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.


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Tom Vattakkuzhy: Painting as Alchemy

(Tom Vattakkuzhy)

A work of art transforms the immediate world into a suspended world. It is at once an erasure and displacement, often imparting the possibility of renewal and retrieving. An artist achieves this rare alchemy through making the familiar unfamiliar, nudging the apparent into a perception, which is unique in framing and rendering. There the light emanating from a forty watt bulb could turn into the golden sheen that engulfs the works of Bernini. Any creative expression that could transport the viewer into a realm of future is hailed for its ability to help conceive the inconceivable while a work of art that takes the spectator to back to the delicate annals of history is often held in awe and reverence for its sheer capacity to evoke the aggregate of creativity in its perfection. In Tom Vattakkuzhy’s paintings one sees the latter and experiences a sense of suspension (of belief) which need not necessarily be done willingly. Yet, the experience is poetic and if I may use the word spiritual then it is spiritual too.

(Work by Tom Vattakkuzhy)

Tom Vattakkuzhy posts his paintings regularly in the social media and there he reaps hundreds of likes, mostly from the peer group that knows what all are involved in the making of a work of art even if many of the ‘likers’ are not excellent in practicing what they understand, believe or preach. As I said before, what makes Tom’s paintings attractive and often intriguing is their ability to suspend the immediate world that is represented within the painting as well as the one in which the paintings find themselves. The latter world could be the studio of the artist or the social media/gallery where these works are exhibited. Till recently Tom’s works used to get published in some mainstream literary magazines as the illustrations of the printed literature. In this sense, we could see Tom’s experience as an artist is doubly honed, one by conjuring up painterly events for himself and two, by making painterly responses to supplement and complement the given literature. Such honing of skills has all the chances of making an artist slightly confused when he/she changes the ‘location’ of their creativity. Some gifted artists, of late in Kerala have become successful in virtually transporting their exhibition spaces into the magazines by creating illustrations like the way they create their paintings, without external/editorial interventions. The credit also goes to the editors of those magazines who let the artists be what they are.

(work by Tom Vattakkuzhy)

In West Bengal, it has been still a living tradition of inviting the artists to make special cover pages for the Diwali issues of major literary magazines like ‘Desh’. Though, in Kerala, the magazines have not established such traditions (even today no Onam special feature artists’ works as cover page), magazine illustrations have had changed the general perspective about art. There had been a huge lull in this practice since the advent of new millennium (exactly with the closure of the Malayalam India Today) and the tendency of the magazines was to assign certain artists to illustrate the literature and it seemed that all of those artists had the brief to ‘re-create’ a certain feel of lines, forms and expressions which the editors considered as successful examples in a few mainstream magazines. On the other extreme, the magazines went for highly sentimental naturalistic illustrations that satisfied the expected and commonplace demand for aesthetical visual pleasure. Tom Vattakkuzhy and C.Bhagyanathan came to magazine illustrations in late 2000s which after almost one and half decade changed the illustration scene of Kerala for good. In fact today once again many artists work freely as illustrators though the compensation packages are minimal and sparse.

(work by Tom Vattakkuzhy)

Magazine illustrations, when it comes into the hands of a gifted artist, operate quietly independently of the literature once freed from the context. It creates another interesting scenario; once the illustrations declare their independence outside context of literature, it becomes imperative for the literature to make efforts to belong to those pictures. While the illustrations of the stalwarts like M.V.Devan, Namboothiri and so on showed their indebtedness to the literature those were based on, the illustrations of Tom and the artists of his ilk stand independently, creating a new world for themselves. This does not mean that these artists challenge the autonomy of literature or supersede the demands of it. On the contrary an artist like Tom has generated a creative mechanism and style that is autonomous even when it is done for a piece of literature. Hence we get a scenario where two autonomous entities are brought together and in the conjoining a strange familiarity is created. I would call it an event of mutual catalysing where the components remain unaltered while together they undergo a process of change. Tom, of late has become a master of this process, by deliberations of his artistic imaginations and executing skills.

(work by Tom Vattakkuzhy)

Tom is a bit like J.K.Rowling, the author of Harry Potter series of magical novels. Rowling turns the familiar London into a magical world; there are trains, stations, schools, colleges, students, hostels, vaults and so on as in the contemporary world. But the moment they enter into the narrative mode of Rowling, they transform into magical entities. There is nothing in Tom’s painterly world that is strange and unfamiliar. But when we see them within the emblematic narratives that Tom chooses to paint they look ethereal, distanced and divined. Clad in a Renaissance hue, each mundane act of life turns into Eucharistic. They look like the moments culled out from the Bible or Tohra or any divine book of order, morality and punishment. Each person and object in Tom’s paintings assumes Biblical connotations; perhaps that is the only device that both the artist and the viewers have to see and interpret. A sense of guilt and confession looms large in the paintings of Tom and he finds almost impossible to dispel that pall of gloom by adding some cheerful element in it. Each character, even in the intimate relationship with the other, cannot escape the Biblical connotations. For example, his series ‘Lessons of Life’, the mother and child never look like an ordinary mother and child; they are painted with mythological and epic strokes.

