Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Last Temptation of S.H.Raza and the Question of Authenticity

(SH Raza. source net)

The Raza Foundation, New Delhi mounts a show of Syed Hyder Raza’s ‘last works’ in Delhi’s Triveni Art Gallery. According to one of the Trustees of the Foundation, Ashok Vajpayee, ‘the major works from this period are with the artist’s favourite galleries. What we see here are the ones that the departed artist had ‘willed’ to the foundation from his private collection. The very next day of the show’s opening a young artist had raised some doubts about the ‘authenticity’ of these works. As per the rumours (as in the case of many artists who are dead and gone), this young artist felt that the works on display were ‘fakes’ or were done by someone else and got ‘signed by’ an ailing Raza. “If it was authentic,” an irritated young artist said, “why they felt it important to have a video of the artist on the wheelchair sitting before a canvas and making very slow, deliberate and laboured strokes on the canvas, shown in the gallery?”

I am an art critic quite familiar with the ‘fake’ and ‘forgery’ theories doing rounds in the art scene. Occasionally, I too have commented on that topic. Even when Raza was alive and more or less everyone in the art scene in Delhi knew that he was incapacitated to certain extent, the Foundation was posting pictures of the artist at the canvas working diligently from a wheelchair. Like many I too had then thought that the Foundation could have been a bit more discreet in this matter and they should have saved the images for a later date. Somewhere, the Foundation felt that it was imperative to have the ‘working’ Raza’s pictures in the public domain to prove that the works that had already been under the cloud of doubt were in fact the ones done by the artist himself however fragile and hardly driven he was. One does not need to learn rocket science to understand that those efforts of the Foundation were carefully orchestrated for registering the authenticity of Raza’s work thereby making indelible and indisputable provenances for the future auction markets. Nothing wrong with it, I say.

(The Raza Show by the Raza Foundation. all pics from Raza foundation face book page)

Subtlety, yes ‘subtlety’ could have been the best policy in this matter, as I suggested elsewhere, which could have saved the Foundation from the stains of suspicion. According to me in the case of Raza, he needed no other authentication than his own creative career, devoted collector base, loving gallerists, authentic auction records and a number of artists who he had personally mentored, and innumerable visitors and admirers who used to register the moments and works through various modes that include photographs, diary entries, journals, blogs, articles, videos and so on. There are only a few artists in Indian art scene whose works are strictly documented from their modernist origins to till date. Of them I would count Raza leading the pack along with K.G.Subramanyan, A.Ramachandran, Bhupen Khakkar, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Neelima Sheikh, Manu Parekh, Madhvi Parekh, Paramjit Singh, Arpita Singh, Ved Nayyar and Gogi Saroj Pal. Most of them had/have galleries that have been working diligently to prevent spill over, interpolations, inauthentic additions and unexpected disputes.

The seams of a collection of works by an artist or a set of artists that seem well stitched and finished might pose some unsavoury moments and hurdles for the secondary market as well as the auction market. The fluidity and porosity of the boundaries of a collection or to be precise, the works of an artist or the artists cultivated by the auction houses and secondary market/s, ironically help the market for those artists grow as more and more works get added to the stream with carefully constructed authenticities and provenances. It is ironical mainly because an auction market functions on authenticity of the wares that it brings under the hammer but at the same time, the fluid edges of the market allow the entry of the works with no proven provenances and through various processes of tests and researches let them to gain authenticity therefore long term legitimacy. We have never seen what happens to a work of art whose authenticity is publicly questioned. We do not have any evidence of it after its withdrawal; whether it is destroyed or kept aside or suspended for authentication or re-introduced elsewhere in another time.

(from the show)

However, the auction market players do not have want to take much of a risk these days. Auction houses are, like the art fairs, facilitating market/business agencies that do not have any hold on the conditions and circumstances a work of art or an artefact is created. Nor do they have any power to alter the genius of the artists so that the works of art could be produced according to certain pre-existing market parameters. But if we look at the scene more realistically, we come to know that such helpless platforms decide eventually the quality of a work of art. That means, the erstwhile neutral platforms become involved participants in judging what is permissible and what is not. So a really authentic work of art could be thrown out by an auction house thereby nullify its very existence anywhere in the art habitat, and in the meanwhile it could simply create absolute No Nos into major works of art. That would be writing the requiem for the galleries, museums, trusts and foundations. With the arrival of auction houses a lot of job opportunities in the art market have now become a thing of history. Art historians, critics, art writers, art consultants, small scale galleries, experimental spaces and so on have lost their relevance and have been replaced by auction house experts.

This has created a counter situation where the existing galleries, fairs, museums, big time dealers have come together to create their own provenances and authenticities for the works of art and artists they are dealing with. Making their provenances indisputable is the primary concerns of most of the major galleries today. One can see why galleries like Delhi Art Gallery and Chemould Art Gallery underline the authenticity of their works through heavy publications. The unprecedented involvement of the auction houses in the art market has started threatening the existence of the galleries and small scale private museums. Crony capitalism is the result of it. A very few galleries, museums and Trusts are literally trusted by the auction houses; and a major chunk of the galleries are simply thrown out of the game by casting doubts on the works that they deal with. Go to a small gallery and find a Husain or a Raza there, your primary reaction is that ‘it must be a fake’ whereas it must be authentic and purchased with hard earned money. But what it lacks is an artist’s authentication certificate or related papers. So the scene has become quite Orwellian; someone can prove that you don’t exist or you have never existed.

(from the show)

That could be one reason why the Raza Foundation is extra careful about creating authenticities for the works that are willed to them by the departed artists. However, at present I am not here to cast aspersions on the authenticity of these works of art. I see this exhibition in a different perspective. Works done between 2011 and 2016 are exhibited here and as they are done by an ailing artist, we cannot say that they are his masterpieces at the same time we cannot say that they are ‘minor’ works either. They are works of art by an artist who even when he was partially immobile due to age and ailments had the grit to hold his brushes and work on the canvases placed before him. Perhaps, more than oxygen cylinders and other life supporting systems could, these art paraphernalia could help him live on as if her were following a flickering light which gives the impression of being inert and mobile at the same time. The strength and surety of strokes vary depending on the health conditions; hence you may see a work in 2012 pretty weak while a work in 2015 of the same kind quite strong. Raza, I think might have sought the help of assistants to do the basic diagrams and the colour filling is all done by himself, it seems for Raza if it is not about his colours and the way of application, they could be anybody’s. I salute the spirit of the artist who has even gone to remember his Fauvist and Impressionist days quite subconsciously in his works. In one of the horizontal works he even creates a sort of convex mirror illusions through some unsteady brush strokes. The evocative strokes of the smaller works underline the fact that this artist had the creative strength in him. One could use all the jargons that are generally used for authenticating the abstract works. But I do not want to pick up even one of those words. These works of Raza are more ‘authentic’ than his previous works I believe because each work here shows how he literally lived his life in them; they were irregular spells may be but life is after all life. Raza did not retire from art. Life retired from him. So was the case of artists like Benode Behari Mukherjee, Henri Matisse and our own K.G.Subramanyan.


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