand Koomaraswamy is seeing something seriously. Other intellectuals of the time are also portrayed here. It is a galaxy of creative minds, towering intellectuals and transcended human beings. The setting is the front veranda of the Jorasanko home of Tagores. Do they always sit like that, together, contemplating, minding their own business, occasionally getting into a chat that too not about ordinary things, only philosophy and aesthetics? May be not. But I can enter in this piece of art and be there, gaze at them, listen to them. My deadlines, the speed of my life etc don’t affect me at all. In history one can liberate oneself from the clutches of the flux of contemporary-ness.
The images from history, not the narratives alone, too make us think about history as a slow paced thing and offer us space for imaginative entries. I remember a group photo of the Bombay Progressive, taken sometime in 1947. F.N.Souza, M.F.Hussain, S.H.Raza, Ara, Bakre and Gade are the people seen in the picture. These are the people who created so much of furor in the Indian art scene in the 40s and 50s. But in this photograph they look so calm and cool, perhaps their eyes carry the fire of angst and rebel, and their postures show their hopes of survival. A 2002 photograph also comes to my mind. This is taken in somewhere at Nariman Point in Mumbai. It is a photograph taken for the advertisement (and also to mark the occasion of being together) of the ‘Bombay Boys’ show curated by Bose Krishnamachari. Artists namely Bose Krishnamachari, Jyothi Basu, Riyas Komu, T.V.Santhosh, Sudarshan Shetty, Sunil Padwal, Sunil Gawde, Baiju Parthan and so on are seen in various poses. They are all very conscious about their impending future and they exude confidence in this picture. You feel like talking to them there sitting on the side walls of Nariman Point where youngsters in love spend their time clutching each other as if it was the last day in their life and the sea down there represented their objecting families.
Picasso was one of the ‘jet setting’ kinds of artists of the 20th century. But I can walk with Picasso in history and talk to him because in history he does not look so busy. Through the pictures and other narratives I can see his activities, find reasons for his tantrums and whenever I am offended by his character I can turn to his girl friends for solace. In Francoise Gilot’s famous book ‘Life with Picasso’ (which was later made into a movie with Anthony Hopkins playing the title role), she narrates how Picasso used to enjoy his girl friends fighting for their rights on the artist, very much in his studio, while he works unperturbed by all what is happening around. I can just be there and see this fight and later on see how Picasso etching his ceramics with the bones of the fish which he has just eaten. Later I can fly with him to Madrid, walk along the streets with a jubilant crowd cheering him from the sidewalks, and go to watch a bullfight in progress.
What about our contemporary artists and their history? A 2002 photograph of the Bombay Boys tells us how we could re-interpret things in history because we have our license to imagine. Contemporary history is a flux, it is not settled, the narratives are not sediment-ed, none is able to catch the true spirit of the immediate history. It is all about speed. But I am sure after a few years, things would start settling down, we will then look at several artists of our times with a different eye because their lives become detached from the immediate events where they hold the power to control it. In history people lose their power to control their destinies- it is the reader who controls their destinies. Look at the most colorful artist of history, Andy Warhol looks meek and controlled in the annals of history, or even in the reels of films. Jean Michael Basquiat looks quite heroic in history and the flux of his struggles have been erased or glorified. But we are left with out own devices to interpret them.
I look around, see the artists, friends, their works, and their histories so far. May be I cannot discern their stories from actual histories, though I can distinguish their art from their lives. I am like that person who went out to look for a rare flower, which is said to cover up a whole area during the spring. I walk and look at each flower for its rarity but in vain. My walk takes me to the top of a hill and I think that I would find the flower there at the peak. But I cannot see it. Then I just look down….yes it is there the whole valley is filled with those rare flowers, it looks like a carpet of flower. It was the same flowers that I left behind while searching for the rare ones. I missed them then…but from this distance, from this detached viewing and from this advantageous position, I can see them now and I can imaginatively flow into them, above them, across them and if need be just neglect them and look at the clouds above my head.