(The controversial illustration by Tom Vatttakkuzhy)

My observations gather momentum and weight when we recall the incident where Tom’s illustration on a piece of literature was withdrawn from the public after some church authorities registered their protest against the said illustration. The story of Mata Hari was the theme of the play which was published in Bhashaposhini, a major literary magazine with a considerable history behind to back it. Tom’s illustration, which was published as a cover page also, showed a nude Matahari sitting amongst group of nuns in a Eucharistic moment. The illustration was an independent painting (in the sense I explained earlier) and the artistic intervention was only in the ‘denuding’ of Mata Hari. When the protest against the painting gained momentum, the magazine apologized to the church and the believers (that’s how a magazine with a lot of history does these days) and withdrew the magazine from the stands and re-issued with a new cover page by another artist (which also met with protest from another caste community on the same case of hurt sentiments). During all these commotions, Tom maintained a stoic silence and he never explained his views on the controversy. In hindsight, perhaps that was a good strategy that he adopted which would make his and his family’s life smooth. Tom is no confrontationist though a good conversationalist and a declared sceptic in approach.

(an illustration by Tom Vattakkuzhy)

I believe, Tom’s grounding is in religion; not in its ritualistic and dogmatic side but in its aesthetic side. He more or less lives in a time where Da Vinci and Michael Angelo could have easily lived. I am talking about the period of Renaissance. Tom’s aesthetical approach is that of a Renaissance artist and also that of the Dutch artists during the same period. Apart from the said Renaissance masters, Tom adopts his thematic schemes from the masters like Vermeer, Jan Van Eyk, Rembrandt and so on. Also in some of his recent works like ‘Song of Dusk’, he relocates the American painter Edward Hopper in his works as very subtle visual reference. Tom almost Malayalisises Edward Hopper in the case of lights that he uses to illuminate his painterly images. What we see in this painting is an eerie moment, which perhaps for a rural Malayali is a normal daily moment. A group of boys (four of them) go for an evening dip in a pond near their ‘home’. The steps leading to the pond show that the home is a raised ground and it gives an indication that it is a hilly region. The liminal light of the dusk almost gives an eerie feel to the painting and we understand that the foreground of the painting and the boys there are almost rendered in near darkness.

(Song of the Dusk by Tom Vattakkuzhy)

The more I look at it the more I see a moment of Baptism. The boy in the water is like John the Baptist. The one who gets into the water could be Peter. There is someone who has already done his ablutions and is drying himself. He wears a red loin cloth. Another one who stands with his back to the viewer is a witness. I am interpreting this taking Tom as the unalterable author of this painting while assuming that he turns the mundane into divine; the quotidian into painterly or literal. Seen in this context, the ‘home’ above is no longer is a home but a church built on the rock of faith. One could clearly make a comparison between the yellow light outside and the sanctum/altar space drenched in a red; the sacrifice of Jesus Christ? Or is it a nativity scene? The yellow sheen could evoke the light of the pen in Bethlehem. The sanctum must be the delivery room in red. The sky is lit up. The three kings are taking bath with one witness/angel to lead them to the place. They are cleaning themselves up to receive the Son of God. Or am I just imagining things. But that is where Tom wins as an artist. He could create a series of ambiguities within the textual traditions available. At the same time he could remain free of the clutches that would otherwise hold a religious artist within the fold.

(an illustration by Tom Vattakkuzhy)

Finally, I would like to give a very different and normal interpretation of this work, ‘Song of Dusk’. I would strip all the religious connotations and the possible biblical hue away from the painting. It is just an evening scene. In the rural belts in Kerlala these days one could see labourers from other states (Anya samsthaana thozhilaalikal) who are called with a generic name ‘Bengalis’. They do any kind of work starting from washing cars, working as home helps, masons, carpenters, plywood factory works, restaurant workers, security guards and you name it they are there to work. They call Kerala as Indian Gulf. You wouldn’t believe that for their financial remittance there are evening branches of banks and some banks even work on Sundays. The book stores and music and film stores stock Bengali, Hindi, Assamese and Odiya books, films and music. There are schools for the children of the migrant labourers. Some have even passed the school final in Malayalam medium. And as icing to the cake, some act in mainstream Malayalam movies!

(Song of the Dusk by Tom Vattakkuzhy)

Many of these ‘Bengali’ labourers who live and work in the hilly regions (as farm and plantation workers) often rent out an old style house that is lying abandoned for long, for dirt cheap rents and live together, saving money on the rent front. This house in the painting seems to be one such house where these labourers and farm hands live. Despite the lights you don’t feel the ‘homeliness’ of a home in its depiction. It looks like an abandoned house which has been occupied recently and is not fully functional. The absence of a woman or women is palpable in its bareness and lost nature. The four men who are bathing at the pond must be four labourers cleaning themselves up in the cool water after a long and hard day’s work. The silence that is felt embracing the painting shows the silence of these young men lost in thoughts about their hearths back home in that killing twilight moment. The time looks so pivotal at this moment; the twilight. They are neither here nor there. They are in transit. The Malayali migrants have experienced it once in the Gulf countries. All the migrants have felt the twilight moments as incisions done by surgical blades in the soul. Tom too has gone through it and experienced it. This painting perhaps is an autobiography of an ordinary Malayali camouflaged in the stories of the Bengali labourers. Who knows for sure? That ambiguity is the charm of a good work of art.